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The Imposter Syndrome: On never quite belonging

Number 3


Many years ago now, Channel 4 aired a series called 'Faking It' (might still be on, for all I know). In one of the first episodes, Gordon Ramsey coached a burger flipper from a catering van through a chef's competition. The fast food merchant, successfully posed as a qualified and experienced chef in charge of a small brigade, and probably also helped launch a load of Ramsey TV programmes in the process, which could arguably all come under the 'Faking It' banner too.


I'm pretty sure everybody suffers from the imposter syndrome to a certain extent; You're always thinking to yourself that you don't quite match up to your colleagues/peers/group. Surely you're here by accident, rather than your own merit? There are two versions I think: Either you know you're qualified to be where you are, but don't feel you quite belong to the group. Or, you're convinced you belong to the group, but you're not actually qualified, and in either case, you might be harbouring the secret fear that someone will call you out (like aliens in the bodysnatchers movie) and the consequences will be (nearly as) disastrous!


Perhaps it's our need for affirmation, if you're the lucky type, for whom criticisms just run off like water from a duck's back, then great for you! Like most people I feel every negative comment deeply, and have to fish for two or three compliments to balance the equation. However, this post is not about reviews, and I don't want to get into 'pity me' territory. This is more to encourage those who feel they could belong, and have the skills, but haven't had the motivation to overcome the uncertainty and take the step. Specifically I'm talking professional catering, and more specifically on being a vegan chef in an industry that is based on traditional skills.


I have been a professional chef for sixteen years almost to the day as I write this. That's less than half my working life. So, yes, I was doing something else before, and was actually qualified, and quite good at it too. But I loved to cook and entertain, and essentially to put food in front of people that made them happy! So when I saw an advert for a trainee chef at the UEA, I thought it worth giving it a try at somebody else's expense before it was too late. As long as they would take a punt on (as I said on my application) a 'talented amateur,' and to his credit, the then Executive Head Chef at UEA catering, Steve Wright, did make that gamble. Though I was a vegetarian, with little knowledge of cooking meat, and no experience of the professional brigade. Such a culture shock was it that I experienced my first and only ever panic attack during the first three months there, in the middle of a morning briefing. However, I soon found my place, and my rhythm, and thanks to the wonders of university finance, also found myself with a place on a part-time professional qualification. This was both a blessing, and a curse; Because the course was in the evening, I was in the company of other, middle-aged persons in various mid-life crises. In the same way however, it never felt like 'the real thing', even though the curriculum was exactly the same as any other chef's training, and thereby hangs the tale:


In the 1960s my aunt studied 'Cordon Bleu' cooking at the prestigious Westminster college. I studied City and Guilds Diploma and the less salubrious, Norwich City College. The difference? Almost nothing. The classical training for a chef had barely moved on in decades. A nod to 'allergy diets' and vegetarian recipes here and there, but it remains true that you can't qualify as a chef without filleting a fish or butchering a chicken. So the irony was that I never learned to cook meat until I had been a vegetarian for 20 years, and so began my career cooking dead animals for omnis. This wasn't an issue for some time, since I had been placed in an all-vegetarian kitchen at the UEA which suited my skills. However, I soon went on to my own career as a cafe owner, restaurant and freelance chef, and even took to teaching basic cookery skills to students, YMCA lads, and families on an estate.


This is where the imposter syndrome really began to rear its ugly head. It was present in the UEA kitchen, but most of the staff there were so welcoming and accomodating, and we didn't have much to do with the customers. But now, someone's bound to ask the question of how to cook this, that or the other? Or which is better, beef or pork loin? Or here's a cut that I've just picked up from the butchers, how would you cook it? People liked the food that I cooked, and I'd get great satisfaction from presenting a veggie or vegan dish as a main course option without highlighting its meat-free-ness, and letting it get top-billing on merit. But I have met many veggie and vegan chefs since, who have all been in the same situation, knowing they have no choice but to cook in kitchens that serve meat, feeling confident about their ability, but at the same time, so uncomfortable with being able to do so, and fearing that someone might reject your offering, because surely, you don't really know what you're doing?


Very few vegan chefs get the opportunity to practice in a professional kitchen as a vegan, fewer still get to nail their colours to the mast, declare "this is the food I want to cook!" And "if you don't like it, you can lump it!" At long last I get to do just that, finally shrugging off the pressure to please bosses, partners, clients, long-standing customers, 'more experienced' staff, 'genuine' vegans, and people's expectations generally. A combination of new trends in hospitality, and the confidence of (old) age means that now feels like the time to do things exactly how I want them. "I wish I had done this years ago!" Is a constant refrain, but then, we're all still learning, and we cannot achieve today, the heights we'll reach tomorrow.


But here now, I am back in the imposter syndrome. I recently walked into a (socially distanced) room full of chefs at the top of their game, including Cyrus Todiwala. This is getting to be a not uncommon experience, as is being judged by what should be my peers (now that I have been so long in the profession.) But I have the nagging impression that they're thinking: "If he doesn't cook meat, or fish, or eggs, or dairy... surely he's only doing a quarter of the job?" Being annoyingly pipped at the post recently by a 'proper' chef having a first go at vegan alongside his regular menu reinforces the feeling that we're regarded as having fewer skills. Whenever I let a professionally trained chef into my kitchen however, I find they're out of their depth. Presented with the need to make a dessert without eggs or milk, many chefs flounder, their training is inadequate and they have to be re-taught from first principles. There is a well-acknowledged skills shortage in the industry, which has, post pandemic and Brexit (hawks, spits), been compounded by a labour shortage too. But in the vegan kitchen the situation is if anything, worse. Most of those trained chefs that are coming through, pushed into catering NVQs because they didn't pass their English and Maths, have neither the skills, nor the passion to cook good vegan food. Those few professional chefs and restaurants that have made the change to vegan, have had to start from scratch, tear up the rule book (to quote Alexis Gauthier) leave their old constituencies and peers behind, and retrain their staff as they tread a new path.


Now is the time for the outsiders, the imposters who are posing and chefs and restauranteurs. My kitchen this year will be populated (albeit sparsely) almost entirely by 'talented amateurs,' there on their own merit, with training provided to suit their needs. We'll wait for the industry to catch up with us, and we'll see if we'll deign to let them 'belong.'


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