Imposter Syndrome, & What I Learned From Being a Reality Show Reject
Basically, you gotta turn fear and self-doubt into wonder.
January 30, 2018
By Casey Rebecca Nunes | Image Michael Wohlwend; Collage CF
For most of my life, I was involved in live theatre.
It created me. It molded my personality and instincts. It fostered my intuition and empathy. It gave me all the management tools I could’ve ever asked for. It was 27 years of structured, (mostly) paid playtime and I loved every second of it, even when it was coming to an end.
What does have to do with being a chef? Everything, it turns out.
In a kitchen or backstage, showing up is half the battle. When you’re present, you’re held accountable to produce. It’s the day of the show, y’all: no turning back now. That’s precisely the case with running a kitchen, minus the rehearsals.
As a result, I’ve always been a person who just does stuff. I don’t agonize over the process. If I’m interested, I’ll do it. I will, however, admit to feeling inadequate amongst my peers a lot of the time. I’m in awe of my city’s food culture, and the leaders behind it, so occasionally I’ll stand in my kitchen at work, suddenly stunned into brief paralysis, and think: “Am I really doing this? Should I be doing this? Am I qualified? Who let me do this?” And then the ticket printer coughs up an order and I plunge back in.
A huge difference between my original life in theatre and my new life as a chef (even now, I fight the urge to put quotation marks around that title) is that before, I facilitated and produced other peoples’ art and now, the art is on me. Stumbling into cooking made me realize my innate desire to create, to be more than the caretaker for others’ creations. As a result, I’ve never felt more exposed or vulnerable. Worrying about what other people think is an unnatural emotion for me. I never really thought I was brave enough for all of this.
Three years ago, I was selected to be in the Top 100 for Season 6 of MasterChef on FOX. I’ll be the first to tell you: it wasn’t my idea to begin with. Once one of my oldest friends suggested that not only could I cook a little, but I was likely to get in on personality, the thought of it began to look better and better.
So I auditioned, didn’t try very hard, and kept getting passed through. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I didn’t even make it on TV. 99 fellow food nerds from all kinds of diverse backgrounds very quickly became my family, and it still surprises me how quickly I fell in love with it: surprising myself again and again, rising to each challenge, and taking cues from those nerds who had way more guts than me.
MasterChef was the first time I had ever really considered switching careers. After all, I had made it to the bottom 60, out of 44,000, with only an above-average aptitude for cooking. Was it possible that both theatre and cooking—both demanding and emotionally draining, of course—were equally my passions?
It seemed too good to true, too simple a declaration. Was it enough to simply believe that I was capable of doing whatever I set my mind to? Or was I trying to trick myself into being someone I wanted to be? Was I meant to do this, or was I just mid-lucky break?
Then, as my exhaustive inner conflict reached its peak, I was offered an opportunity to cook full-time in New Orleans. And so: I leapt.
I’d never lived in the South. I didn’t know anything about Southern cooking, let alone Cajun and Creole specifically. But I was so eager for a shock to my system that I said yes—hoping a net would appear if I had just flung myself into the wrong abyss—and because I feared what I would become if I said no.
Imposter syndrome is rooted in hiding from your own potential. The fear of success and accomplishment feels almost as overwhelming as failure. And recognizing that doesn’t make it disappear. In a sense, I’m still scared to acquire all the knowledge I’ve been chasing, because what happens then? More stuff happens: ideas, engagement, food. More choices and crossroads happen.
Staying hungry (for education, and yes, for snacks) is my way of combating that looming stormy cloud of self-doubt and panic. And of course, there’s always the taxing physical work, the 30-day work marathons, and the maintenance of a functional, full-time staff to keep me distracted from the bigger questions. I worry less about whether I’m meant to do all of this in those moments because, well, I’m here and I’m doing it.
The key is running fear through a watery, dream-like Instagram filter to create wonder. It’s all just an adventure in finally recognizing who I’ve been all along. It feels like coming home to myself, with dinner on the table. Waiting in the wings might be exhilarating, but damn: stepping onstage is way better.