It all began one June evening, watching the sunset melt over London at the end of a long summer day. My friend and I were getting ready to enjoy a rooftop film screening. He’s a chef, and I was telling him about the work experience ideas I had for my culinary school course. My plans were shaping up to be a little loose, a little idealistic, a little terrifying, but seemed to offer plenty of exciting possibilities.
I told him I’d like my work experience to combine practical kitchen work with food journalism. I wanted to gain experience in food styling, collaborate with a YouTube cooking channel, and for my blog to have an increased focus on food and travel stories.
He nodded in agreement and said “I think that’s a good idea for you, because you’re not a chef.”
I was taken aback by the comment, and it played on my mind the whole way home. His words shredded the minuscule amount of confidence I had built up while training to be a pastry chef.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized he was right. To a certain degree, at least.
What makes a chef a chef? Is it working in a restaurant kitchen 80 hours a week for ten years? Does having written a cookbook make you one, or does it depend on your background? What if you were technically trained with a degree in culinary arts, but took a culinary path outside of a restaurant?
Beyond that, where does talent play a role? If you’re not a particularly skilled chef, yet have worked in a restaurant for many years, are you more qualified to call yourself a chef than someone who is technically trained but used those skills to do something different in the culinary world?
What is it that defines what we do? Training? Experience? Raw talent? Passion? Do you have to master ONE thing to succeed, or can you combine talents, experiences and passions to create something new, perhaps more unknown?
My friend has worked as a pastry chef for over a decade. He’s not only earned his position at the top, but he’s also immensely talented and an incredible chef to work under. In no way do I begrudge him saying I’m not a chef. I still have a hard time saying it myself. When I do muster up the courage, I always make sure to preface it with the word “pastry.”
I’ve put a lot of time, sweat, tears, and passion into the past year studying to be a pastry chef. There is still so much to learn and experience, however, that I don’t feel I’ve yet earned the right to put myself in the same category as other chefs.
When do you gain the authority to label yourself as something professionally?
When my friend told me I wasn’t a chef, it struck a nerve. It felt like he was saying I wasn’t good enough to be a pastry chef, but he never said that. I did.
While I’m not the most experienced pastry chef, I’m classically and professionally trained. I need years of experience to learn from others, and develop my skills before I might comfortably settle into that role – but what about in the meantime?
The path and process are different for everyone, but that alone doesn’t make anyone less capable of achieving success in their chosen field. Success isn’t really quantifiable anyway, as it looks different to every person.
Not being in the same category or at the same level as someone else doesn’t disqualify you from participating.
Back to my original point, what makes someone a chef? Or anything else, for that matter? What makes a writer a writer? A blogger a blogger? A photographer a photographer?
When you’re changing careers, or putting more effort into a side project or hobby, the self-doubt can often be crippling. So often, what we do and who we are become intertwined. Listening to what others label us as only adds fuel to the fire of self-doubt – and that fire is hot enough already.
In gymnastics growing up, one of the phrases we used a lot during our motivational talks was, “if you believe it, you can achieve it.” Maybe it really is as simple as that? Just as we’re taught as kids, you can be anything you want to be.
Sure, there are limitations to everything, and unfortunately, sometimes our natural abilities and situations don’t lend themselves to certain careers. For the most part, though, if you are passionate enough about something, and want it enough, anything is possible.
In reading Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, she addresses these issues in one chapter saying, “Overcoming self-doubt is all about believing we’re enough and letting go of what the world says we’re supposed to be and supposed to call ourselves.”
Even if we’re not following the same career path as others, shouldn’t we embrace our strengths and experiences as our unique contributions? We will never match up exactly with some else in the same field, but shouldn’t we celebrate those differences, and collectively share wisdom from a variety of angles?
My journey to becoming a chef has progressed a lot over the past five months. By focusing on food journalism, I’ve discovered I missed being in the kitchen every day, and I craved learning and being inspired by other chefs.
As I was telling my friend about my revelations, he said, “Beth, if you want to be a chef, you can be a chef. You need to put yourself out there and get out of your comfort zone.”
It’s true. I’m scared. I think we’re always a little scared going into something new, because of the fear of failing. In looking back, my career is peppered with a number of “failures” — companies going bankrupt, getting laid off — but I can fondly look back on them all, and appreciate how they’ve shaped and made me into the person I am today.
One of the most important things is to have confidence in yourself, your passions and your abilities. Pursue your dreams even when crippled by the fear of being a failure. You can’t succeed without failing. The fear of failure is often worse than failure itself.
Maybe we all need to act a bit more like kids – believing with our whole heart that anything is possible, making sure to keep an open mind as we learn from others, and striving to grow and improve just a little bit everyday.
Trust in the process, embrace who you are and be kind to yourself along the way.
I am a pastry chef/blogger/writer/photographer/event planner. Even if I’m not the best, I’m participating… and right now, participation is enough.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” -Howard Thurman