How I Strangled My Impostor Syndrome and Became a Food Critic
#86this: Main Menu
By Maggie Hennessy
My imposter syndrome is a shapeshifter, but for the past decade it’s most often taken the form of a fat, sweaty old chef who taught my French cooking class in culinary school and once told me I had terrible instincts. I named him Frances.
It was the start of the recession. I was a 24-year-old, out-of-work financial journalist in Chicago who’d invested her entire safety net in a year-long culinary school program, because that was how Kathleen Flinn became a food writer. Her 2007 memoir, The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry, was equal parts field guide and emotional salve for me back then. A week before classes started, a total stranger vocalized all my insecurities for me.
“You won’t last a day on the line,” a young cook told me. “You’re too fucking nice.” He was 19, halfway to his associate’s degree and 100 percent convinced he was going to be a celebrity chef within five years.
I casually replied that I wasn’t going to culinary school to become a chef; I was going to be a food writer.
“How’s that going to work?” he said incredulously. I decided against telling him what awaited him in a year: $60,000 in debt and a $25,000 annual salary with no health insurance, bad hours, worse self-haircuts, and no new underwear for years. Peter Jackson would probably finish another trilogy before this guy got a raise.
But he was right. I had no idea how my career change would pan out. My only solution was to arm myself with an arsenal of education and writing experience so formidable that even I couldn’t call me a fraud.
After cooking school, I headed straight for the decent-paying, objective cocoon of business-to-business food journalism, where I gestated for almost a decade. Day after day of beating back Frances as I reported on every aspect of fine-dining and fast-casual restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, and packaged food and beverage. Job after job of telling other people’s stories and soaking up their expertise like an insecure sponge.
The funny thing about food writing, though, is no matter how long you do it or how many times you explain the various jobs that fit under that umbrella, the only two words people seem to understand are “restaurant critic.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a food writer.”
“Oh, so like a restaurant critic. That’s so cool.”
“No, no. A food writer.”
With each explanation that I didn’t review restaurants, just reported on food news and wrote innocuous clickbait stories, like “Where to Eat Hangover Brunch in Your Pajamas” or “11 Soups to Survive #Chiberia,” I felt Frances rearing his greasy head.
How long have you been doing this now? And still so full of shit.
The occasional real-life troll inevitably got through, too, with just the right cutting remark about my lack of fact-checking or writing skills or general shittiness. Note to young journalists: The anxiety of seeing the email subject line “GLARING ERROR” will cripple you just as much the tenth time as the first—even if said email turns out to be a manifesto by a mommy blogger who thinks breakfast cereal turns children into chronically itchy sociopaths.
As time wore on, I picked up a recipe column in a city magazine and started freelancing a little for Time Out, Thrillist, and Eating Well. I got better and liked more of what I wrote.
Then about seven months ago, I got an email from an editor at Cosmopolitan that woke me up. It seemed banal enough. She was writing a piece on 20- and 30-something women with jobs that pay them to eat and drink and she was struggling to track down interviewees. She found me on LinkedIn and mistakenly pegged me for a reviewer because of the confusing job descriptions I’d chosen from the auto-populating word bank. (“Maggie is also good at QuarkXPress.”)
“No, no, I’m not a critic,” I explained. “Just a food writer.”
I started scanning my hometown’s daily newspapers, magazines, and alt-weeklies for young women critics listed on the masthead. The sole 30-something female reviewer had just left Time Out. The other two I knew of were in their 40s or 50s, and one of them was about to quit for a PR agency job. Aside from one or two contract reviewers, the rest were men—old men, many of whom held their posts for years. The disparity was especially striking given that most of the non-critic food writers and editors I knew were women.
Coincidentally, a few days later I got a text from a dear friend who owns a restaurant PR firm. “I have a job I think you’d be perfect for,” she said.
And just like that I found myself in a coffee shop interviewing for the role of Time Out’s restaurant and bars critic. The editor and I were maybe two minutes into exchanging pleasantries when I inadvertently blurted out, “You know what’s bullshit? There are almost no female critics in this city.”
“I know,” she said. “We should change that.”
What followed was one of those wonderfully self-affirming job interviews you don’t really get till your 30s—no sweat-stained resumes to hand over or strengths and weaknesses to parse, no Herculean proving of worth. She knew my work and liked my voice; we simply met to figure out if I was the right fit.
I grew up on Time Out, scanning it for live shows and good drink specials and absorbing the words of talented female critics who went on senior editor jobs at places like Bon Appétit and Plate magazines.
But food media was changing, and critics were losing some of their clout in this post-anonymous era of shameless self-promotion, which coincided with a rising tide of mediocre “foodie” content. Not only that, but did I really want or deserve to throw my opinions into the veteran pool of 40-plus, cisgender men? Let’s not forget the impending deluge of democratized reviewers and trolls who would routinely do their best to expose me as a fraud—myself still included.
Then it dawned on me that I was letting Frances talk me out of something I actually wanted. After all, I’d been at this for 10 years. I was trained. Sure, I faced a learning curve, but with that an opportunity to leverage my unique voice and expertise for the first time in my writing life.
If not this moment, when?
I sat there across from the editor—a woman whose cocktail writing I’d been crushing on for a good year. And I decided why the hell not.
Later that week, I had a meeting with a cranky old chef. I told him about my new gig.
“Wow, is Time Out even relevant anymore?” he asked.
It is now, Frances.
Maggie “Marge” Hennessy is the restaurant and bars critic for Time Out Chicago, a certified chef, and a freelance food writer (which is not another word for critic). Read her work at maggiehennessy.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.