Humans aren’t made of asbestos or cast iron, as useful as that would be. They scorch, they scar, they bleed. Much of this wear and tear is just part of the job in a restaurant or on a farm. For plenty of people, it’s part of the draw. They live for the adrenaline rush, the blaze, the rawness of it all. It is by turns (and sometimes simultaneously) primal and delicate, brutal and nuanced—and it takes a special sort of masochism to thrive in that environment.
Anyone who wants to excel (and keep getting paid) is going to throw themselves into the heat of battle and work until they burn. Sometimes they burn all the way up.
A few anonymous answers from my ongoing mental health survey (360 responses and counting):
“After working 60-hour weeks in a kitchen for three-plus years I battled addiction and developed a chronic illness, cyclical vomiting syndrome, which has left me unable to work since. It’s been two years since then. I feel if I had received the support I needed in the moment, I would never have reached this point.”
“I worked in an abusive kitchen, where my boss would verbally and physically berate me. I would come home some nights with bruising on my legs and ribs, tell my girlfriend that I bumped into a table or counter. After calling in sick and being told to come in early the next day to clean the dumpster, I made the decision to get out. I thought I was weak for not having survived this kitchen, but I now realize that not all places in the industry operate that way. I found a kitchen that is truly a family environment, where support is given rather than pain and stress. I think it is important for cooks especially to understand that the situation they may be in right now does not accurately reflect the industry as a whole.”
“I came up in the world of kitchens where it was work hard/play hard and ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.’ Admitting you had a problem was a sign of weakness. Health care was non-existent. Only now is it remotely available, and mental health issues are still not a common dialogue. A chef/owner recently told me, ‘You just need to get out of your head,’ as if I could just flip a switch. It is debilitating to try and explain it’s not that simple.”
“I’m a line cook in my mid thirties and I’m rapidly burning out. I had a different career in my twenties. I love to cook and I am good at it, but I have never in my life been treated as badly as I am when I am working the line. This is not restaurant-specific either: I’m saying it’s an industry-wide, systematic problem in my city. Combined with the shit pay and the sheer brutal physicality of the job, the nastiness of many of my coworkers/bosses is just grinding me down. I love the work. I love to cook. But this is no way to live.”
A journalist just asked me if I am afraid of any backlash from talking about these issues, if I have any fear of chefs saying I am trying to tame and sanitize kitchen culture. Short answer: no. I’m not telling anyone they have to change anything. No one needs my $.02 on that. I’m sharing these stories so the people who need to hear them can see that it’s not just them. If you’ve been shredding yourself into pieces, turning yourself to ash until you barely have anything left, wondering if you are enough—you are.
Sometimes a job is built to break you. Sometimes a boss just wants to. Sometimes people just do things the way they’ve always been done, just because that’s the only way they know how.
You’re allowed to want more and better. And there are more of you out there than you know.