Just a note: I haven’t been posting here as much because I’ve been hunkered down on edits for my book “Hi, Anxiety,” but in the past week I’ve had the privilege of getting to speak about the issues around mental health and the food industry at both the annual Cherry Bombe Jubilee and the Chefs Collaborative Summit in New York City.
I was able to speak for a little bit longer at the former, on the same topic but geared a little bit more toward women in the food world, and this is roughly what I said.
I’m so incredibly grateful to be here today with all of you.
Our friends and colleagues are in pain and they are dying. We have the power to make it stop.
That might sound a little dire, but consider the fact that in February, the shortest month of the year, three (3) different chef-owners took their own lives. And those are just the restaurant workers who made the news. Doesn’t include, say, a manager who overdosed. A commis who finally succumbed to liver failure. A prep cook who got in his very last bar fight.
Or maybe for some reason, three doesn’t seem like much to you. Stuff happens. It’s just part of the industry. OK—at that rate, we’d be up to 36 in a year. 360 industry leaders dead in a decade. Can the industry afford to weather this loss? Can we as human beings?
Just a few months ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. I mean, I knew there was a problem. I’d be interviewing a chef for Tasting Table or CNN, and because I write quite openly about my own anxiety and depression, occasionally the conversation would turn to the topic of mental health.
“Hey, I’ve been suffering.” Or, “Someone in my kitchen is suffering, but I don’t know what to do.”
It happens once, OK. Twice, maybe. But then it started happening more often than not and I knew I had to do something about it. On January 1st of this year, I launched a website called “Chefs With Issues” with the notion that it could establish a safe place for conversation about mental health and the industry and provide links to resources where people can get help.
I also tossed up a survey about mental health—including a section where people could share more about their particular experiences—just so I could get a sense of what people needed most. I expected a few dozen responses. Maybe a hundred if I was really lucky.
As of this week, I’ve heard from over 1300 people in the industry. Many of them are women.
“I had an incredibly hard time after my second child was born. My business was still relatively new, I had been working 60+ hour weeks up to my due date, and I was really naive how difficult it would be to care for an infant and another young child, and maintain a small business.
Postpartum hit me like a truck and my staff was not as prepared as I had hoped to deal with me absent, so I had to go back to work two weeks after my son was born. That meant no sleep, which made my body shut down and not be able to breastfeed. I developed a tic and a drinking habit that only perpetuated my inability to get any rest.
I couldn’t share any of this with my staff who were all in their early twenties and not able to understand my situation. It was a very dark and stressful time that took a year to recover from.”
“While I am not dealing with intense mental issues now. The toll the being part of the industry is a daily struggle for me. I constantly feel plagued by guilt and helplessness. I am a married woman, a mother, and currently hold a position as chef de partie. I love all these things but they could not be more polarizing.
My family life prevent me from working hours like a man, available 50+ hours a week. My job prevents me from being a normal ‘mom,’ my hours create an unwanted role reversal in my marriage. I feel like an oxymoron and generally find no one who is like me or understands my situation.”
“I didn’t realize how bad things were becoming. Being a female chef, sometimes you have to fight harder. It was until recently I was put on my 4th med that I realized I couldn’t keep doing these 16-18hr days with little sleep. I’m currently on a strong antidepressant, 2 different antianxiety for severe anxiety, and ambien because I will stay up for days (with no drugs or caffeine) just stressing.”
“It’s hard being a female in a kitchen environment. I love my job greatly, and adore the people I work with but despite many changes one will always have to work triple as hard for half the recognition. Boys, often, are also quite harsh and forget that sometimes some recognition and kind words go a long way. I think the stigma of the old school ways is starting to drop, but there’s a long way to go.”
It has a ripple effect, because sometimes men and women bring it home to their families:
“At times my anxiety reaches such a level that I feel no human can withstand. I’ve checked off all of the accomplishments on my bucket list in this industry but I don’t feel a sense of satisfaction. I make a lot of money but I don’t feel valued. I’ve missed so many life events, lost so many relationships…I didn’t know that this was what I was signing up for when I was young. Now, mid-career, I don’t know what else I could do with my life. Many of my role models have fallen apart, some have taken their own lives. I feel like we are disposable, less than human.
Celebrated for a season and then discarded as if we never existed. We identify ourselves so closely with our profession that we don’t know what we are when we’re not wearing the coat. When I go home, I don’t know how to be a husband and father.
My team consists of counter-culture individuals who are so passionate about their craft, so wonderful and vibrant…but I see the path that they are on and it hurts. It gets harder and harder to sell this business to young people, knowing that we are selling them a choice that many of us regret having made.
Retiring from this business comfortably? I don’t know what that looks like, I haven’t seen it yet.
But we chefs persist, we survive. Every night that we fall asleep, sober or intoxicated, is a victory. And some of us don’t make it. And we mourn but we don’t judge, because we understand.
Violier doesn’t have to worry about Michelin stars any longer. What’s the worst case scenario? Hell? What, it’s going to be hot and I’m going to be judged? That sounds like a Wednesday. Best case scenario, there is only stillness, nothingness. Like closing your eyes in a swimming pool, maybe. No printer, no yelling, no financial statements, no expectations, no Yelp reviews, no critics. No exhaustion, no sense of disappointment.”
They’re in pain. They feel alone. They’re afraid to speak up.
A few key stats from the survey (and note—these are just the raw numbers I pulled last night and I’m working with The Heirloom Foundation to get the official stats that we’ll publish):
Of the over 1300 responses, which were primarily from managers and kitchen staff, 84.8% say they suffer from depression, 72.9% deal with an anxiety or panic disorder and 50% said they have substance abuse issues.
58% of respondents said that they were unable to speak openly at work about what was going on. 69.4% said that was because they didn’t want to be thought of as weak, 51.6% didn’t want to be thought of as crazy. (They could answer multiple choice in case you’re trying to do the math here.)
Only 3.5% of respondents said that their issues were in no way tied to the profession.
Now, I’m not a psychologist or a statistician—nor do I work in a kitchen—but I don’t think it takes much of a leap to realize that those numbers add up to a real crisis in the industry we all love.
And it’s way past time to do something about it. But what? Only 18.5% of respondents say that they have access to mental healthcare through workplace insurance. Another 14.2% are covered under a partner’s or family member’s plan, some pay out of pocket or get resources from a church or community, and a solid 22% just can’t afford it at all.
But it’s not like the economics of restaurants are going to radically, suddenly shift just because a problem has been identified. Boop! Here’s tons of extra cash suddenly freed up to keep workers safe and sane. Not gonna happen.
What we can do is talk–and it has to start from the top. By which I mean you—business owners, managers, executive chefs, celebrity chefs, editors in chief, whoever here have people who report to you or idolize you—you can drive the change.
I’ve seen it work. I see people like Ashley Christensen, Kelly Fields, Lisa White, Angie Mar, I could go on—tough, strong, talented, women who run their own kitchens and command respect from all quarters—I don’t see them lose a damn thing by checking in on the emotional welfare of the people who work for them, and being vulnerable in front of them. In fact, I see the their staffs and all the people around them look up to them as heroes, mentors and role models and stick around and work their asses off for them.
Let your staff—or your peers, this isn’t just for bosses, we can do this for each other—let them know know that there’s nothing to be ashamed of, that you won’t think less of them for being a human, that their job is not in jeopardy, that there are less destructive methods for coping with stress. I’m not saying it won’t be super awkward when your line cook starts sobbing in front of you, but you’ll both live through it. I promise.
Because we just can’t afford anything less.