MAD Symposium: What’s Killing the Restaurant Industry

I remain utterly gobsmacked that chef Rene Redzepi and his team at Noma and MAD Symposium invited me onto their stage to speak about the mental health crisis in the restaurant industry. I am more grateful than I could possibly express to them and to another of my idols, chef Jessica Largey, for opening up her heart and soul to me and allowing me to share her story with the audience there.

This is approximately what I said, and on National Depression Screening Day, I wanted to let people in the food industry know that they’re not alone.

Hi there. I’m Kat. I’m mentally ill.

That’s not usually what I lead off with, but I’m not ashamed of it—it’s just part of who I am, and it doesn’t make me feel weak to let you know that.

I also want to tell you that I love you. God, I love chefs, and people who choose to make their living in food. You feed people and take care of them. It’s the thing that consumes you and the people you choose to surround yourselves with the vast majority of the time. You wake up thinking of the food you want to serve and how you can make it better—make it perfect. How you can make your guests even happier and feel even more taken care of.

But we’re not taking care of YOU.

YOU’RE not taking care of you.

And you’re not taking care of each other—and you’re too afraid to ask.

And it’s killing you.

It’s killing this profession that we all love. It’s killing PEOPLE.

And there will be no kitchen of tomorrow if there’s no one left.

You—all the people sitting here today, who took the time, money and effort to come here and sit in this tent—you are the people who have to make that change.

I want to tell you about a friend of mine. Some of you know her by name or extraordinary reputation, and others very personally. Her name is Jessica Largey, and I met her the night she won a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef in 2015.

I met Jessica moments after she’d won the award—been identified as one of the best and brightest hopes for the the future of food. I stopped her in the press room where I was working and taking pictures of the winners and I congratulated her. I’d never met her before, and she just seemed like this blissful, happy, balanced human being with a gorgeous, serene smile. There was just something about her that was so compelling—I wanted to know more.

Jessica Largey, #jbfa Rising Star rocks her new necklace.
A photo posted by Kat Kinsman (@katkinsman) on May 4, 2015 at 5:12pm PDT
Shortly after that—maybe a week or two—I was starting to put together a panel of female chefs for an event in California that I was moderating, and I reached out to try and find her. She was nowhere to be found. I started hearing through the grapevine that she’d left her position at Manresa, where she’d risen up through the ranks to be chef de cuisine, but that no one knew where she was going next, and no one could tell me where she was at the moment.

And what they didn’t tell me was how it got to that place. Where she left one of the greatest kitchens in America, working for one of the most extraordinary chefs of our time, whom she loved and admired. Stepping away not just from her job—one of the most coveted in the world—but from the people and profession that had defined her every waking moment, consumed her soul, become her life for such a long time.

No one could tell me. But then she did. She manifested back into my life just a couple months ago, and she wants people to know what happened—and she gave me permission to talk to you all about it, because she thinks it’s going to help. She wants to save this industry she loves so much—and she wants to save your life.

She lost herself, she told me. Everything she loved and valued about herself, apart from her skills in the kitchen. “I lost Jessica,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t at work—and even there, I’d become a different person.”

She loved what she was doing—make no mistake about that—and she loved David Kinch, who mentored and supported her. But the kind of toll it takes on your life and your personhood and your soul to do the kind of work she was doing, it calls for the exclusion of everything else in the world. The exact things that make you the good kind of beast in the kitchen—drive, focus, obsession, demanding exactness, directness, utter intolerance for imperfection—make a mess of a human being outside of it.

Maybe there are some of you who can check in at the door and go home and see your family and friends in the daylight hours and eat sitting down with a knife and fork, and drink out of something that’s not a quart container, and be there to kiss someone you love goodnight, and make it out to celebrate your loved ones’ major life occasions, and successfully resist the urge to bark or flinch when someone screws up a small task—but I haven’t met many of you.

And it got so, so low for Jessica. As she was rising up at work, she was going through a heartbreak at home. She was becoming angry and mean, a dark shadow of the self she knew. Her partner told her she needed to get therapy, get help, and she didn’t want to hear it. Like so, so many chefs, she just thought she could toughen up and work through what she thought was weakness. The relationship ended, and the only thing that would get her out of bed was work–12, 14, 16-hours days, longer.

She worked 7 days a week at a restaurant that was open 5, because she couldn’t function otherwise—she didn’t know how to be a person. Just a machine who made flawless food, and was angry at anyone or thing who thwarted that purpose. She yelled, she raged, she went home and hated herself and felt sick and exhausted and peeled herself out of bed and did it again and again and again and again—and does this sound familiar to any of you?

We’ll get back to Jessica’s story, but if you’re here, this story—or something like it—doesn’t faze you at all. This is just restaurant life—how it is. How it’s always been and how it will always be, right?

Can we stop for just a moment and ask if it has to be? Can we allow ourselves the luxury of that, just for a minute and envision what it would be like if the people around you weren’t killing themselves to put food on plates and provide pleasure to people who have absolutely no idea what’s going on behind the kitchen doors?

We have to. We HAVE to. We HAVE TO. Or more people are going to die.

This is not an exaggeration. In February alone—the shortest month—I know of three chef-owners who took their own lives. And those are just the ones I know about. That’s not counting, say, a line cook who overdosed, or a chef de partie who drank him or herself to death in a slow suicide, shift drink by shift drink, shot by shot, a server who “accidentally” stepped onto the tracks or wrecked their car, late at night, alone. Collateral damage, we might tell ourselves. But three in February. Probably not above average, but who knows, because we don’t talk about it. Three in a month—that would be 36 in a year. 360 in a decade gone.

This is a self-inflicted wound on the industry. A violence that’s being done right in front of our eyes, and people are too afraid to speak up.

I know this, because they tell me.

At this point last year, I wouldn’t have believed the issue was this big. 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 word really got out.

As of this week, I’ve heard from nearly 1600 people in the industry.

Here’s what one chef sent to me:

“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.

Benoit 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.”

This is the tip of the iceberg. I get letters all the time, and strangers coming up to me. I have 26,000 words of stories I have collected from chefs and their loved ones and families and the people left behind after suicide. They’re in pain. They feel alone. They’re afraid to speak up.

And this I also know because they tell me. According to the results of this survey, of the 1600 people who responded, which were mostly kitchen staff:

84.2% suffer from depression.

73.2% suffer from anxiety.

49.9% deal with substance abuse issues.

75.5% use alcohol to cope with the fallout from this, while others turn to drugs, compulsive eating, sex or overspending.

57% of people said they felt they couldn’t say anything at all to people they work with. The people they work side-by-side with, day in, day out.

And why?

Because 68.6% didn’t want to be thought of as weak.

54.1% didn’t want to be thought of as crazy.

Only 3.9% of people said their issues had nothing to do with 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.

This is one hell of a lot of people suffering and not speaking up because they’re afraid of what the person next to them might think. As a person who suffers from mental illness, I can tell you firsthand that it takes unimaginable courage to get out of bed every day, put your game face on, leave your house and muscle through your workday with a massive weight strapped to your chest. Not knowing how you’re going to take one more step and somehow managing to get through what you need to do and turn around and do it all again—that’s real strength.

And to have to worry that the person next to you on the line will know this about you and think LESS of you, when you’re standing there invisibly bleeding? That’s ludicrous and that’s shameful, and we can do better by each other.

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, chefs de cuisine, maitre d’s. Whoever here have people who report to you or idolize you—you can drive the change.

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I’ve seen it work. I see people like Ashley Christensen, Kelly Fields, Seamus Mullen, George Mendes, Angie Mar, I could go on—tough, strong, talented, chefs 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.

And Jessica Largey—back to Jessica. She realized that it just couldn’t stay the way it was. She wouldn’t survive—not as the person she wanted to be. So she burned it all down. Walked away from the job she loved. Sold almost everything but her cookbooks. Rented a room like a college student. Hiked, walked, talked, just…was. After her James Beard Award, she was one of the hottest properties in the country, and she turned the offers down—one of the scariest things a person could do, right? You strike while the iron’s hot because who knows when this would ever happen again?

She was talking to a new business partner about a restaurant and told them she needed six months to just learn to be a person again, and luckily—they agreed. She traveled and ate and wandered all over the globe, and rebalanced her life as best she could, and now…she thinks she’s ready again.

In the spring, she’s opening Simone restaurant in Los Angeles, and her number one goal is the health and wellness of the people who work there—including herself. For her and her partner in the business, there will be a mandatory paid 6 weeks off, and other people will get varying amounts of time, too. I can’t stress that enough: paid time off.

She’s not hiring anyone she’s worked with before, so she doesn’t find herself falling back into old patterns. She’s going to try—try—to close at the holidays so people can be with their friends and family. She’s offering yoga classes to her staff and subsidizing massages. She’s eliminating tipping so her staff knows they have a solid base and don’t have to worry about the whims of customers. She’s going to do her absolute damndest that the people who work for her feel stable, balanced, and valued.

And she’s scared—who wouldn’t be? But it’s a gamble she has to take. Because we can’t afford anything less.