The Gorilla in the Kitchen

Bad Boy Chefs

Why Addiction is Everyone’s Problem

Caution: the following contains frank, raw and vulnerable language. If you’d rather keep your head in the sand about one of the most important issues facing our culinary fraternity and industry population today, please turn the page.

Disclaimer: This article is based loosely on data. I say loosely because, curious enough, there has been very little investigation, research or discussion to date about the prevalence of mental health issues, addiction or suicide in the hospitality industry by any organization whose advertised mission is that of the health and well being of this industry. Perhaps the only metrics that matter to such groups are revenue trends and profit.

Why?

It’s my opinion that no one really wants to know how rampant this particular problem is. If they did, then it would be incumbent upon them to actually do something about the issue, and that costs money; money which could be ‘better’ spent on tablecloths, a new web site or social media advertising. The defense of ‘plausible deniability’ would no longer apply.

Don’t forget that the NFL didn’t want to acknowledge concussion related brain damage either, until Bennet Omalu came forward and wouldn’t go away.

I have found only two entities in the U.S. solely focused on mental health awareness in the hospitality industry. One was set up by Kat Kinsman, an ex-editor of a highly regarded magazine who was struck by how many conversations she was having with chefs who described to her the struggles and pitfalls inherent to a life in the kitchen. She was so moved that she created a website called Chefs with Issues that acts as a resource center for those in need.

The other organization, the brainchild of husband and wife team Jonathan & Sarah Ory, I will refer to at the end of the post.

Chefs with Issues even has an anonymous questionnaire that serves to quantify the size of the problem so that it can be addressed by health care professionals. Without the data, the problem is unknowable, hence unapproachable.

Of the respondents who have answered the questionnaire, a staggering seven out of ten, or 70% have reported having had, or currently having a mental health issue. Nearly 30% of those who are currently suffering this debilitating condition do not have access to adequate health care. It’s important to point out that in the ‘regular’ population the prevalence is much lower, about one in five.

By the counting, there is a 50% greater chance of mental health occurrences in your kitchen, than in the neighborhood that surrounds it. Think for a moment what actions you would take if your food or beverage cost increased by 50%.

If you are among those whose life has not been touched by mental illness or addiction, I ask that you stay with me, because if it hasn’t been you, then the odds are that someone very close to you – and at least seven in 10 of your staff – have struggled, or are currently struggling with the specter of depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol dependency or addiction.

There is a sound and proven connection between mental health issues and drug and alcohol addiction. Self-medication has traditionally been a socially acceptable way of handling such stressors, until it’s not. Unfortunately there are precious few options to those afflicted since Reagan ceased government funding of almost all mental health institutions in the 80’s.

You could ignore the problem and hope that it blows up on someone else’s watch. Alternately you could shame your staff to ‘suck it up sunshine’. Neither is an effective strategy given the realization that this problem will not go away until we – as leaders – are able to meet the challenge head on with compassion, grace and accountability.

Informed by the data from Chefs with Issues, empirical evidence, conversations with fellow chefs of over thirty years and my own experience, let’s begin.

I am a junkie.

That is to say that I was addicted to physician prescribed pain killers for five years after a second back surgery. I also used, and abused cocaine for about ten years of my career; not as a party drug mind you but as someone else might use Red Bull, in order to keep my edge and keep up with the demands of the kitchens I ran. Not an effective long term strategy, I agree but when one is under the gun, one will gravitate to anything that can be used to augment and enhance one’s own capabilities to keep from succumbing to the pressure that exists in our industry today. I have been known to go a round or two with a bottle of bourbon. I still smoke cigarettes.

I have snorted lines off a cutting board during service and ‘topped off’ in the employee bathroom before heading out to the bar after shift.

I have staggered out of a bottle club at five am in the morning to the glare of a new day with the realization hitting me in the head like a hammer that this was probably a bad idea. I have showered, slept for twenty minutes and driven to work, my mind scrambling for a way got get through the next shift without having to call my connection, yet again.

I was seldom, if ever, alone in my dereliction; misery, it has been said, loves company.

I have done many things that I am not proud of, but of which I am willing to speak because someone has to. I personally know some chefs who were bolder than I or became hooked on drugs far more dangerous that mine. I’ve had to say goodbye to friends who took their own lives, rather than face the bleakness of their decisions.

I understand if someone reading this might take offense, or dismiss the veracity of this account because it doesn’t represent the majority of the industry. Quite the contrary, as we’re finding out to our bitter experience, drug and alcohol addiction or dependency has taken out its fair share of rising or current culinary stars. As devastating as these incidents might be for the operations concerned, they are cataclysmic to the families left behind. Mental health issues in our kitchens are not the aberration, they are the rule and if we are to move forward to a brighter future together as an industry then someone needs to start talking about this.

Silence can, and will undermine everything.

“Chef, I need to take an hour and get to an AA meeting, I’m feeling a bit edgy.”, said no line cook, ever.

I have seen cooks, sous chefs and other chefs struggling on the line, breathing heavy, beaded sweat pouring down their face, their mouths stretched into a death mask just to get through service. If I close my eyes I can still hear the sniffs and coughs of my brothers and sisters as their drugs take effect, peaking just as the rush comes screaming through the ticket machine.

I have seen grown men and women drinking Pedialyte and chewing a handful of Midol first thing in the morning before strapping on their apron, just to right side their body chemistry.

I, and others like me have done what we have because, in part, most of the people in our lives – supervisors, fellow managers, other chefs and, to some extent, our families – looked the other way or deemed it an acceptable risk.

If it’s true that we, as professionals are risk averse, managing shifting conditions towards a favorable outcome then it would also seem that most hospitality professionals are confrontation averse. I myself have looked down the line, gauging a struggling cook’s ability to ‘hang like a big dog’ and judged him capable when I knew in my heart that I should have sent him home but for the mere fact that I would then have to cover his station.

I’m pretty sure that I am not alone in wanting to keep the horse harnessed to the plow, looking for just one more pull, long after it was wise to do so.

Avoidance is not a solution. Neither is ignorance. We are not doing anyone a favor, least of all ourselves, by keeping a ticking time bomb employed while giving a ‘wink and a nod’ to their self-destructive behavior. If I had really cared, like I so often have said so, then I would have confronted that particular cook, outlined the options for care, held him accountable for his actions and shared with him the story of my struggles. Maybe that’s the reason I am the caretaker of such unseemly memories, to share them; to show how bad it can get and ultimately, how good things can be.

We can argue all night long about the causes of mental health issues and the definition of addiction but we will end up right where we should have started: How to be a good steward of our culinary operations, and that extends to those whose lives are inextricably linked to ours. This could be the most meaningful test of true leadership. Some suggestions of how to get there, and to assist others are:

  • When appropriate, be open and transparent with your supervisors, fellow managers and subordinates about the struggles you, or others you know may have experienced. Your courage to speak plainly may just save someone else’s life. Your story can become a bridge for someone else’s self-care.
  • Release any judgment about the issue you may have; everyone is fighting a battle than only they know.
  • Look for the signs of drug and alcohol use, abuse or dependency; don’t turn a blind eye to someone in need of your guidance, mentorship or direction.
  • Address the issue in a responsible, effective & compassionate way, always and ever with another manager present, regardless of how you decide to handle the situation.
  • Leverage your assets and be the source expert for your people. Know what your current health plan offers, and what it doesn’t. The United Way has an anonymous and free service connecting those in need with free resources in your neighborhood, just dial 211
  • Take the Chefs with Issues questionnaire and encourage other professionals to do so as well.

I remain a junkie

I’m hooked on the vibe of service; the sway and sweat of knocking it out with some talented cats. All of us focused on one objective, to be immortal in the moment.

I am also addicted to connection, authenticity, important conversations and the shine of family, those that I was born with and those that I have made.

We are all, for good or ill, in this together. Now is the time for courage, we will be held accountable to future generations of culinarians for what do, or don’t around this delicate, yet imperative issue.

Comments

  1. Amy

    So glad you’ve the courage to talk about the realities of life in the kitchen. Addiction, dependency and holding ourselves to unrealistic expectations are not easily open for discussion, especially in such a competitive atmosphere. Thank you Chef for opening the door and for using your own example as way of breaking barriers that have long needed to be erased.

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