We Need to Talk About Mental Health in the Kitchen
The isolated reality of being a chef can lead to depression. While the rest of the country is partying or on vacation, chefs are working their hardest, detached from society.
Photo via Flickr user Trinity Lancaster
February 1 should have been a day of celebration for Benoit Violier. The unveiling of the 2016 Michelin guide in Paris was to cement his restaurant's status as one of the best—if not the best—in the world. The media had already hailed him as "the best chef in the world after his restaurant topped a December list of worldwide restaurants compiled by the French government.
Yet Violier never made it to the Michelin ceremony, as he was found dead at his family home the previous evening. In Crissier, Switzerland, police reported the cause of death as a self-inflicted gunshot.
For people working in the restaurant world, this story is one with an all-to-familiar ring to it. In 2003, French chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide after local newspapers reported that his restaurant was to lose its coveted three-star status. (The restaurant ultimately retained its three stars, as did Violier's 13 years later.)
While the details surrounding Violier's death have not been confirmed, the case once again brings to light a dark topic within the food community. The long hours and intense pressures of running a kitchen are often detrimental to mental health.
The isolated reality of being a chef can lead to depression. While the rest of the country is partying or on vacation, chefs are working their hardest, detached from society. Relationships become strained as working days pass without seeing loved ones and precious days off are spent recovering in bed.
Many chefs turn to drink and drugs to artificially recreate adrenaline experienced during service. Others use drugs to escape the physical and verbal bullying that plagues their workplace.
London-based French chef Bruno Loubet knows all about the stresses of kitchen life. After completing his national service as a chef in the French navy, Loubet worked his way through some of the top kitchens in France and London. At 23, the UK Good Food Guide named him "Young Chef of the Year" and since then, he has established his reputation as one of London's top French imports.
"Pressure in a professional kitchen is a daily burden, which some days feels harder to carry than others," Loubet says. "Good chefs are passionate people. I believe the greatest challenge for a chef is not to let the passion take control—there is much more to life."
That overwhelming passion, however, is commonplace for chefs. Celebrity bullies such as Gordon Ramsay do nothing to suppress the macho culture that exists in kitchens. The idea of a young line cook being able to approach his executive chef with concerns over his mental health would strike many as absurd. The unfortunate stigma still attached to mental health problems suggests a need to look outside of the kitchen for support.
Some help arrived in December 2015, when Kat Kinsman—the former editor-in-chief and current editor-at-large at Tasting Table—launched Chefs with Issues. After years of writing about the food industry, she started the website to "call attention to the pretty severe mental health crisis that is happening within the industry"—a crisis that she believes "is ruining and taking lives."
The website borrows its name from a series of articles she oversaw while working as the managing editor at CNN Eatocracy. Chefs with Issues is a hub for articles that examine mental health within the restaurant industry and contains a list of resources for those struggling with mental health and addiction problems.
The site also includes a mental health survey for readers. The initial level of participation astounded Kinsman. "I think the fact that I got over 600 responses within ten days shows that people are screaming for this," she says. "People need to talk about this."
Kinsman believes that chefs are hesitant to talk about mental health out of fear of losing their jobs. "People are aching to talk about this—so long as I protect their identities. Nobody wants to put their job in jeopardy," she says. To combat this, she plans to create a kind of "Chefs Anonymous" message board where chefs can share experiences.
After living with anxiety her whole life, Kinsman understands the importance of being able to say "I'm not OK" and having a platform in which to do so. Only then will so many realize, just a she did, that they're not the only ones.
It's a damning indictment of the food industry that it was a food writer and not a chef that opened this dialogue, but Kinsman believes that celebrity chefs now need to lead the way.
"Somebody needs to pop above the surface and I think that that is going to happen this year," she says. "We can't afford more deaths, and we can't afford more slow suicides through addiction or depression or anxiety."