Meet the People Working to Improve the Lives of Restaurant Employees

“Nobody really talks about it as much as they should.” Photo: Hill Street Studios/Blend Images

There are several well-established outlets for chefs and other restaurant workers who need to deal with the crushing stress and demanding hours of their jobs: Alcohol and illegal drugs are big. So are screaming fits, or simply walking off the job in the middle of service. Those are the clichés, anyway, and they aren’t exactly healthy or sustainable methods for coping. Now, though, a growing number of people working within the industry say it’s time to pay attention to this problem and give workers access to programs that actually promote mental and physical wellness.

The exact circumstances surrounding the sudden death of acclaimed chef Benoît Violier, thought to be a suicide, remain unclear, but his passing has nevertheless put renewed focus on the stress that people in the hospitality industry must face in order to do their jobs, as well as the toll it takes. Violier’s death follows several other high-profile suicides, including that of Chicago chef Homaro Cantu, who died last year, or even Bernardi Loiseau, who took his own life in 2003. Just this week, the Times published a story with the headline “Top Chef’s Death Shines Light on a High-Pressure World.”

Beyond suicide, it’s common for even the most prominent figures in the industry to talk openly about the way stress affects them. In a 2008 New Yorker profile, David Chang said that the pressure of growing his Momofuku company took such a toll that he developed shingles. Will Guidara, a co-owner of Eleven Madison Park, told the same magazine in 2012 that he was prone to throwing his back out when the emotional strain of the job became too much. And a few weeks ago, Mission Chinese Food’s Angela Dimayuga told Grub she’s determined to build a system that fixes “kamikaze” kitchen culture.

Signs are everywhere that this is a workforce that needs more release than others, yet many people continue to just push through. Anthony Rudolf is the former director of operations at Per Se and the founder of Journee, an education center in Chelsea for restaurant employees. He says of workers’ mental health, “Nobody really talks about it as much as they should.” He also points to another seemingly admirable, but potentially toxic, trait among restaurant workers: the “mentality of courage … the idea that everything is okay and you can just muscle through it. “

Journalist Kat Kinsman created an informal survey to ask restaurant workers and others in the food industry about their mental health; at the moment, she’s received 800 responses. More than 90 percent of those said their jobs are at least partly responsible for mental-health problems. Almost 20 percent of respondents blamed their jobs entirely. Thirteen percent of the people who responded to Kinsman’s survey said they ended up losing their job as a result of mental-health issues. And two-thirds said they wouldn’t talk openly about the issue for fear of looking weak.

Advocates say the time to do something about the problem is now: “We really need the industry to make a decision as a whole that this is something worth addressing and talking about,” says Sarah Ory, the co-founder of the Heirloom Foundation, a group that aims to create a more holistic lifestyle for hospitality workers, which includes promoting mental health. But, Ory says, the slower that people are to address the problem, “the more friends we’re going to lose.”

Awareness, right now, is part of the push for both Ory and Kinsman, who created Chefs With Issues, a site dedicated to promoting acceptance of mental-health awareness in the industry. One of Kinsman’s ideas is to create a free hotline for cooks who might need to call a therapist at one o’clock in the morning after a long shift.

For her part, Ory’s ultimate vision includes several different facets. First, “suicide and substance abuse should be discussed more openly.” She is also recruiting chefs all over the country to help spread the word about the mission. She wants to give grants to organizations to train hospitality workers on how to live healthier lifestyles. And, lastly, she wants restaurants to limit working hours and offer progressive benefits packages, and if they don’t, she would like to see government regulations mandating it. In addition to health care, she’d also like to see a couple of perks that are not commonly offered: paid vacation time and paid family leave (she praised Chang for offering these).

In an industry famous for razor-thin margins, the idea of shouldering the costs for these programs is not exactly appealing to many owners. “Lots of people don’t want to hear that, but I think it’s an investment that needs to be made,” Ory says. Still, many restaurateurs are already rethinking their business models, and at least one chef Grub spoke with says he could see it working at his restaurant, though he doesn’t offer these types of benefits now.

One huge hurdle, Ory explains, is that there is no reliable data showing a mental-health problem specifically among restaurant workers. She and her board of directors want to give money to nonprofits who carry out programs to help workers, but without academic research to show that this is a problem, nonprofits say their hands are tied. Heirloom is now trying to raise money to pay for such studies, but fund-raising is difficult because an appreciation of the problem is so low among the general public. Ory is hopeful, though: Heirloom is about to celebrate its second anniversary, and donations are up by 48 percent from year one to year two. The group is also trying to connect with officials at the James Beard Foundation to urge the group to put resources toward chefs’ wellness.

Another area of progress is at culinary schools, which are now also paying more attention to their students’ well-being. The Culinary Institute of America has changed in recent years to want to encourage a balanced lifestyle, its vice-president told BuzzFeed. Their programs now include meditation classes and counseling. Some restaurant groups, and outside organizations, have also offered various solutions, including increasing paid leave, allowing vacation time, and raising wages for back-of-the-house employees.

Meanwhile, Rudolf says he hopes his own center, Journee, can serve as an alternative to decompressing after service at a bar. He wants Journee to serve as a meeting spot in order to “create a way for people to connect in a more healthy, productive environment.”

Improving the Lives of Restaurant Workers