working conditions

Can Restaurants Be Fixed From the Inside?

“When you step back and think about how much needs to change to affect the whole industry, it’s tough.”

Photo: Sorendls/Getty Images
Photo: Sorendls/Getty Images
Photo: Sorendls/Getty Images

When the chef Dave Beran worked as a line cook at a Chicago restaurant called MK in 2003, he remembers “Turkey hunting” in the kitchen. “My first chef there would line up shots of Wild Turkey for everybody,” Beran says. “We work in this customer-facing industry where it’s all about the diners, and we just destroy ourselves in the back.” Even now, Beran recoils at his brutal routine in Chicago as a new cook: work until late, drink until much later, repeat. “I sucked at my job, and I was miserable,” he says. An endurance athlete who had an annual “tradition” of running the Chicago Marathon and then going to work, Beran found himself wondering “how you execute at world-class levels while functioning at 50 percent of your ability.”

When they opened Dialogue, an 18-seat Los Angeles tasting room, in 2017, Beran and his team were determined to rethink this approach. “Our industry’s biggest problem is lack of respect for the individual,” says Dialogue service director Jeremy Overby. “When you step back and think about how much needs to change to affect the whole industry, it’s tough,” Overby also worked in Chicago before L.A. and recalls a culture where harassment and abuse were rampant. “Unfortunately, my tools for coping with life’s problems were drinking and drugs,” he says. He entered rehab, twice, and has been sober since opening Dialogue.

Transparency and candor are prized at Dialogue. Staff members are free to attend Dialogue’s P&L meetings, and they earn profit shares (a step up, Beran says, from the $18,000 he was paid when he started cooking at Alinea in 2006.) Additionally, the Dialogue team sits down monthly to “talk about their culture.” It’s all about creating a workplace that prioritizes employee health: “Feelings are a no-no in this industry,” Overby says. “I had rehab and tons of therapy, but most people aren’t equipped to understand their emotions.”

The food world has lately been awash in stories of individual chefs who say they now see, and hope to correct, the lasting damage caused by substance abuse, exhausting schedules, and few healthy options for managing stress. Sean Brock went to rehab after years of famously heavy drinking. Danny Bowien traded alcohol and Adderall for a life “fueled by SoulCycle and spirulina.” And Montreal’s David McMillan now says that while his restaurant Joe Beef received international acclaim for its celebration of gluttony, he “lived in hell.”

The personal-redemption narrative is a tidy way to explain the very complicated issues that have plagued the restaurant industry for decades — the highest rates of illicit-drug use are in the hospitality sector; restaurant workers are more susceptible to mental illness than workers in salaried industries — and nascent attempts to clean it up. But they have also invited valid criticism: Do these chefs really want change, or are the stories just good PR? Is the bar for “good behavior” really so low that saying you’ve stopped sexually harassing your staff counts as “progress”? It made Grub Street wonder what really happens on the line. Do these public declarations from industry leaders have a real trickle-down effect to the people who work in restaurants, and do chefs back up their own stories with actions that promote safer, better work environments?

Kat Kinsman, a food journalist who grapples with restaurant-industry mental health as founder of Chefs With Issues, says that while systemic problems like low wages and no access to health care aren’t going away, the good news is that restaurant culture is definitely healthier: “Changes are palpable in many corners, the barriers to forward motion have been resolved, and direct conversations are finally happening.”

Kinsman says there’s an “iceberg effect,” meaning that even if diners identify some changes, the public won’t (and maybe shouldn’t) hear about most of the efforts taking place behind the scenes.

Take, for example, Julia Sullivan, chef and co-owner of Nashville’s Henrietta Red, who says there’s a type of kitchen excess that is far more prevalent than gluttony, overdrinking, or unwelcome sexual advances yet receives far less attention: workaholism. “I’ve always resented the claim that all the great chefs are tyrants and everyone is doing drugs on the line,” she says. Her experience includes some famously high-pressured New York restaurants like Per Se and Blue Hill at Stone Barns: “The people in those kitchens with me worked harder than anyone I’ve ever met in my life,” Sullivan says. “And the self-destructive behavior I saw was symptomatic of that problem — demanding work with long hours and high stress is too much tension on one fulcrum.”

Suffice it to say Sullivan doesn’t tolerate a hard-drinking culture at Henrietta Red and adds she can’t remember the last time an employee showed up hung-over, but the restaurant accommodates its employees in other, more discreet ways that hopefully ease the burden and relieve some of the tension before it even begins: Workers receive benefits, and the workweek is four days, giving them three to recharge, earn additional money, travel, or do whatever they want. Those things would’ve been revolutionary at Per Se. “There was no time for self-care,” she recalls. “We’d spend our two days off asleep.”

Brock has built employee welfare into the foundation of his new restaurant venture in Nashville (which remains nameless but which he’s calling “kudzu compound” for now). “The first thing I’m paying attention to is the nervous system,” he says. While trying to figure things out after rehab, Brock read a self-help book called The Courage to Be Disliked, a best seller in Japan that distills life’s purpose into finding a community where you belong and then contributing to it. “It’s about everybody taking responsibility for their tasks,” he says. “It starts at the bottom, and it goes up in rings that continue to grow in size. At the very top is everybody in the whole universe. I’m taking the smallest community I know, the kitchen, and starting from there.”

For years, Brock, like many restaurateurs, gave workers break rooms to blow off steam. He’s now convinced they don’t work alone. He wants to de-stress the workplace environment and turn his own 10,000-square-foot compound into something that sounds less like a restaurant and more like a spa: “We are creating this wellness center with a crazy soundproof room where, in middle of the shift or, if you need to, even between pickups, you can go in and shut the door.” It’s a chapel-like private sanctuary, Brock explains, but with “several ways in the room to regulate your nervous system.” He’s going to offer acupuncture, intuitive massages, reiki, and therapy. Also, there’s a high-tech classroom where “maybe a farmer comes in and talks about biodynamic soil, or an imago counselor explains empathy, or a brain surgeon describes how the nervous system affects the brain.”

Sam Jett, who worked with Brock at the Neighborhood Dining Group and now serves as culinary director for the “kudzu compound,” says that when Brock flew to Arizona in 2017 and checked into the Meadows treatment center for 45 days, the team was preparing to open two new Husk restaurants (Savannah’s and Greenville, South Carolina’s). Jett says Brock returned with just a tiny little last-minute request: “He told us, ‘I want to manage everyone’s stress levels and encourage meditation,’ then started putting together these mini-seminars on things like conflict resolution and the difference between empathy and sympathy.”

Those mini-seminars were incorporated into Neighborhood Dining’s orientation manual and quickly changed the working culture. “When a cook messes up, you don’t feel the need to yell and scream anymore — you use talking boundaries.” He remembers the first time he tried it: A manager at Husk Nashville kept making the same mistake over and over. “The old Sam would have embarrassed him in front of everyone with some smart-ass quip,” Jett explains. This time, though, Jett simply took him aside and held the conversation privately. “Later, I saw the specific things I mentioned being taken care of properly.” After the Husk Savannah and Greenville staffs got training, Jett points out that “they became by far the happiest people you saw” at any of the company’s eight restaurants.* (The training-manual materials now form the basis of what’s being called “the Brock Model,” a still-in-the-works project that Brock hopes to turn into a professional-kitchen survival guide “so simple you can stick it in your back pocket.”)

Of course, not every hospitality-industry professional has the resources of Brock, but support from colleagues is still crucial to making better choices: Sam Anderson, the beverage director of Wildair and Contra  in New York, has transformed from a person who went through an “impossible to remember” number of drinks and two packs of cigarettes each day into an Adidas spokesman and a May 2018 Runner’s World cover model.

Anderson says he might be in a different place if not for Danny Bowien. Anderson was Mission Chinese Food’s first beverage director in 2012, inventing the gonzo drinks that put its bar on the map (the color-changing Mood Ring with LED-light coaster, a Tom Collins riff served in a rice bowl). Anderson says their focus was often on “the lighter-fluid category of drinking” — cocktails that were “very toxic.”

Bowien became Anderson’s first boss to quit drinking, and by 2014, he felt like it was a good time for him “to see what it’s like.” He committed to nine months of sobriety. “Everybody I ran into said, ‘What do you mean you aren’t drinking right now?’” he recalls. “For nine months, I had no one around but Danny.” But that kind of encouragement sustained him: “I felt very protected with his support. It was, ‘I’m not drinking and neither is Danny, so screw you if you have a problem!’”

Of course, every situation is different, which is why it’s become so difficult to even begin the process of creating something like objective standards for employee health. “The industry is not a monolith,” Kinsman explains. “Each restaurant is its own microcosm, and only the people in it know what’s most effective for them.”

Even the employers who put a premium on transparency and staff welfare say there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Later this year, Beran and Overby will open a follow-up to Dialogue with a staff that is almost four times larger. “We’ll be hiring people we’ve never worked with before, who come from all different backgrounds,” Overby says. “How do we implement this healthier culture in the new place? It stresses me out! We don’t want to lose our steam.”

* This story has been updated to correct the number of establishments owned by Neighborhood Dining Group.

Can Restaurants Be Fixed From the Inside?