Mental health issues is a common struggle in the hospitality industry, but change is afoot to break the taboos.
By Amanda Baltazar
The food industry was shocked in 2018 when Chef Anthony Bourdain took his own life. But those who knew the celebrity chef and travel guide were less surprised; Chef Bourdain had mental health issues his whole life.
Mental health problems are rife in American kitchens, as well as in the front of house. The hospitality industry is one that has long attracted creative types who often suffer from anxiety, depression and other issues. At the same time, it’s an industry founded on bravado, on hard work, on long hours and an ability to be tough and seem tough.
It’s time for all of that to change, say a number of professional chefs around the country.
When Chef Jeffrey Schlissel, an ACF member for more than 20 years, heard about Chef Bourdain’s death, Chef Schlissel decided to be open about his own suicide attempt when he was 18, more than 30 years ago. He then started hearing about other chefs who’d attempted to kill themselves. “It made me realize there are a lot of us who need to hear it’s OK not to be OK,” says Chef Schlissel, who runs The Bacon Cartel, a specialty food and catering business based in Boca Raton, Florida.
In August, Chef Schlissel started a nonprofit, Sharing Our Stories (SOS), with fellow chefs Art Ledda and Keith Sarasin. It began on social media, but Chef Schlissel hopes to start offline events such as fundraising dinners aimed at drawing in people who need help.
Chef Schlissel has also been a regular on Chef Zone, an Atlanta radio show where he’s discussed topics such as work-life balance. “The fact is that we have to change the perception of how society views mental health.”
Chef Fionna Espana, CWPC, is the president of the ACF Chefs de Cuisine Association of California Los Angeles, a position she uses to help people coping with mental health problems.
She makes sure to discuss issues during every monthly meeting. There are around 150 people in the Los Angeles chapter, she says, and anyone who’s having trouble can talk to any of the board members, at any time.
Chef Espana also uses Facebook and Instagram to get the word out. On those sites she posts about mental health check-ins, gives resources for mental health and offers up people to talk to. “We let them know we’re here for them and try to keep a connection through every outlet we have,” she says.
ACF Chef Susanne Grier is an instructor of nutrition, wellness and culinary arts at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Indiana. She has high-functioning depression and anxiety and is very open with her students about how she deals with these issues “so they feel there’s someone they can connect with,” she says. “I try to be authentic and real and genuine, and so many kids talk to me about their personal trauma, their mental health issues.”
Chef Grier has deliberately fostered a motherly relationship with the students, she says. “Kids can’t learn if they’re not feeling safe and secure. They can’t learn if they’re dealing with mental health issues. I do little check-ins with them. Every kid’s needs are different, and it’s learning how to tap into that.”
Her empathy, openness and accessibility have proved so popular that many kids eat lunch in Chef Grier’s classroom because they feel safer there, she says. She even attracts kids who aren’t her students. “They’ve been told Chef Grier is very compassionate and understanding,” she says. “I’ve told the kids they can’t say anything that’s going to shock me.”
Heroes Being Vulnerable
ACF Chef Keith Sarasin, founder of The Farmers Dinner in Manchester, New Hampshire, and author of three cookbooks, and is aiming to make talking about mental health less of a taboo in the hospitality industry.
In 2018, when he was concurrently running his food business, writing a cookbook and taking care of his mother who had stage 4 cancer, things became too much for him and he started seeing a therapist.
“I decided to be open about it; I wanted people who looked up to me to know it was OK [to go to therapy],” he says. “We live in a world where we need to start breaking the stigma of mental health as a weakness.”
Change starts, he explains, “with people speaking up. It starts by people we look up to normalizing the conversation. [They] need to have the courage to say, ‘I was not OK during this time, and I got help.’”
Chef Sarasin says this was personally difficult for him as the leader of a business. “I had the ideology of a leader as a strong person who lets things roll off, but that wasn’t working anymore,” he says. “It was a very hard path; it required a lot of vulnerability. It felt like I was a wimp, [but] that’s where true empowerment comes from.”
However, he points out, seeking therapy is difficult for many restaurant workers because of the cost, which makes it inaccessible. “We have to do better. “
Chef Sarasin continues to see a therapist, “since it’s not something you do once and you become magically cured,” he says, and continually reads books that empower him (see sidebar).
Chef Schlissel argues that change has to happen in the hospitality industry. “It’s about making this less taboo and opening this up to conversation,” he says. “Once you start talking about this, you can’t go back.”