Putting mental health on the menu

By Mary Luz Mejia, Special to TVO.org - Published on January 15, 2016
cooks busy working in a restaurant kitchen
The restaurant industry can take its toll on kitchen workers often reluctant to seek help for mental health issues.



Within a matter of months, Matt Basile, the mastermind behind the Fidel Gastro food concept, opened his downtown Toronto restaurant Lisa Marie, ran his popular food truck, embarked on the second season of his TV series Rebel without a Kitchen, and launched a new cookbook.  All of this happened in the midst of his beloved grandfather's illness and death in 2013, the man who not only taught him to cook but figured as the most important relationship he ever had. In the time following the restaurant's opening and his nonno's death, Basile worked more hours in a week than most work in a month. He piled endless work onto his grief to try to cope.

But eventually, grief, stress and the pressure of juggling so much caught up. The breaking point came when Basile realized he was constantly angry.

"I'd go to bed angry and wake up angry. I was angry for a lot of reasons,” he says.

The pressure cooker environment of kitchen work isn't new. Sadly, neither is the sweep-it-under-the-rug approach that prevails when mental health issues arise in back of house staff. Kitchen employees are often in unconventional arrangements, lacking the union protection or benefits typically found in manufacturing or office jobs. Even with benefits, the stigma of poor mental health prevents kitchen workers from asking for help.

That attitude bothers veteran Toronto chef Deborah Reid, who left kitchen work after 16 intense years.  Mental illness isn't unique to foodservice; she says it's everywhere, in every industry. But kitchen culture is built on self-neglect and impoverishment. "And that leads to mental health issues,” she says.

“Proper wages, access to benefits, everything that goes into making a person feel secure and stable is treated with disregard by our industry, and it's widespread," Reid says. "I have wondered what is at the root of that. If you look at the number of people who abandoned the industry after 10 years of dreaming and hoping, I think you'll find a level of depression there too."

Reid didn't see a future for herself in an industry that, she's ashamed to say, promotes neglect as its core business foundation. "The things that make us good and whole as people – the time for exercise, family, friends, good food – those are all absent," she says.

A line cook who’s worked in kitchens across the country says he also got tired of this unhealthy business model. Woo (he wanted to be referred to by his last name only) started working in foodservice at 19 and quit when he was 24.

When his first bout of depression hit, Woo was working in a Vancouver restaurant where a “light” day was 12 hours long, plus a two hour return commute. 

"I devoted 14 to 16 hours a day to work, five-and-a-half to six days a week. I had one day to do laundry and then lie comatose in bed because I was exhausted," he says. "I think I probably ate two meals a week outside of work and I probably cooked one of those. The rest of the time, I snacked at work."

Tack on the tendency of those who work in the industry to end up socializing with the same people, since you're keeping similar hours, and life can become what Woo calls an “insular circle.” Maintaining friendships outside of work with those not in the industry becomes difficult. "It's hard to cross into the rest of the real world," he says.

Both he and his boss saw his depression coming, Woo says. They had a candid conversation during which he asked for an unspecified amount of time off. His boss said yes. But that didn't stop him from getting almost daily texts asking when he was coming back. "I got through the worst of it with the help of my family, who flew over to be with me. I was able to go back by the time three weeks were over, but I won't pretend I was 100 per cent. I just got through the work."

But Woo didn’t seek proper help. He was on a tight budget, working for a fixed daily rate, and didn’t want to deal with the stigma associated with mental health issues.

He's now working as a farmer and has come to realize the importance of getting help as he navigates his second bout of depression. Woo enlisted the help of his family to get a doctor who referred him to a therapist willing to accept payment on a sliding scale.

As much as we'd like to believe that we are finally addressing the core stigma around mental health, there's a long way to go, says Christine Cooper, executive director of the Toronto-based Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere.

For those in the restaurant industry lucky enough to have benefits, help is still often out of reach, she says.

"Day after day, we see people who need support and treatments yet are so reluctant to utilize their employee assistance program because the health insurers then have access and information around the treatments, therapy and medication being used," she says.

Many go untreated, choosing instead to "try and bear the financial burdens of treatment personally."

Groups like Toronto-based Raging Spoon, a catering outfit started in 1997 by an organization called Working for Change, help survivors on many levels, including finding employment. Michael Lewin, Raging Spoon's business manager, says he believes in giving people dealing with mental health issues dignity in what can otherwise be a very isolating environment.

His suggestion is as simple as it is complex: employ empathy. He's quick to point out there is no blanket solution. Every person's mental health situation is a case-by-case scenario.

"I'm a firm believer in the work to recovery aspect and have been doing it for 12 years. I see people who, if they're not working, start feeling illness kicking in, so we provide them with positive stuff," he says. "Would you rather be taking meds, sitting at home and smashing your head against a wall, or doing something where you're not in your home space and head space?"

Basile, at the behest of his girlfriend, decided to get help. He went public with his story and wrote a first-person essay for VICE titled "The Crazy Life of a Chef is Nothing to Celebrate." He wanted to raise awareness about mental health issues and to ease the burden of asking for help.

He sees his therapist once every couple of months. And if he finds staff members struggling, his first instinct is to ask if they need time off to deal with whatever's on their plate. He's also ready to point out that he sees a therapist for stress management. "I want to make it seem more normal," he says. "If it can help someone else, I'm all for it. I want them to know they're not alone in feeling this way."

Mary Luz Mejia is a Toronto-based food, culture and travel journalist. 

Read more: Why restaurant kitchens often serve up hostile working environments