By the time this story is published, over 5 years will have passed since I began my journey in recovery. Today I have solid friendships, a sense of purpose, satisfaction and a level of serenity in my life that I never dreamed possible. One of my pursuits is volunteering and being a vocal advocate for peer support training in restaurants because when I first recognized I had a problem, I was working as a chef, surrounded by dozens of people every day and yet I felt isolated and alone. I had unhealthy relationships with work, alcohol, food, my boyfriend, my family, and myself. I tried to share my struggles with others, but no one knew what to say, and besides, I could observe my coworkers in the kitchen and convince myself that I wasn’t THAT bad. Even before the pandemic, the restaurant industry was ripe with dysfunction, disease, and disorderly conduct.
Like me, some are drawn to the chaos of it all, as kitchen culture mirrors the chaos of their alcoholic or dysfunctional families.You see, there are few barriers to employment in the service industry. There are no personality tests, background checks, or drug screens. In fact, many workers already struggling with mental health arrive for their first shift equipped with little more than a knife roll or a server’s apron full of cheap pens. Like me, some are drawn to the chaos of it all, as kitchen culture mirrors the chaos of their alcoholic or dysfunctional families. We fit in quickly because we intuitively know how to maneuver in hostile environs, and we already understand that our value is directly linked to how well we produce and perform for others. Our work ethic is as glorified as our last scar or late night escapade. There are clinical statistics I could point to, but the most obvious mental health concern I have witnessed again and again throughout my years of service to the culinary arts is trauma, specifically unresolved trauma, in its myriad expressions such as substance use, depression, anxiety, ADHD, codependency, disordered eating, intermittent explosive anger, and process addictions like workaholism, gambling, and internet pornography. Toxic management often worsens these issues discouraging self-care and doing next to nothing to provide access to community based care.
People are often in shock when I share what it’s like behind the swinging kitchen door of their favorite local eatery. Primed with caricatures broadcast by food television – both mundane and insane, they ask me why, if it’s so awful, would anyone stay? Folks ask that same question to survivors of intimate partner violence and the answers are similar. The insanity felt safe and familiar, and I didn’t have a clear picture of a life lived any other way. I had never seen anyone successfully “get out” of the industry. I didn’t know I could leave. With only a culinary diploma and no savings, even when I dared to dream, I feared I wasn’t smart enough or that I wouldn’t be welcome in any other field. I was told that jeans and foul language didn’t fly in your average 9 to 5 job that provided benefits and work/life balance.
That’s why on January 6th, 2021 I am helping CHOW – Culinary Hospitality, Outreach, and Wellness host its first meeting for the new Twin Cities cohort. CHOW is a Denver Based non-profit which creates safe and supportive opportunities for industry peers to connect and discuss problems they’re facing with others who “get it.” CHOW is also working to add more meetings, a wellness app, and mental health training specifically created for the restaurant industry because it believes that when cooks, servers, and managers are equipped with a greater understanding of how to address daily stressors or cumulative effects of working in the industry, workers can deliver a pre-emptive strike against some of the more devastating side-effects of kitchen culture.
I believe in a future where our community never loses another person to addiction, burnout, or mental health concerns. I know positive change can start with a single conversation because that’s been my experience. By helping host meetings and online discussions, I hope that people learn, as I did, that they aren’t alone in the issues they face. For more information visit www.chowco.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melinda D. has worked in restaurants for over 25 years and in 2017 started the online group CulinaRecovery for restaurant workers to find hope, recovery, and connection. She focuses her attention on the hospitality industry where foodservice and human services intersect. She trusts that through mentorship and peer support, we can crush mental health stigma and create safer, more sustainable workplaces.