Pared Pro-File: Zia Sheikh and Restaurant After Hours

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Pro-files

When Pros share their stories with us, the aspects of Pared they value most often include the higher earnings or flexible working schedule. Sometimes though, we encounter Pros whose appreciation for what we offer runs much deeper, such as Zia Sheikh. 

Zia is the founder of Restaurant After Hours, a 501c3 charitable organization that raises awareness about mental health issues within the hospitality industry. Around the time he was preparing to launch Restaurant After Hours, he discovered Pared. “I realized I needed something to sustain myself. I saw an ad on Craigslist and thought, ‘Let me just give this a shot.’ So I signed up and honestly since then it’s been nothing but amazing.” 

Initially, what Zia enjoyed about Pared echoes what other Pros have expressed. “If I don’t like a place, I don’t have to go back. If I do like a place, I could find out if they were hiring and choose to work there! In terms of work-life balance, it’s been great.” What started out as simply a way to support himself quickly evolved into a vehicle for amplifying his organization’s message. “[Pared] ties in perfectly for what I’m doing for my non-profit. It gives me an opportunity to see so many restaurants. I get to meet people and share resources,” Zia said.

Zia preparing food back in his restaurant days.
Zia preparing food back in his restaurant days.

The origins of Restaurant After Hours 

“I’ve done 75 gigs through Pared so far. I’ve done everything here in New York City, from Michelin-starred to corner delis,” Zia beamed. To fully understand his motivation behind taking advantage of all Pared has to offer, it’s important to know how Restaurant After Hours first got started. 

Long before Zia became a Pared Pro, he spent time working for industry greats such as Danny Meyer and Jean-Georges. With nearly two decades in the restaurant industry under his belt, he eventually became Chef de Cuisine at a local restaurant. Over the course of his career, he was exposed to an all-too-familiar industry experience: one of high-pressure working environments followed by long evenings of drinking to blow off steam.

Also read: Lucio Ku, Pared’s First Pro to Complete 1,000 Gigs

Unfortunately, Zia’s personal experience was reflective of a larger narrative in the industry. Survey data from the organization Chefs with Issues found that 84% of kitchen staff suffer from depression, 73% suffer from anxiety, and 50% deal with substance abuse. Despite the prevalence of these mental health struggles, 57% of respondents don’t feel comfortable opening up to colleagues about them (November 2018). 

“The more experienced I became, the harder I pushed. The harder I pushed, the more I drank. The more I drank, the less I thought about how depressed I actually was,” he mentioned. “I turned into that chef that I actually hated. I was micromanaging. I was yelling at the staff. I was snapping at people.” 

Zia preparing plates of food with a colleague.
Zia preparing plates of food with a colleague.

The wakeup call that changed his life

While the negative behavior continued eventually becoming routine, Zia pointed to one specific instance where he knew something had to change. “On July 2015, after a night of binge drinking, I walked out to my car, got in, blasted the heat on accident, and just passed out.” Zia continues, “After I woke up, my seat had been reclined, the keys were out on the passenger seat, and the windows were down. Someone had found me in that state. I don’t know who, but I’m thankful someone did.” It was this wakeup call that inspired Zia to begin seriously investing in his mental health. 

Also read: Pared Pro Bradley Stewart’s experience working gigs in two cities

Despite his dedication toward improvement, the pressures of running the kitchen eventually pushed Zia to a breaking point. In June 2018, he was let go from his CDC position. However, it turned out to be the ultimate blessing in disguise. “I wasn’t sad about it. I wasn’t angry about it. I walked away from that completely happy,” he admits. That was exactly the opportunity he needed to fully focus on improving his mental health. Within a week, the idea for Restaurant After Hours came to him in a dream. He instantly knew that would be his calling. “This is real. This is exactly what I wanted to do,” Zia recalled thinking. 

Coincidentally enough, the three-year anniversary of that life-changing wakeup call was also approaching. He wanted to do something to honor that major turning point. “I went public with my story [on Facebook] and told everybody that I had a problem,” Zia said. To his surprise, others opened up and shared similar stories or pointed him to resources. He realized that by bringing his struggles to light, others felt safe making themselves vulnerable. As responses poured in, Zia strengthened his resolve declaring, “I’m going to do something about it. I can help out other people along the way.”

Zia (far left) posing proudly with his kitchen staff.
Zia (far left) posing proudly with his kitchen staff.

Fighting the stigma

While Pared provides Zia access to hundreds of restaurants in NYC, he admits that engaging the community in meaningful, ongoing conversation about mental health is its own challenge. Zia points to the ‘work hard, play hard’ culture where going out drinking serves as temporary relief instead of expressing deeper issues to coworkers. Even if people do talk about their struggles, “it’s swept under the rug not to be talked about ever again. It’s really hard to keep that conversation going,” Zia finds. “That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to keep that conversation going, because this is an ongoing thing.” 

It’s exactly his perseverance in pushing the conversation forward that gives Zia hope. “There have been chefs that I’ve spoken to and once they realize what I do, all of a sudden it’s like their walls just break down and they open up. They just need somebody to talk to. It’s been an incredible, incredible journey just listening,” Zia said. 

With Pared, Zia’s able to listen not just to chefs but also engage in dialogue with restaurant managers — the ones who have the power to influence a restaurant’s culture. “I ask them questions directly. What’s your training like? Do you feel like a mental health problem exists in the industry? Are you undergoing a mental health problem yourself? The answers they give me are eye-opening in terms of how [their staff] feel about coming forward or expressing what they’re going through. 

Finding community

Since starting Restaurant After Hours earlier this year, he’s connected with other organizations who do similar work. “Other nonprofits that I’ve spoken to that are doing the same work, we [feel] it all across the U.S. restaurant industry. The stigma has not been erased. There’s still a lot of work to do in this area,” Zia mentioned. 

As he continues to use Pared to expand his network, he did share an observation about the Pro community. “I started meeting everybody that’s inside [Pared’s] community and I keep running into them and everybody that uses this app is so much happier,” Zia expressed. While the Pared team is proud to hear that our Pros are happy, we’re more proud to be supporting Zia’s work in bringing long-term fulfillment to the industry as a whole. 

Learn more about Restaurant After Hours or follow Zia on Instagram
(All photos reproduced with permission from Zia)

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