I woke up early on a warm summer morning, feeling dehydrated from a heavy prep day on a sweltering food trailer, followed by poor lifestyle choices I had glamorized from a book I had read a decade earlier. I was back in my hometown helping my college friend with his catering event, cooking hundreds of wood-fired pizzas and an extensive menu of southern classics. Coincidently, in my early and impressionable years as a confused cook, it was this same friend who handed me a copy of Kitchen Confidential.
Even though the mockingbirds whistled their familiar tunes as the sun crept through the curtains, I could feel a sense of darkness. Most people would call it a hangover — but, this felt different. For a moment I just stared at the ceiling, curious about the absence of a track light I remembered from my childhood. My phone buzzed and I got the news. We had lost Anthony, the forefather of restaurant culture. What was to be a busy day of food, fire, and banter quickly wilted to one of reflection.
As I lay there wondering what reason Anthony could have had to take his life, I was swept with an overwhelming feeling of doom. I wasn’t just upset that we had lost an icon, it was something more personal. Tony’s narrative arc crescendoed so gracefully — from a kitchen rock star to a humble world traveler. He never billed himself as a high profile chef and his rise to stardom was forgiven amongst the community because he was our beacon of hope.
While there are few young cooks that can argue that Bourdain didn’t push them into this profession, we all looked at his exit and said: “That guy had it figured out.” Tony had taught us that the damage was reversible, that most of us can someday live a normal life, free from the cuts, burns, and egos that flare behind the pass.
The most painful thing about his passing is that it shattered that pretense. There is no true way out. You carry your scars forever. Even though I sit behind a computer these days I still have the burns on my wrists, and I still have scars on my heart.
The irony is dark, something that Bourdain would have appreciated.
Yet, when the one person that championed mental health in the kitchen becomes another victim of depression, it becomes time to have a conversation.
When asked why this is so rampant in the industry, most choose to blame either the chicken or the egg. Do kitchens attract mental illness? After all, kitchens have always been a safe haven for misfits who often exhibit some form of antisocial behavior. Or does the environment promote it? The long hours, degrading remarks from peers and superiors, frequent on-the-job injuries. Perhaps people just reach a breaking point. Regardless of the cause, “cook” has long made the top 20 list for occupational suicides.
Let’s face it, the people that work alongside you in the trenches aren’t going anywhere. The life of a cook is a commitment that is hard to break and the lifestyle forces most into a feedback loop. Even if you do find your way out you will carry the burden of your experience. So if we are in it for the long haul, we need to start looking out for each other.
One place we can start is by being a little kinder. Cooks are notorious for crass behavior. I think most of us have crossed that line at least once in our professional careers. That being said, there is no reason to suck all the fun out of the kitchen. After all, that’s the reason we are here to begin with. We just need to make sure to understand our audience and know their limits. There are plenty of ways to extract humor from a grueling workday without driving someone to the brink.
Jokes aside, it’s necessary that we continue to listen — and I’m not talking about the ticket Chef just fired. No one knows a brigade like its peers. The military reference is long-standing. Going to war nightly against hordes of hungry guests creates an unbreakable bond. When you notice something isn’t right with a coworker, really listen and hear them out. In a profession synonymous with grit and mettle, it’s easy to forget that below the thick skin, we are actually people with our own problems.
Most importantly, we need to make sure to speak out when we’re drowning. We have all been there; whether it’s drowning in tickets, debt, or perhaps something more sinister, no one can help if they don’t know what’s wrong. We have to stop being afraid of emotional expression. We are all family, regardless if we work in the same kitchen or not. We have to be ready to share any emotional burden. A family never judges nor turns it back.
Anthony preached the importance of mental health yet still lost the battle because he tried to do it alone. We have to band together, to listen, and to speak up when necessary. We need to learn to let our guard down and learn from our losses. We will never forget you Tony and we forgive you because you gave us so much. You made cooking cool, and you made it a family affair, and we never turn our back on family.
Where to find help: For US residents, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1–800–273–8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.