Dark Side of the Chef Life
It is a Lifestyle
Being a Chef is a lifestyle rather than a job. The title becomes your name. You aren't Tom who works as a Chef, but, Chef Tom. The title is one which is earned and never goes away. Every fiber of your being is changed by long days in a high pressure world. Once a Chef, always a Chef. Is that a good or bad thing? I suppose it depends who you ask.
Fresh out of Culinary School, I had enormous dreams. I was going to feed the masses, without ever tiring or taking a moment for myself. As a small female in a man's world, I busted my butt every single day. Volunteering for the crappiest, most laborious, tasks as a line cook. I worked harder than any man to prove my worth. It was a badge of honor. Working through daily pain and exhaustion without ever wavering because in a culture of strength, showing weakness is unacceptable.
There is a burning passion within a Chef. A fire one can see in their soul. Fire can be beautiful or devastating and a kitchen full of this burning passion can only be described as devastatingly beautiful.
Substance Abuse and Addiction
Many famous chefs, most notably Anthony Bourdain, have spoken publicly about addiction and how it is a problem within the industry. They aren't lying. Find me a Chef and you will find someone who has experienced, or witnessed, substance abuse firsthand. I was fortunate enough to never follow the thin white lines down the rabbit hole, but knew many who did.
Data collected by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration between 2008 and 2012, indicates that Food Service workers have the highest rates of elicit drug use by industry. The same source shows Food Service workers to fall just below mining and construction workers, putting them third for highest rates of heavy alcohol use.
During a regular day at work, Chefs force their bodies to endure the impossible. They are merely mortal and, more often than not, poorly nourished and exhausted. Spending 10, 12, or even 18 hours in a fast paced, high stress, environment is no small task. Needing some chemical help is not so hard to fathom in those conditions. For some, stepping off the line to pop a pill or do a bump of cocaine in the bathroom is just a regular part of preparing for dinner rush...no different than sharpening knives or restocking their station.
Dinner service in a professional kitchen is a blur of high adrenaline and yelling. A synchronized show where every player knows their part exactly. Flames are burning, knives are working, and dishes fly from the kitchen until, it stops. Just like that. The last table is served and another night has passed. With every neuron firing within each member of the team, the room is abuzz. That adrenaline has built up and sleep is not coming anytime soon. How do these individuals unwind at 1 or 2 in the morning while the rest of the world slumbers? With alcohol. Every drink calms your humming nerves a bit more until eventually a little bit of sleep feels like a possibility as nerves quiet and the brain becomes sluggish. And a little bit is all you get until it starts all over tomorrow.
Depression and Suicide
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) found Food Service workers to be 19th on the list of suicide rates by profession.
This number is hardly surprising. High stress, substance abuse, insomnia, and addiction have all been linked to depression. As we've discussed, the Chef and cooks experience some, or all, of these things on a regular basis. The profession destroys relationships. As hard on an individual as a high stress career is, it is as hard or harder, on a relationship. It isn't easy to stand by a loved one who purposefully disregards their well being in a job that requires long and irregular hours and frequent injury. For the partner of a Chef, playing second fiddle to their beloved kitchen is difficult. When ER visits are common and moments together are few, relationships have a way of fizzling out.
The show must go on, however. Death in the family? Divorce? Cousin's wedding? Your kitchen needs you there. Burying the feelings of loss and sacrifice deep down, you move forward and service carries on as usual. In an environment where grit and personal strength are the measure of your worth, you don't show signs of weakness. A mental health day is unheard of. Have a drink or 6 at the end of the night, like everyone else, and forget about it. Pouring a depressant onto buried feelings of depression is a dangerous game, that unfortunately, many Chef's lose.
In the End...Is It Worth the Sacrifice?
The suicide of Benoit Violier, just weeks after being named the Best Chef in the World, impacted me greatly. He was the best and had conquered every level in the kitchen game...it meant nothing in the end.
What did that mean for me? Or any other Chef of my level? I was never going to be one of the greats. I am simply not that good. I can out cook your grandma, but not the greats of the culinary world...unless of course your grandma is one of those elite few. Humor aside, it was a dark time. Long hours, poor diet, excessive drinking, and chronic insomnia was taking a toll. Symptoms of depression could no longer be hidden from those around me. I kept working for the next promotion, then the next featured recipe, and then a huge raise. The fire was burning bright in my soul, the title of Executive Chef was going to be mine...then I would slow down, I promised myself. Slowing down was not in my vocabulary, however, until one day changed everything. Long story short, my relationship was strained, I was a ticking time bomb (both physically and mentally), and I hadn't been to my family home in a year. Sitting in an Emergency Room with an IV being poked and prodded was my breaking point...the Chef life was literally breaking my heart. On the verge of a heart attack I looked at my partner, who never once asked me to quit, and had an epiphany. We were the sacrifice I was unwilling to make.
I miss the kitchen. Every. Single. Day. The camaraderie and brotherhood is unlike any other. I respect those who sacrifice day in and day out so that the rest of us can enjoy the dishes they tirelessly create. To the brother's and sister's I abandoned, I am deeply sorry.
Is it worth the sacrifice? Depends on who you ask. Or when you ask them. For me, 5 years ago, the answer was yes. Without a doubt, the kitchen was where I had to be. Being a Chef is worth every sacrifice, until it isn't.