Feeding those that feed us
It's time to start caring
Written by Jelle Steenbergen on Tuesday 15 May 2018
chef stress Problem
Working in a professional kitchen isn’t glamorous.
It’s hard, gruelling work, and most of it is innately invisible to the guests that are being served. There aren’t a whole lot of jobs more stressful and unhealthy than cooking someone else’s food. Drugs, alcohol, mental illness, all of these find ground to fester in the kitchen. None of this should be new information. None of it should be a surprise. None of it is being addressed. Let’s talk.
Life or death
The stigma surrounding substance abuse, anxiety, and depression needs to go. Mental illness is just that. Illness. It should be something we treat, not something we pretend doesn’t exist. Some people say that if you ignore a problem long enough, it’s either going to solve itself or ruin your life. 50/50 odds ain’t bad right? Would you flip a coin to decide if you live or die? Of course not, but that’s what we’re talking about here. Life or death, in a very real sense.
‘We need to stop making unrealistic demands of chefs and kitchen workers.’
Chefs with issues
Fortunately there are those who recognize the problem for what it is, and their numbers are growing. Among them is Kat Kinsman, New York based author and founder of Chefs With Issues. In Chefs With Issues Kat has created a platform for those in the food space that struggle with mental health to reach out and talk to each other. Perhaps, eventually, some will find the courage to speak out and break this quite frankly absurd silence. Chefs With Issues is but one example of judgement-free initiatives focused on providing care for those that feed us, and for those that struggle with mental health, substance abuse, or societal pressure every day.
The role of the chef has changed. Over the past twenty years the people toiling away in their kitchen went from mostly anonymous, often invisible providers to cultural signifiers, to rockstars. Today’s top chefs are unadulterated celebrities, living their professional and sometimes personal lives under the magnifying lens of public perception. They are drivers of cultural change with a legion of followers eagerly awaiting their next move. This role comes with an enormous amount of pressure, but unlike actors, politicians, or other traditional public figures, chefs are not trained to deal with it. Culinary schools and institutions have not adapted. Their focus remains on traditional technical skills, techniques and craftsmanship. When you think about it, it’s close to miraculous that more chefs aren’t handing back their Michelin stars. They don’t mean what they once did. The public scrutiny and crippling expectations associated with today’s culinary accolades are not something anyone working in a kitchen signs up for when they choose to follow their passion.
‘Today’s top chefs live under the magnifying lens of public perception.’
While the relatively newfound limelight that has been thrust upon chefs can certainly lead to undue stress and issues, it has also shone a light on the problems already present. On generations of unhealthy and unrealistic standards. As consumers, we have come to expect a standard of quality and speed of service from a restaurant visit. For years stretching into decades, we have rarely questioned the cost of our own expectations. Rarely have we been exposed to the toll it takes on chefs and kitchen workers. It is not dissimilar to what happens in professional sports. In the pursuit of perfection and performance it is all too easy to look for help in unsustainable ways, like doping. The most apt comparison is cycling. Grand tours like the Tour de France ask for unrealistic feats of endurance. For many people, even professional cyclists that have given their life to the sport, it is on the verge of humanly impossible. In order to meet the expectations the course - and the general public - have of them many turn to doping. Perhaps if the course was less demanding there would be less perceived need for these kinds of unhealthy and unsustainable practices.
The people that feed us are people, too. They are only human. We would do well to remember that simple fact, and more importantly we would do well to act accordingly. We need to stop making unrealistic demands of chefs and kitchen workers. We need to convey to them that it’s okay to have issues, that it’s okay to not be okay. We need to prepare them for the changed profession they have chosen. To those out there struggling: tell us your story, if you feel comfortable doing so. We are here to listen.