By Christa Banister
While a revolving door of discerning diners fill in for the screaming throngs of adoring music fans, today’s chefs have far more in common with rock stars than one might suspect.
Not only is there enormous pressure to stay relevant when your very livelihood depends on whether people like what you’re serving up, but the long hours, lack of attention to mental health and easy access to everything from alcohol to illegal drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and opioids, also make for a lifestyle that’s difficult and dangerous to maintain.
Factor in low wages, little time left for fostering healthy relationships and the competitive nature of the business, and it’s not surprising that restaurant workers are suffering from perpetual burnout, scoring some of the highest rates of illicit drug use by industry and ranking only behind miners and construction workers as the heaviest drinkers, according to recent data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).1
And no, it’s not just the Anthony Bourdains and Gordon Ramsays of the industry who fall prey to these traps. As anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Chopped or Top Chef can attest, these struggles aren’t unique to chefs with coveted celebrity status. From the prized executive chefs right down to the sous-chefs, prep cooks, bussers and dishwashers, fine dining often comes with a heaping side of hard living, an ugly truth behind those pretty plates of food.
A Place Where Everybody’s Welcome
While the cuisine that’s trending may always be in flux, the $500-billion restaurant industry is always hiring.2 Whether you’re a college student looking for part-time work between classes or a thirty-something aspiring musician who’s new in town, there are opportunities, complete with flexible scheduling, aplenty at local eateries.
Unlike the more buttoned-up, nine-to-five cubicle world, restaurants offer a fun, bustling workplace with unconventional hours and a built-in feeling of community among co-workers. Once a shift is over, it’s not uncommon for employees to drink and de-stress together, a culture that one Sacramento cook recently described as “a combination of the hours and the accessibility … beer, wine and liquor are around all the time.”3
Once workers finish their shifts, stress relief arrives by partying, and it’s probably a weeknight. Ted Ripko, a 25-year industry veteran who began as a busser at 17, put it this way: “Being a part of a restaurant staff meant being part of the party — which really, never stopped.”
Directly attributing his cycle of alcohol and drug abuse to his years of restaurant work, Ripko was “getting by” in a perpetual haze of alcohol and drugs but never performing at an optimum level, something a respected manager pointed out at the beginning of his career. While it took many years for those words to truly resonate with Ripko, it not only wound up reshaping the way he works but also the cultural tone he now strikes at the restaurant he manages in Salt Lake City.
“And now, sober and in a new stage of my career, the restaurant is where I’m looking for transformation,” he says.4
A Kitchen Full of Cautionary Tales
But for every positive turnaround like Ripko’s, there are far too many restaurant employees who make positive life changes, only to be swallowed up whole by their addiction.
After hearing chef and author Chris Hill’s popular TEDx talk What Makes Your Heart Sing and reading his inspiring “Letter to Cooks,” a behind-the-scenes look at the grueling and often misunderstood lives of professional cooks, a man in his late 20s reached out to Hill by email. Admitting his life was in shambles with two failed relationships and three children he rarely sees, the man was a head grill cook on the verge of a promotion to kitchen manager and desperately hoping for a fresh start.
Finding many points of resonance in Hill’s words, he pleaded for Hill to also write about “the dark side of the industry.” He wanted Hill to address the industry’s less aspirational side — the substance abuse, the long hours, the necessary sacrifices that don’t always make sense to everyone. Hill, who describes himself more as an “advocate for change” than someone who tells those kinds of stories, was challenged by the man’s words and determined to honor his request.
As Hill considered what to write, he and the young man continued to stay in touch. Through a series of email exchanges, Hill learned about the man’s long relationship with drug use and how after a particularly dark period, the man’s life was turning around. He’d been to rehab, moved back in with the girlfriend who’d stood by him when he confessed his addiction, started attending church and was slowly, but surely, becoming the father he knew he could be. After Hill asked what the man had learned from the experience, he laid out several points before closing with one last confession — how much of a struggle it was to become a family man when you’re a line cook with an addiction. Ending the correspondence on a positive note, he assured Hill “it’s possible.”
About a month after the warts-and-all article Hill promised he’d write was published, one of the line cooks who worked with the young man had some harrowing news to share, namely that the young man Hill had befriended by email had taken his own life. Thanking Hill for taking the time to listen to him and tell his story, the person writing mentioned how much Hill’s conversations had meant to the young man. All he’d wanted was someone to listen and tell his story. Hill ended the article with a two-word addendum: “Heart. Broken.”5
Changing the Culture
While one of the biggest challenges with addiction is getting someone to actually admit that he/she has a problem, there is no shortage of people who are aware of the need for a seismic shift in today’s restaurant kitchen culture. Many agree there needs to be less stress, less drinking and less drug use, but how?
For Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of New York’s acclaimed Le Bernardin, his thesis is simple: Chefs need to send the right message by leading by example. Less shouting, more calm. “We shouldn’t be proud of chefs who are screaming in the kitchen,” he told ABC News. “Maybe screaming and being abusive is not the right way to manage. Maybe a good leader shouldn’t be like that.”6
As the Executive Chef at Beaver Run Resort and Conference Center in tourist-friendly Breckenridge, Colorado, Jeremy Caprari has seen many cooks slip into heavy drinking and drug use and emphasizes the need for putting “your heart out there for your guys — they’re your family.”
Caprari is a big believer in lending as much support as you can but also making sure you’ve got a strong support system around you. “Find a support team,” he says. “Maybe not people at the restaurant but those outside of work. You have to look at the whole picture.”7
But for some in the restaurant business, leaving altogether is the only surefire road to recovery. For sous-chef Brian Carr, who abused alcohol and heroin, the restaurant industry was the perfect place to work and support his habit after dropping out of college.
“I found a lifestyle conducive to abuse where it’s looked upon as okay to have a couple drinks because you work in a high stress environment,” Carr said. “As a chef, owners would sit me down. People would say ‘we are worried about you,’ but I wasn’t ready to stop drinking and drugging.”
It was difficult for Carr to trust the words of the very people who were drinking with him. But one day, Carr says he just woke up and said he was “done.”
Seeing that as the “moment of opportunity,” Carr went to rehab and built what he calls “a foundation of sobriety,” something that wasn’t possible while continuing to work in the restaurant business.7
1 “Substance Use and Substance Disorder by Industry.” The CBHSQ Report, April 16, 2015.
2 Damkoehler, Eric. “Addiction in the Restaurant Industry.” The Montague Reporter, April 9, 2015.
3 Janzer, Cinnamon. “The Complicated Connection Between the Restaurant Industry and Addiction.” Restaurant Insider, May 17, 2017.
4 Ripko, Ted. “The Restaurant Scene Fed My Addictions. Now It’s Giving Me Purpose.” Restaurant Insider, February 15, 2017.
5 Hill, Chris. “Lessons Learned From a Line Cook and Addict Who Turned His Life Around.” Medium, January 6, 2016.
6 Jenkins, Tom. “Kitchen Culture Needs to Change.” Fine Dining Lovers, September 9, 2016.
7 “Substance Abuse in the Restaurant Industry Q&A.” US Foods, Spring 2014.