Tasting Notes: Playing with fire

Why we need to talk more about mental health in the restaurant industry

Earlier this year a woman appeared onstage at an event in Copenhagen and said she was mentally ill. The event was the MAD Symposium, and with a name like that, you might think the woman was addressing the right crowd.

However, the MAD Symposium was a gathering of chefs, food producers and restaurant workers. And the woman on stage was Kat Kinsman, an American food journalist who started writing about her mental health a few years ago and soon found people in the restaurant industry wanting to talk to her about their own problems.

Kitchen aid
That inspired Kinsman to launch Chefs With Issues, an online forum for conversations about mental health and the restaurant business, along with links to resources for dealing with the particular pressures of life in the industry. She launched the website on 1 January 2016 and, by late summer, had already heard from over 1,600 people – most of them kitchen staff.

She found that 84 percent suffer from depression and 73 percent from anxiety. Three-quarters said they use alcohol, drugs, sex, compulsive eating or overspending to cope. But the most telling statistic? Over half said they couldn’t say anything to people they work with because they “didn’t want to be thought of as weak”.

Cooking up a storm
At the heart of this is a cruel paradox. Almost everyone who makes their living from food has the same aim: to take care of people by feeding them. And yet, Kinsman asks, while chefs take care of us, who takes care of them?

“We’re not taking care of you. You’re not taking care of you,” she told her audience at the MAD Symposium. “You’re not taking care of each other – and you’re too afraid to ask. And it’s killing you. It’s killing this profession that we all love. It’s killing people.”

She wasn’t exaggerating. The food world was stunned at the start of the year when a leading French chef killed himself. Kinsman reckons hundreds of people in the restaurant industry take their life each year. And Chefs With Issues is replete with stories of depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Indeed, the plates may be pretty, but the problems plaguing the people who produce them aren’t.

Local issues
Of course, if you think this story has no relevance in Copenhagen – the capital of the ‘happiest’ country in the world – think again. Tales abound of trouble here too.

Moreover, in this great culinary city, we all know people who work in the restaurant industry – people who feed us, water us and send us home with a belly full of food and a smile on our face. People to whom we owe a “debt of pleasure”, as Kinsman puts it.

They look after us, so let’s look after them. Let’s talk to them, let’s listen to them. After all, the theme of the Mad Symposium was Tomorrow’s Kitchen, and Kinsman’s warning was suitably stark: “There will be no kitchen of tomorrow if there’s no-one left.”