Chefs with Issues explores mental health in food industry

For many, life in the fast-paced, hard-driving and highly hierarchical environment of a professional kitchen is anything but glamorous — and some say restaurants are rife with abuse, mental health issues and addiction.

Restaurants are rife with abuse, mental health issues and addiction: food writer

The fast-paced, hard-driving environment of professional kitchens can lead to serious emotional and mental health issues, says the founder of the website Chefs With Issues. (Getty Images/Caiaimage)

If you believe reality television shows, the life of a chef can seem pretty alluring. For many, though, life in the fast-paced, hard-driving and highly hierarchical environment of a professional kitchen is anything but — and some say restaurants are rife with abuse, mental health issues and addiction.

A new project by a former CNN food reporter is highlighting some of those problems.

Kat Kinsman is the editor at the food website Tasting Table, and has now started a survey and support website called Chefs With Issues.

She says it's a response to what she's noticed — and experienced — after years of working in the food industry.

Food writer Kat Kinsman created the Chefs With Issues website to help people in the food industry share stories and resources for dealing with the pressures of their working environment. (Facebook)

"This profession, which on the surface of it is all about pleasure and sustenance, there's a lot of darkness happening behind the scenes of it," she said.

"I really wanted to call attention to the pretty severe mental health crisis that is happening within the industry, and frankly that is ruining and taking lives."

So far, she says she's heard from hundreds of survey respondents from around the world. The vast majority report some form of health impact due to their jobs in kitchens, ranging from stress to drug addiction.

Kinsman says 80 per cent of respondents reported anxiety, panic disorders and depression — with most tying those issues at least partially to their work in the food industry.

She blames systemic issues in restaurants — which can include sexual abuse, low or even no pay, and brutal hours — for the problems reported by her respondents.

Work may attract people with mental health issues

But she also says some people with existing mental health issues are drawn to restaurant work.

"There is something especially about kitchens that might draw people who might suffer from particular issues, or be driven by particular issues — whether it's depression or anxiety or OCD or bipolar or something — where the condition they're dealing with is actually what drives them in the profession," she said.

"They're drawn to the intense hours, the brutal fast nature of the whole thing, and they're rewarded for it."

There is a lot of darkness happening behind the scenes.- Kat Kinsman, creator of Chefs With Issues

The issue of mental health and addiction in the kitchen came to a very public head three years ago in Canada. That's when one of the country's most accomplished chefs, Jonathan Gushue, disappeared.

A police search, spurred on by a missing person report filed by his family, led to a Montreal hotel. According to an interview with the Globe and Mail, Gushue had spent a full two weeks drinking. In that interview, Gushue said he too thinks addicts may be attracted to the restaurant industry, in part because it helps support their lifestyles.

Gushue's wasn't the only Canadian story to highlight trouble in the kitchen. A 2015 conference organized by Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg focused on sexual abuse, and the sometimes exploitative behaviour that exists in kitchen culture.

Diners rarely see effects of restaurant work

Kinsman says the food industry can become an incubator for bad behaviour, which results in health impacts for workers.

Those health impacts are rarely seen or acknowledged by consumers — the people who often pay hundreds of dollars for food in the world's top restaurants.

"I think there is sort of a willful ignorance on one end, because I think people love this romantic notion of what's going on in the back," Kinsman said. 

"But something that has really come up in this survey is that people are living in silence. I think something like 70 per cent of the people said the reason they didn't speak up is they don't want to be thought of as weak, they don't want to be bullied, they don't think people are going to understand."

For now, Chefs With Issues is a survey and support site. Kinsman says mental health in the food industry is rarely talked about, and believes a forum can help break the stigma.

In the long term, she said she envisions a conference on the issue, and perhaps establishing a foundation that can help.


Khalil Akhtar

Food Columnist

Khalil Akhtar is a syndicated food columnist for CBC Radio. He takes a weekly look at some of the surprising aspects of your daily diet. Khalil is based in Victoria, B.C.