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Painted in Waterlogue

If you work or have worked in a restaurant kitchen you have seen it before, probably many times before. The line cook who is troubled for one of many reasons – it might be serious debt, a failed relationship, no real place to call home, a lack of self-respect, isolation, or the ill effects of alcohol or drug problems. More often than not, the alcohol or drug problems are a way to drown the reality of those other issues that seem to plague far too many.

  • “Restaurants. ‘Hazardous drinking patterns’ were identified in as many as 80 percent of male restaurant workers and 64 percent of females in the restaurant industry, according to a study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.”

The after-hours lifestyle of cooks doesn’t help. That adrenaline rush that draws many people to line work can’t be simply turned off when the last dinner is handed off through the pass. That time of decompression usually takes place at the favorite watering hole that attracts cooks and servers from many restaurants throughout a community. What better way to burn off that energy than with a beer, few shots of tequila, or a bottle of affordable wine? Yeah, you can’t deny it – we have all been there. Some of us may be fortunate enough to drink only when we want to and not because we need to. Others are not so lucky.

As a chef who I worked for many years ago told me: “You must define whether or not you are a social drinker or a person who must drink to be social.” How many of your friends and co-workers wind up trapped in the ill effects of drowning their sorrows in alcohol or drug use? There is little doubt that this crutch is used in other industries, yet it sure seems more prevalent in ours. Restaurant employees work hard and play just as hard. For a period of time that works and feels right, but then it can easily become a routine and even viewed as a requirement of the work.

What has always been amazing to me is how so many who fall victim to this downward spiral are able to pull it together and shine while in the kitchen. So the question is “Is kitchen time a short-term respite from a life otherwise out of control?” Could it be that the time some cooks invest in the kitchen is their salvation? Could this be the time in his or her day when the feeling of control is present, when beyond the work, the cook can feel important and valuable?

What is it about the kitchen that is both therapeutic and at times the instigator for an after hours life of excess? Is the discipline of the kitchen important beyond the need to run an efficient operation? Could it be that this discipline provides a comfort level that is needed in some individual’s life?

“The kitchen is the only place where I ever felt that I belonged.”

The movie “Burnt”

Here is another question that I think I have an answer for: “Does the restaurant industry help to create a life of harmful excess or does the industry tend to attract individuals who are already spiraling out of control? My answer is a definitive “Yes” to both.

Does the chef or the owner have any obligation to individuals who seemed trapped in this model of self-destruction? Some may, as previously stated, seem to function amazingly well while in the structure of the kitchen environment and then spiral down as the adrenaline fades, but guaranteed – at some point they will be unable to maintain this Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde life. When this happens this person can bring down your team as well as themselves. So, what is the role of the chef or the owner?

I have worked with and watched the demise of talented cooks, chefs, and managers who never seem to come to grips with the disease that is alcoholism or drug addiction. I have watched as the fun loving partier succumbs to the dark shadows of addiction and how this change impacts a kitchen crew.   I have worked next to great people as they take that final step into the abyss. A banquet chef with a cadre of children at home drinks himself to death. I have watched as talented cooks melt down on the line one night because they could no longer avoid sneaking a few drinks while on the job. I have seen chefs and managers whose brilliance brought success to a restaurant gradually lose their grip and methodically destroy all that they gained.

Yes, the kitchen may be a place where individuals feel like they belong and in turn are able to put on the mask of professionalism while standing over the range and doing what makes them whole, but rest assured, this will not last. To ignore the reality of a disease is the worst thing that we can do. As coworkers, chefs, owners, or managers we have an obligation to all of our employees to face these issues head on.

There is help available for people who suffer from addiction, help that doesn’t just address the effects, but rather looks to the cause. Guide your staff members to this support early on, when the signs first appear. In all likelihood, the individual will deny that they have an issue, but I implore you to be persistent. Do this before that inevitable meltdown that impacts everyone in your organization. Some may say that the individual is unlikely to help him or herself until so low that there is no other choice. Don’t wait until this happens. When the individual hits bottom you may have to make the tough decision to sever the addicted cook from “The only place where they felt they belonged.”

We (the restaurant industry) must recognize the breadth of the problem and adopt the need to change the environment, at some level. This change should go beyond the simple step of discouraging consumption and more to the root of the cause. Empathy for and interest in what makes your cooks tick may help to address the mask of consumption designed to cover up those grating issues that your employees are plagued by. Help to keep their focus on the passion that they have for cooking and less on the need to drown that adrenaline rush after work before the demons return.

“Still, even as the nation embraces health-conscious habits, the circumstances of sobriety remain insular. No one case is identical. Each person has his or her own fears of relapse. Sober people in the mainstream food world are, simply put, outliers. They are on the fringes of a fringe group, radical departures from occupational custom, and, above all, brave.”



Harvest America Ventures, LLC