Features

Why we need to talk about mental health in the food industry

To what extent should the industry and chefs adjust in order to effectively address risks of mental health strains inherent in foodservice jobs?

Photo by Karl Janisse /Unsplash | Art by Marx Fidel

Stoicism in the face of pressure and fatigue—that’s what Cazuela chef and owner Andre Soriano needed the day he opened his new restaurant in Lucena. But four hours into service, he found himself crying. He had stopped shouting instructions, completely ceased trying to keep things together as his kitchen staff floundered in stress and confusion. Their customers had been waiting for a while then, and it only made sense to expect them to walk out anytime soon. Soriano was stuck standing in front of the burners, tears running down his face.

“It was this intense feeling that came from my gut, then up to my throat, and then to my eyes. It was physiological. I felt a little bit embarrassed. I was like, ‘what the f***, why is this happening to me?’”

As anyone who’s ever set foot in a professional restaurant kitchen knows, kitchens aren’t places that leave cooks with much of a choice. While the fact of working long hours in hot, airless spaces is simply context to the outsider (stray, yet logical details with which to anchor the archetypal chefs of our limited imaginations), to the people inside, it’s a perfectly legitimate reason to abandon any attempts at composure and endurance. 

Not that they would agree to that. Among the chefs I’ve spoken to for this piece, there seemed to be a general acceptance of the fact that their jobs are always going to be physically and mentally taxing. Soriano, for one, insists that “it’s a take it or leave it thing; if you can’t deal with the pressure, get out of the kitchen. The restaurant industry shouldn’t change anything.”

Seya Ortega, chef and owner of Seya’s Kitchen, echoes Soriano’s sentiment: “If you’re the type who values family and rest and you chose to do this kind of job… You better think twice.”

But there were outliers—chefs who recognized and pursued the idea of reform. “Things can change, but only a few people are willing to do something about it. It’s a really stressful environment and I wish the restaurant industry would do something about it. I hope they would enforce some norms,” says Anonymous, who, just last year closed her restaurant to focus on selling specialty spreads and doing consultancy work—a move she considers one of the best decisions she’s ever made, as it allowed her to have more control over her work schedule, and by extension, her mental well-being.

All this seems to point to the idea that the question of health in the food industry is largely a question of adjustment. That is, how much of it would the restaurant world be able to accommodate? To what extent should the industry and foodservice professionals adjust in order to effectively address risks of mental and physical strains inherent in foodservice jobs? Should all kitchens enforce policy changes to preserve the mental well-being of cooks and service staff, even if that can mean a drastic alteration of operation standards? And if there are in fact some individuals willing to change, what would that entail, exactly? Working shorter hours? Compromising food and service quality? 

WHAT STIGMA DOES

The answers to those questions are complicated by the ways through which the local restaurant industry overlooks the issue of health, and of mental health more specifically. To begin with, there are hardly any public discussions about the mental health risks that plague restaurant kitchens, much less widespread initiatives that seek to address them. “There’s really no need for us to admit the reality that our workplace makes us more prone to mental health problems. It’s a given. It’s like, if you go into this, you better be prepared,” says Ortega. But of course this is just a symptom of a much broader issue: Filipinos are generally hesitant to talk about mental health. Though some progress has been made by way of online discourse, there’s arguably still a lot of stigma that surrounds it. It’s also worth noting that it hasn’t been more than a year since a comprehensive mental health bill was signed into law. 

All this despite the alarming statistics: Last year, the National Statistics Office reported that mental illness is the third most common form of disability among Filipinos; a 2018 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that 4.5 million Filipinos suffer from depressive disorders; our mental health law indicates that one in every five Filipinos suffer from a mental disorder and that the Philippines has the highest number of depressed people in Southeast Asia.

These numbers speak for themselves, pointing to questions that bear traces of a call for action: How to address the growing prevalence of mental illnesses? And, perhaps more crucially, how effective would such action be if the reportage on the matter is highly susceptible to stigma-induced underreporting? The WHO has expressed some skepticism as to the accuracy of the above statistics given the high likelihood of underreported cases. Stigma breeds indifference among the unaffected; it can also prevent people from seeking mental health care. 

The consequences of relegating a serious, pervasive problem to taboo status extend far beyond appearing politically incorrect or grossly apathetic; to urge people to talk about a stigmatized issue is to recognize the fact that stigma kills people. The following are accounts of work-related struggles:  

NO HOLIDAYS

The long, exhausting hours chefs spend working have been the defining feature of much of Ortega’s life. Having worked in a number of different kitchens and managed multiple food businesses before he even hit 30, to say that he was accustomed to the challenges of a life in food would be an understatement. 

His days began at three in the morning where he had to finish marketing in a span of two hours; prep work at the restaurant began at seven; operations commenced a few hours after that, and, if he was lucky, he’d get to take a half-hour break before service ended at 10 in the evening. He would get home at about one in the morning, only to follow the same cycle the next day. There were no holidays (“What holidays? We work harder on holidays”), and the job was as emotionally gruelling as it was physically demanding. 

“You had to cope with the physical demands of the job as well as the emotional. We wake up early and start working only to come under fire… kung mainsu-insulto kami. It was military-style. 

For the longest time he had been used to this routine; but these extended hours spent in kitchens, markets, and business meetings—a career condition that seemed to him completely normal—were exactly what led him to one day lock himself up in a room for days, not eating anything or talking to anyone. 

“I really wanted to end it. It was beyond depression. Wala na akong ibang maisip kundi tumigil na lang.” he says. 

The string of adversities preceding that dark time—set against Ortega’s daily encounters with verbal bullying, sharp knives, hot pans, long hours, and serious competition—began as having to close one of his restaurants due to some logistical concerns that cut down their sales by half. This was promptly followed by a disagreement with one of his business partners.      

“I was supposed to work as the executive chef of this new hotel in Makati, but my business partner didn’t like the idea of me working somewhere else. Sabi ko sa kanya, ‘kailangan ko ng pera, may asawa ako, hindi kami mabubuhay na ito lang ginagawa ko.’ It was unfortunate how we separated, especially since that food concept, Oink Oink, was my only source of income at the time.” 

There was a sense of detachment in the way with which Ortega recalled these details. Not detachment in the sense of aloofness or callousness but in a way that suggested he had established some much-needed distance from his harsh past. Because during the time it was happening, it was almost impossible to fully grasp the gravity of the situation he was in. After that unfortunate separation with his business partner, a series of new incidences hounded the sleep-deprived and overworked chef:

He had marriage issues to deal with and after which he had to close Oink Oink because of soaring back expenses. On top of all that, he was unemployed, broke, and owed about half a million pesos to the suppliers of Oink Oink. 

“I just thought, bakit nagkasabay-sabay? The term is f***** up. ”

Should all kitchens enforce policy changes to preserve the mental well-being of cooks and service staff, even if that can mean a drastic alteration of operation standards? And if there are in fact some individuals willing to change, what would that entail, exactly? Working shorter hours? Compromising food and service quality?

ON KITCHEN CULTURE

When asked what it was like to work in a professional kitchen, Soriano resolved to give an answer that was as truthful as possible. What this turned out to be was a confession of a personal detail: 22 years ago, he was diagnosed with a panic disorder. “I panic for no reason at all; I hyperventilate. I’d get panic attacks in the kitchen.” 

It may seem difficult to reconcile this with the fact that it’s been more than a decade since Soriano started cooking in restaurants. But cooking was what he was good at; he simply loved to work with food. And though this may not seem to some as the most logical or practical explanation, it’s what has kept Soriano, despite bouts of panic, a devoted resident of the fraught restaurant kitchen. “Cooking is the best part. There are good things in the kitchen, maybe even more than bad ones. And sometimes it’s really just about how well you deal with the pressure.” 

Soriano’s case—particularly this seemingly contradictory relationship between his health and what he does [and continues to do] for a living—is too common to be deemed rare. It’s a truth derived from a widespread culture—one that has, for various reasons, encouraged the glorification of working long hours, the romanticization of exhaustion. “It’s something that we normally brag about: I stand up for 14 hours a day. It’s physically hard, but it’s fun,” Soriano says.

Statements like this confirm the chef stereotypes—but that’s beside the point. The message may not be in the fact of the long hours, but in how chefs like Soriano experience that fact, which can possibly explain why, besides a genuine love for food, they have found reasons to stay in the kitchen. The kind of relationship cooks form with their colleagues—forged in a very heated environment, and in a matter of intense, long hours—has a kind of high-stake, ride-or-die quality to it. 

“The kitchen isn’t always smiles and you don’t always like each other, but it is a great thing. It brings in the strays and the people who don’t have a full circle of friends and family,” says Oklava chef Selin Kiazim. Soriano himself has found a community in the kitchens he’s worked in, but, as a testament to the kind of intensity that pervades the workplace, the dynamics of some of the relationships he’s formed hasn’t been the most conducive for his mental well-being.

“People would call me psycho. ‘Hey psycho’ was how this one guy would said hi to me. I mean I’m sure he didn’t say it to hurt me. Had I told him that it was a sensitive thing, he probably would’ve hugged me. But it hit me hard. I decided to take a leave so I could go on psychiatric evaluation. I was scared of what people would say to me or think about me. Fortunately I had some friends who learned things because of what happened to me, but unfortunately, there were also some friends that when they learned that there was such a thing that happened to me, they avoided me,” Soriano says.

Though, again, this kind of culture may be too common as to be deemed particularly problematic, that doesn’t mean that it’s not liable to elicit any alarm. The British trade union Unite reported in a survey last year that because of long hours (and given the workplace culture of kitchens), poor mental well-being is common among chefs. The same survey also found that a sizeable percentage of chefs use alcohol to help them through a shift. Soriano says: “If the pressure got too bad and I felt really bad, a shot of some drink helped a lot.”)

These numbers, though from a foreign country, are reflective of some of the conditions that dictate how some local restaurant kitchens operate—perhaps in the same way that Soriano’s case helps convey the degree to which stressors in the kitchen could aggravate existing mental health issues.

CLOSING SHOP

It was clear what had to be done. Close the restaurant and lead a potentially less frenzied existence, halt operations and face the obvious facts: staff were stealing from the restaurant’s inventory; the restaurant was living off something a lot more like pride rather than skyrocketing sales or an inspired culinary vision. When it finally happened—when the place closed, and she finally had more time to really focus on what she wants—Anonymous felt better than she did in years. “I felt that I made the right decision. The bad feelings were at bay. My sleeping habits became normal after so many years,” she says.

“I couldn’t handle the stress of being in a restaurant. I couldn’t deal with it anymore. A lot of people were offering me money to open a restaurant. I turned them all down and told them na hindi ko na kaya na hindi ako yung magluluto, and I would worry whether there were customers or not. I wanted a simpler life. I wanted my sanity back. It’s easier when I’m dealing with less people.”

Before closing shop, Anonymous had spent much of her time working as the operations manager of a bakery café. She loved the job—probably more so than running her own restaurant, but as with Ortega, the stress got to her on certain days. She had been very irritable then, and slept in long periods during odd hours. But those two things began way before her managing stint—in fact they were two defining features she had even before she joined the restaurant industry.

There’s still a long way to go, clearly, as no official records that document the incidence of mental health problems in the restaurant industry exist; long, consecutive hours of working are still the norm in most kitchens, and, of course, there’s still the stigma that surrounds the matter. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to not do anything about it.

Bouts of sadness, a short temper, and an almost constant feeling of lethargy followed Anonymous for much of her adult life. These were, as she would later on discover, symptoms of a depressive disorder. A mix of personal adversities and the stress of working in a restaurant aggravated that. The latter proves that you don’t need to be holed up in the kitchen for hours to be subjected to the same kind of pressure and intensity. “I constantly worried about angry customers, about customer retention. I had problems like may naipit na kamay sa pintuan, may nadulas, may unidentified object in the food.”

Her breaking point came at a rather unlikely time. “I decided, on my birthday, to seek a psychiatrist.” She was put on medication then—she felt a lot better, like “a cloud had been lifted off me.”

Anonymous is now off medication, and doing what she loves most, which is cooking.

HELP ON THE WAY

“Gastronomy is the science of pain,” the late Anthony Bourdain wrote in Don’t Eat Before Reading This, the New Yorker essay that made his name in the food world. The piece was successful for many reasons, but it’s likely that the reason it resonated with so many people had to do with its exceptional honesty—for putting to light what were considerably sensitive topics at the time, including the typical chef’s unapologetic and accepting attitude towards and tendency to romanticize the stark realities of what it’s like to work in a restaurant.

Reading the piece again after Bourdain’s tragic death, it’s almost inevitable to not reassess the meanings of the conditions and experiences he had written about. Should we have read them as warning signs? But the more important questions here seems to be: After reading about these realities, what are we supposed to do? What’s the restaurant industry going to do about them?

The answer, though understandably complex and multifaceted, could in some way be distilled into a single word: help. The stories of Ortega, Anonynous, and Soriano—though perhaps not perfectly representative of the general state of chefs toiling away at kitchens—say something about how far providing and seeking out help can go. 

Ortega, who started seeing a psychiatrist after that dark period in his life, had found solace in cooking for himself and in relying on a support system.

“The therapy sessions helped a lot. You really have to seek help. Akala ko kakayanin ko mag-isa. The best decision I made was that I sought out help. You’ll get insights na may mga nakaranas na pala nung mga naranasan mo. Probably worse. Sabi nila sakin, sayang, wag kang susuko kasi ang dami mong alam gawin. I thought “Yeah, maybe I had that.’ So this is me continuing.”

There’s still a long way to go, clearly, as no official records that document the incidence of mental health problems in the restaurant industry exist; long, consecutive hours of working are still the norm in most kitchens, and, of course, there’s still the stigma that surrounds the matter. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to not do anything about it.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive all the tools and solutions entrepreneurs need to stay updated on the latest news in the industry

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.