The world was shocked last week when renowned chef, Anthony Bourdain, took his own life.
Closer to home, Dave Lidstone exposes the darker side of the service industry on Prince Edward Island, where workers often turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the stress of their work. Dave and three chefs from some of the Island's top-calibre restaurants give brutally honest insight of the industry by talking about their own struggles and experiences.
A strong “kitchen push” in a busy restaurant can last anywhere from three to six hours of straight cooking on any given night of the week. And that’s only the middle part of your day. The hours that go into prepping and then cleaning up after that solid supper service takes the strongest of mental and physical attributes. Shit’s stressful, man. Body and mind.
Cooking for me was always a way to stay afloat while I was doing other shit. Going to university or playing in a band, or both for the most part. It was a flexible, creative job that had a bit of a badass attitude that I enjoyed. That and I could do relatively well at it once I was shown the method and process.
I also loved to party. What 20-something doesn’t? And cooks, like musicians, can rip with the best of ‘em. I’ve seen addictions, depression, anxiety, bipolar, and more addictions in my time working in kitchens for over the last decade.
I’ve seen cooks slip into the staff bathroom for a bump of cocaine and a warm Molson Cold Shot between prep jobs. I’ve seen a cook with teeth so bad from using drugs he used to spit pieces of them on the kitchen floor. I’ve seen my chef take the screen from the kitchen sink into the bathroom with him cause he just picked up a fresh, shiny rock of crack.
Fuckin’ gross. But it’s the reality.
Addictions come in all shapes and sizes in the kitchen and people get creative when they’re pushed to their mental and physical limits.
I’ve also been one of those cooks who takes a couple shots of tequila on a slow night with the sous chef and makes a couple of trips to the walk-in freezer with the other cooks to “do the paperwork.”
“Naw, see the fans take the smoke right outside, so no one will know,” they said.
I once worked with a guy who popped ecstasy pills like life-savers while he cooked. “The red ones have heroin in them,” he said with the wide-eyed innocence of a baby discovering it’s thumb for the first time.
I worked through breakfast chains, dive pubs, diners, casual-fine dining, and a couple more dive pubs in Halifax and then in Charlottetown. In my experience, the divier the place, the more common substance abuse is.
I’ve been a dishwasher, I’ve been a line-cook, a kitchen manager, a server, a bartender, a marketing co-coordinator for a couple weeks, and a kitchen supervisor. In each capacity I’ve maintained a healthy addiction. Functional at best, disconcerting and troubling to my co-workers at worst. Ya get good at hiding shit, and ya get better at making your addiction fit your life. Nothing trumps your drug of choice. Fucking nothing. And working in kitchens being able to work hungover or strung-out is a learned practice. Like most addicts in other jobs, I can only assume, as cooks aren’t the only addicts out there slugging it out through their day the best they can trying to make the voices shut their fucking mouths. Though I can’t imagine trying to be a math teacher with a coke addiction or a mechanic with an opiate problem.
Kitchens aren’t for everyone. You might be able to make a mean creme brûlée, but can ya brûlée six of ‘em, make three flatbreads, drop seven orders of fries in the two basket fryer, "temp" the medium, the rare, and med-well steaks in the oven, then turn around and tight-rope walk by the other cook going for the same oven door you just closed, slide back to your station and make three Caesar salads--one with no fucking bacon bits and only half the lettuce tossed in dressing, the other half diced and shipped in from fucking Moncton? That’s a taste of what working the garde manger station is like. That’s the beginners station- salads and other cold shit., Shit that gets deep-friend, and often dessert shit.
The mentality in the kitchen is to take the burn to save the cast iron skillet of fucking spinach dip from hitting the floor and pushing the cook time on the main course back ten minutes, making everyone else calibrate to your fuck-up.
“Fire the mains!”
Now the cook working pans, if they’re smart, already started to sear the salmon, bath the penne pasta, and at the very least has their haddock pan heating up so when the cook calling the tickets calls “fire” on the main courses, they’re ahead of the game.
Timing is everything on the pan station and once you run out of room on your available burners, you have to get creative and use other shit around the line to hold temperatures and keep the night moving forward. The top of the oven, the flattop, and even on top of another pan holding heat for another dish are places you can rest your pasta, salmon, and haddock while the mac and cheese browns in the oven and you turn around to the cutting board and help dress the burgers and club sandwiches before you can plate your fancier dishes.
It’s no wonder a lot of cooks struggle to maintain a healthy work/life balance. A lot of us struggle. A lot of us deal with the mental strife and the physical injuries in unhealthy ways. I talked to three cooks working in three different kitchens, with three different backgrounds, and asked them about their jobs, their struggles, and why they keep going back every day.
I met Sean Burton when I got hired at the Brickhouse in 2016. My first impression was that he was a hot-shot cook, but humble about it. He was always willing to help me out... and he hid his agitation towards my lack of culinary knowledge and my constant, “what goes in this again?” or “what’s the right temperature on a salmon, and follow up... is this salmon?”
I never once pegged him as an addict. He probably didn’t peg me as one either. It half blew my mind when he told me he used to snort blow everyday.
“Fuckin’ serious, man?”
Many don’t fully understand the lifestyle that often haunts the line-cook. Many don’t fall into this category and never will. But for a lot of us, after a service of getting cut, burned, and yelled at for five hours straight the after service beer or joint is the best part of the day.
Being overworked, underpaid and appreciated, and trying to maintain a social life can be a challenge in any job but it’s amplified in kitchens.
“Personally, working in a kitchen, the full-time work week is longer than other jobs comparatively,” says Burton, Sous Chef at the Dining Room at the Culinary Institute of Canada. “Summer on P.E.I. for example, you work 50, 60, 70 hours a week at a fully staffed place so your personal life suffers. You don’t have time to do your hobbies, your loved ones tend to...I mean, neglected sounds really bad, but, in a way you do neglect those relationships. It’s easy to neglect your personal health.”
Like many other cooks, Burton found ways of dealing with the fast-paced, high-intensity job with vices. Wonderful, sweet, sweet vices.
“For me, stimulants were my thing, so I pretty much gave up weed immediately. It wasn’t like in that moment all of a sudden I was a coke-head, it took a couple of years of being that weekend warrior so-to-speak. Once a week, once every couple of weeks. It was always on days off. I always made sure that I didn’t have anything to do. And it snuck up on me,” he says.
“After two-and-a-half years of gradually being like, ‘I can do it Friday and Saturday this week,’ to ‘oh, I don’t have to work until 2pm the next day, I can do it tonight,’ to all of a sudden I became reliant on it; I needed it to function,” he says. Working 50 hours a week, going out after service, partying til the sun comes up, sleeping for three hours and getting up to do it all again is something that’s considered normal in a lot of kitchens. It’s like the musician finishing a gig and going back to the hotel or another bar to unwind and release what they were holding in all fucking night while the audience, or patrons in this case, got to party for hours. You have to squeeze that release into a couple hours then face the day. Again.
Sadly, it is often the case that people show up for work hungover or still fucked up and then go out after work, not necessarily because of the job but because it makes them feel better about where they’re at in life. Maybe cooking isn’t a job of passion but one of necessity-- they’ve done it for so long, they just get stuck there. So, they celebrate a service gone right, and they bury a bad one.
“Some of the best parts are getting to be creative, never becoming bored and stagnant, there is and always will be something more to learn,” says Hop Yard cook, Alyssa Dignard, another Red Sealed Chef. “Working your way through a dinner service where you think there will be no end, tirelessly running, trying to do your best and then all of a sudden four hours have past and the kitchen is quiet, no more tickets are up, everyone is fed and the sense of accomplishment with you and your crew, for me is the best.”
Them’s the good parts...
The bad side, Dignard says, is the thankless work done by a small staff, burned and sweaty from making the final meal of the day.
“If you do something right, no one will ever know, but the second you do something wrong... and you see that server walking back with a plate, you know you're in for it. Not to mention long hours, working holidays, and missing family functions.” It doesn’t help you’re getting paid in second-rate shelled peanuts either. Ya know, the ones that are empty on the inside or the mutant three-chambered ones that nobody wants.
Like Burton, Dignard has seen many cooks cope with culinary life in an unbalanced way. Missing birthdays, family fun, and Christmas (again) all takes a mental toll. What’s open at 11pm on Wednesday night: any bar ya want... and your connection, hopefully.
“If we get those nights off there will be no one to cook for you and your family. We miss out on a lot of things other people take for granted and I think that adds to the issues some cooks have... so when the restaurant is finally closed what do you do? You sit and drink with your other family... The people you spend 99% of your life with.”
I’ve shared the line with too many cooks to count and I still stay in touch with most of them. The bond you form going to war night after night with other people is like super-glued fingers. It’s tight. It’s sealed. And it’s a little worrisome at times.
I know at any job you're going to find addicts, kiss-asses, arseholes with hearts of gold, yadda, yadda, yadda... but I'm tryin’ to shine a heat-lamp light on just how seedy and defeating it can be working a 14 hour day on the same two feet ya worked a 12 hour day six hours ago on.
Another fucking day of two meal services, prepping desserts a la carte, clearing the dish-pit because the dishwasher called in sick, modifying a gluten and taste allergy for the 15-top table of yuppie suit-dummies and trying to smile through the entire deal. That, on top of watching a 19 year old server fumble through a three hour shift and moonwalk out the front door with more money than you'll get that day is so fucking gut-wrenching. But it’s something passionate cooks accept and push passed.
“It’s hard to watch, for sure, the initial thought is, ‘oh, you worked a third of the time I did and you made three times as much as I did,’ and sometimes that’s true,” says Burton, currently five years into his recovery from alcohol and cocaine. “For me, I justify that because I love what I do.”
“Kitchen life can be really healthy if it comes from a place of passion and love and really caring about what you do, but because of all that, and you have people that are so passionate in a business where profit margins are so low it’s easy for people to work themselves more than they’re getting recognized for or getting payment for. It’s not uncommon for places to make you waive your overtime rights, which is illegal, but they still do it anyway. And the alternative is that you can’t work there (if you don’t comply),” Burton continues, adding that at a previous job at a highly reputable kitchen with a revered Chef, he was shocked to find out his shift that was on the schedule to start at 1pm actually started at 11am. The cooks knew that in order for service to run efficiently they had to be there and work off the clock for two hours. It was expected. It was the norm. I may be wrong but few electricians start their day by giving their employer two free hours of their time.
Now, I’m not a fuckin’ idiot, I know that one isn’t to blame for the other. The kitchen is not to blame for the addict. But one does lend a hand to the other. Addiction and mental health are becoming increasingly more topical conversations in many workplaces. That’s good. Not great. The problem, like most, is at the root.
“Addiction doesn’t discriminate against who it picks,” Burton says. “Male, female, age, and sure it’s easy to say that younger cooks with a lower wage and less life experience party a little bit more. I think that’s a safe thing to say about young people in general, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t happen to older people and in other jobs too. I’ve seen it in people in management positions, I’ve seen it in dishwashers, I’ve seen it in cooks, I’ve seen it in servers.”
As have I. No one is special when it comes to addiction. That sneaky, cunning, conniving little bastard will get you no matter where you hang your hat.
“I think it’s really hard (for chefs or cooks to approach a co-worker about their addiction) because at the end of the day it’s still a professional relationship and I think a lot of people believe that it’s too personal of a subject to breech with somebody, especially if their job performance hasn’t suffered.
“And I think that’s the sad part,” he explains. “You know, I’ve watched it happen so much. So-and-so is still showing up, they’re still getting the job done and you know they’re not treating themselves the right way, they’re not making healthy choices and that there’s obviously some form of addiction problem there, but it’s easy to turn a blind eye. I think it happens more often than not because people get caught up in worrying too much about the business and forget what they’re overlooking is a human being that’s in trouble.”
Talking about addiction, depression, and other mental illnesses is obviously easier said than done, no matter what job you hold. Burton says things are getting better in the culinary world but with the Rockstar image of the industry it’s easy to get swept away with the floor fries.
In my time, I’ve reached out to other cooks and chefs and was met with varying answers.
“Make better choices.”
“Don’t go out after work.”
“Drink a Gatorade and some coffee and get your shit together.”
But when I asked Sean Burton for some help, we sat down and had coffee and talked like vulnerable classmates about my pain, his pain, and both of us walked away from that conversation a little wiser, and in turn, happier for having had it. He even went as far to walk me to an AA meeting and sat beside me for the entire hour. That’s how ya help a fellow cook, friend, and real, live human.
Celebrity Chefs and the TV are great places where the glorification, admiration, and promotion of living fast and having fun doing it is the same false idle-ship that can accompany a rock ‘n roll musician. The reality is that most people don’t live that way and most work hard with a drive and conviction for what they’re creating, not just looking to get silly after service.
Case in point, the late, very great, Anthony Bourdain. He was at the top of his game, and still couldn’t escape the mental anguish that taunted, haunted, and ultimately took his life.
“Me, a recovering alcoholic, booze was my poison,” says Auston Langley, First-Cook at Fishbones Oyster Bar. “It doesn’t really matter where it is, somebody will have an addictive personality and sometimes that person is the stigma of the group. Everybody, I believe, has a problem it’s just how public they are about it.”
Langley has been in the industry for 20 years now and in the early days he ripped and roared with the best of ‘em. That said, it took it’s toll on his body and like, Burton, he sought help and has since been straight-laced and clear-eyed.
Even writing this makes me worry I’m helping to glorify the ‘work hard, play hard’ image young cooks and people in general stick around for.
It's a tough walk to hit a positive, healthy stride with but what people need to understand is that the mental illness was likely there to begin with and the workload and normalities of the after service bar stool leads many cooks astray, thinking that ‘that’s just what we do.’ It isn’t what most do.
“It’s there to begin with,” Langley explains. “However, yes this job does involve a very high level of stress, as would my dad going to a business meeting and sitting down at a board-room table, yes, the conversation might be stressed but there’s no physicality in it, there’s no fire, there’s no sharp objects, there’s no things you can kill yourself with,” Langley explains. “Stress being the one thing that if it is there, maybe to stress relieve, some people tend to dabble in something, but it’s there regardless.”
What all cooks need to remember is to talk. Even if it means looking ‘weak’ in the eyes of co-workers. You will get stronger for asking and venting. I promise.
You’re likely not alone and odds are the person you’re venting to has the same or has dealt with another person with the same problems. The image of the hashtag ChefLife is foolish and it’s one only cooks who aren’t cut out for the career fall into willingly.
Addiction will get you no matter what if you’re predisposed to it. And even if you’re not it can still get ya. So do yourself a favour and concentrate on making your Mornay sauce better, showing up a few minutes earlier for your shift, and doing everything you can for the person beside you on that line.
Cooks bear a very large stress burden in a highly under-appreciated trade and without the proper coping skills, mental health outlets to reach out to, and co-workers willing to help, the stereotypical drunken line-cook will live on... quietly, as you sleep with a full belly.