A celebration and a conversation about mental health in the restaurant industry

On June 25, a group gathered on Victoria Row in Charlottetown for ‘Bourdain Day’. The gathering was both to honour Anthony Bourdain’s birthday and to open a conversation about mental health in the restaurant industry. Bourdain, a prolific chef, food writer, and TV personality tragically took his own life in Paris, France, June 8 of 2018, at the age of 61. 

Chef Ilona Daniel organized the event and opened the platform by introducing the speakers who included chef Irwin Mackinnon, president of the PEI Culinary Federation; Terry Nabuurs, chef and owner of The Wheelhouse and Terry’s Berries; and Randell Duguid, a counsellor for Holland College. 

To restaurant workers, cooks, and culinary students, Anthony Bourdain was one of us. He learned his craft, understood it, took a cold hard look at the industry we love and had the courage to speak to it. Mention him around Charlottetown and you get an instant reaction: from the travellers who changed the way they dine after watching No Reservations or The Layover to line cooks who may have seen him, that one time, walking down Queen Street. Food writers, including Daniel, cite him as an influence. 

One summer I was cooking at an Island restaurant and at the end of my shift I took my apron off and left the kitchen, only to be confronted with the otherworldly image of Bourdain sitting in the dining room. My mind flurried through all of the orders we had just sent out, settling on his table and how there’d been a snag that night with the order. He caught my eye with a sparkling look of “you’ll remember this.” And I have. His was an influence that inspired excellence, a curious mind, and a worldly humility. 

Bourdain spent years as executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan, before writing his first book ‘Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly’ in 2000. It is striking to both cooks and non-industry readers in how it un-romanticizes a restaurant worker’s life and gives a stark glance at its underpinnings of addiction and mental health. 

While cooking is incredible therapy, with recipes lending oneself to focus and creativity, it is becoming apparent the restaurant industry can be detrimental to one’s mental health. 

Cooks often see themselves as misfits. The pay is low, and the hours can be so demanding that job ads for cooks on PEI say things like: “Must work well with others. Our brigade is like a family”, putting a positive spin on the fact that holidays, family, and social events are often missed by those who take their career seriously. These hours, often opposite with a standard workday, take a toll on relationships and family units. 

The industry can foster mental health issues, addiction, and anxiety. The flip side to that is the adrenaline rush. Bourdain wrote, “I liked sitting at the bar afterwards and knowing I did good work. I liked going home feeling like I knew exactly how good I was. I knew my place in the world after I served three hundred meals and nothing came back. Yeah, there ain’t nothing like that.”

In fact, while 84% of restaurant workers experience depression, 74% rarely or never consider leaving the industry. Low wages mean many struggle to make ends meet and live a dignified life. Nabuurs suggested arming cooks with resources such as financial training on budgeting, and building credit, and access to mental health and suicide prevention resources.

Randell Duguid pointed out that depression can affect anyone. She spoke of the importance of shifting away from a mental health deficit, learning coping skills, and invited people to reach out for help, and not to judge others who do. Hopefully, she said, with more events like these, people will feel more compelled to speak openly about mental health and to use the Island Helping Tree as a resource for reaching out. 

Nabuurs closed the event with a challenge: “Take care of yourself and look after one another. No one should have to burn out or fade away.”

About Chanelle Doucette

Chanelle Doucette grew up in Tignish, PEI. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of Canada in 2011. Now a Red Seal Chef, she has worked at various restaurants in PEI as cook or pastry chef, including The Dundee Arms, and Red Water Rustic Grille in Charlottetown, and the Wheelhouse in Georgetown. She recently became the Executive Chef to PEI's Lieutenant Governor, the honourable Antoinette Perry.

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