Suicide in the Culinary Industry

May 11, 2016

The most recent death of Benoit Violier is a tragedy; it saddens me to think of it.  I grieve for his family, his staff, and his friends.  I did not personally know Chef Voilier, but I have known chefs that worked with him, all of which spoke fondly; I also know him to be an icon in our industry.  His suicide is a stark reminder of the rigors of our profession.  However, if we reduce his death to the simple ideas of “machismo kitchen culture”, or “pressures of international recognition and awards” we do a disservice to him, ourselves and our industry.  Suicide is a societal problem; it is not an issue that can be boiled down to simple cause and effect situations. It is the leading cause of death in several age demographics, many of which coincide with the “standard” chef.


The reduction of this topic can make it seem as if there is a single “snap” moment, when in fact there is underlying, enduring mental illness that is not talked about or addressed in the industry, and the pressures of the industry exacerbate these issues.  Part of the problem with pointing only to the machismo kitchen culture is it lays the blame on someone else and on this larger ethos that makes it feel hard to improve upon/take individual action.  What I think what we all can take away from these recent tragedies is that micro-interactions can help and exacerbate interactions.  


If you had asked me two years ago what my reaction would be to an iconic chef’s suicide, I honestly don’t know how I would have answered you.  Most likely I would have read the articles, compartmentalized the issue and gone on with my day.  I have learned that relationships make us who we are however, and my partner is a PhD student who researches mental health promotion and substance abuse prevention, as well as suicide prevention.  For this reason, I had a different reaction while reading the news surrounding Chef Violier’s death.  I grieved for the loss, but I also tried to understand the issue.  Suicide is complex; we should not try to fit it in to a neat box to make ourselves feel comfortable with the situation.  We have to embrace the uncomfortable nature of the issue we are dealing with, as well as understand that this issue cannot be normalized to the point we feel we don’t need to discuss it.  We should be comfortable with this embracement of the uncomfortable- we do this to ourselves daily: staff, product, customers, all of these variables have the opportunity to make us uncomfortable on any given day, yet we are equipped to deal with them.  Let’s use this situation as an opportunity to equip ourselves with a new set of skills that include open communication and understanding of our peers and then use that to affect broader societal change.

Chefs have become known as activists in the world wide community, but we have forgotten to nurture our own.  We are a culture that cares deeply about the projects and ideals we are passionate about, and are generous with our time and resources when it comes to supporting them.  We work with non-profits on what seems to be a daily basis, we take up causes we believe strongly in, most of which expectedly revolve around food, even when it seems our time is limited at best.  We are now confronted with an issue that transcends our industry and it falls to a culture such as ours to provide an example of how to grasp it.


Insecure, unsatisfied, alone, scared- these are all feelings I have had since opening Heirloom, two years ago at age 27.  These emotional states also came with feelings of elation, friendship, achievement, and pride, exemplifying how the culinary industry is at best, an emotional roller coaster.  The highs are breathtakingly high, and the lows seem to swallow you every time they roll in.  I can’t tell you that I have contemplated suicide, but I know it is a next door neighbor to doors that I have knocked on.   I have had moments of self-doubt, moments where I wondered what in the world I got myself in to, even moments when I just wanted it all to stop and I had no idea how to accomplish that.  


I believe we, as an industry, can relate to Benoit.  We don’t need to know an exact cause, or reason, to relate or feel empathy, because so often there isn’t one.  We do need to understand that it is natural to feel these rollercoaster emotions and that we are not alone in them, we can to communicate with each other, and use our community to strengthen ourselves.  This industry is a bear; it is hard every day and there is never a day off.  Just when you think you have everything covered, three more problems present themselves.  I know this to be the case at my small restaurant in Charlotte, NC.  I have also seen how the top kitchens in the industry operate and I know it doesn’t get easier as you climb the ladder.  The pressure is always present, however, is this different from the top level in any industry?  We deal with immediate reactions to our work, which can be jarring, and our jobs can expand to include a broad spectrum of variables. While these considerations are not unique to our industry, they would be difficult for anyone to deal with.  Even as we evolve as an industry, drug and alcohol abuse are still present and the correlation between them and suicide is clear.  However, I truly believe we as an industry are the best equipped to show that this is not a simple problem that can be fixed with a silver bullet, such as drug and alcohol treatment.  We have the opportunity to set a new normal, to say that it is ok to have these feelings, and that while you may feel alone, you most certainly are not.  


When actor Robin Williams committed suicide last year I saw an outpouring of support and grief, but I did not see a discussion of suicide. Hollywood, one of the largest industries in the world, and certainly the one with the largest captive audience was thrust onto the public health stage, the conversation involved discussions of his medical diagnosis, not simple blame of the culture of an industry.  The issue is difficult though; it is uncomfortable to discuss and everyone fears offending everyone else.  With the death of Chef Violier, the culinary industry finds itself on that same stage.  How can we avoid offending others?  What do we need in the conversation to avoid this?  Will we point to issues within our industry as likely causes, take a deep breath, resolve to “not let it happen to us” and move on, or will we be the example for society in these situations.  To understand that mental health is more complex than simple causes, and that suicide is a societal problem, a public health concern, and one that is continually presenting in our lifetime, we must learn how to confront it.  


Writer Kat Kinsman, editor-at-large of Tasting Table, has a project that encourages chefs to communicate about how the industry is individually affecting them to bring awareness to the prevalence of mental ill-health, and to foster camaraderie among those of us in the industry who need an outlet to discuss the pressure of this demanding lifestyle.  This project should be embraced, especially at a time such as this, as well as resources such as the national suicide hotline Communication is a confident, important first step in the right direction but it will take many more steps to reach a desirable outcome.


I don’t have the answers to this issue, I don’t even know if this industry or society as a whole has the answers.  I do know that we should use this to start a discussion, one in which we look at a range of topics that could be potential catalysts and we should not be fearful of what this might uncover.  We have always embraced evolution we strive for it daily with our food.  I truly believe that Chef Voilier would be telling us right now that this is our opportunity to evolve, to self-examine and come out better than we were before.  This is my wish for us all.

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