When television personality and former chef Anthony Bourdain killed himself in June, Charles Ford, the general manager of a high-end restaurant in Chicago, took the news as a personal call to action: He would no longer be silent about his three suicide attempts.
“I don’t want to hide it anymore,” says Mr. Ford, 31, who says he slashed his wrists on three occasions between late 2015 and spring 2016. Workers with suicidal impulses and other emotional crises often hide their pain in his profession, Mr. Ford says. “We need to do everything we can to turn this around, and the first step is saying it out loud.”
Mr. Ford is one of many for whom Mr. Bourdain’s suicide was a reckoning with the dark side of the $800-billion restaurant business. Insiders have long worried privately about the lifestyle of people who work in the restaurant industry, which has one of the highest rates of illicit drug use and alcoholism and a tradition of masking mental-health struggles. A number of groups have begun exploring why the business has these problems and what might be done about them. The death of Mr. Bourdain—an idol for many in the culinary world—has given these efforts greater urgency.
Through Mr. Bourdain’s literary manager Kimberly Witherspoon, the late chef’s family declined to comment for this article.
The brutal nature of restaurant-kitchen culture is part of the problem, many in the industry say. Physical and emotional toughness is prized and workplace conventions like 40-hour workweeks, breaks and professional courtesy can be foreign concepts. At the same time, young people raised watching “Top Chef” and Food Network now enter the profession with high expectations—and debt loads—once rare in this largely blue-collar field.
Jessica Largey, 32, in September opened her own restaurant, Simone, in Los Angeles. Throughout her career, she has been on the receiving end of extreme behavior in kitchens and has also dished it out, she says. Years ago, in a rage, a chef threw a plate of food across the kitchen that crashed over her work station and ruined what she was preparing, she recalls. Working 12- to 16-hour days and insecure as a young chef, she herself yelled at colleagues who failed to meet her standards of perfection. “When I first became a chef, I was so stressed because I was so young,” she says. “My reaction was one of anger.”
Just over 15 million people—roughly 10% of the U.S. workforce—are employed in some part of the restaurant industry, according to the National Restaurant Association. The industry’s long hours, intense work, high stress and scarcity of employer-subsidized health insurance are all classic contributors to mental and behavioral health problems, says David Ballard, the head of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence.
Quantifying mental-health struggles is difficult. Many studies track diagnosed disorders, which means they only cover people who have sought professional treatment and likely had insurance to cover it, he notes. However, a growing body of studies and surveys point to greater-than-normal struggles in the restaurant business. Employees in accommodations and food services were found to have the highest illicit drug use compared with 18 other occupational sectors, broadly covering the U.S. workforce, in a study published in 2015 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. They had the third-highest heavy alcohol use, after miners and construction workers.
“We are dealing with an epidemic of mental illness in our industry,” says Cat Cora, a 51-year-old chef with nine restaurants around the country who has been a fixture of food television and magazines. Of Mr. Bourdain, she says, “He was the last person people thought would commit suicide.
Organizations from large trade groups to individual restaurateurs have launched efforts to support restaurant workers. In July, the National Restaurant Association started a health plan in partnership with UnitedHealthcare that offers medical and mental-health coverage. The American Culinary Federation, which has 14,800 members, rolled out a group health-insurance program for members for the first time this year, says Renee Brust, director of marketing and communications. Unilever Food Solutions, a unit of Unilever that serves the restaurant trade, in May started “FairKitchens,” an initiative aimed at changing the culture that includes a code of conduct for restaurants to sign onto.
When John Hinman, owner of Hinman’s Bakery in Denver, became a pastry chef in the mid-1990s, he learned through a tradition of apprenticeship. Many restaurant kitchens are run in a strict hierarchy where rising within a pyramid structure confers the right to dominate those beneath. “It’s brutal, the berating that goes on. You had to be tough. You had to be able to take it,” Mr. Hinman says.
The food industry often draws non-conformist, Type-A perfectionists attracted to the unusual hours and the camaraderie of a kitchen crew, he says. However, that spirit can lead to an unhealthy partying lifestyle. Mr. Hinman, a recovering alcoholic, in May co-founded a group called Culinary Hospitality Outreach & Wellness—CHOW, for short—which hosts weekly gatherings for industry members to talk about coping mechanisms and stress management.
“Drinking into oblivion traditionally was a badge of honor” in many restaurants, says Steve Palmer, founder of Indigo Road Restaurant Group, with 16 locations in the Southeast. Mr. Palmer was an alcoholic and cocaine addict for the first half of his career, until getting sober in 2001. “It was petrifying,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody who was sober in the restaurant business.”
In 2016, Mr. Palmer co-founded Ben’s Friends in Charleston, S.C., a group for restaurant workers to gather and talk about substance abuse. It is named for Ben Murray, a chef friend who killed himself that year after a long struggle with alcoholism, Mr. Palmer says. Ben’s Friends chapters have arisen in Raleigh, N.C., Richmond, Va., Atlanta and in Minneapolis, he says.
The food industry’s higher profile over the past decade, stoked by food-themed television programs, has helped increase professionalism, Ms. Largey says. At her new restaurant, she aims to provide manageable work schedules, promote civil behavior, and train new managers to be humane leaders. “None of the staff is allowed to drink at the restaurant,” she says.
On the other hand, young cooks’ heightened expectations don’t always take into account low wages or difficult labor, restaurateurs say. Dreams of fame and fortune have driven growth in culinary schools and programs and encouraged thousands of students to finance this education with debt.
Last year, 672 culinary programs were accredited by the ACF, compared with roughly 100 in 1998, Ms. Brust says. More than 39,000 students matriculated from two-year or four-year culinary degree programs accredited by the ACF last year. Yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts the creation of only 14,100 new chef and head-cook jobs by 2026. There will be 10 times as many “cook” jobs, but these pay half as much.
Restaurant cooks make a median wage of $12.10 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Culinary-school graduates are no exception, even at top-tier restaurants in expensive cities, a number of restaurateurs say. While some top chefs can earn six figures, the median annual wage for chefs and head cooks is $45,950, according to the BLS.
Jacob Funk, a sous chef at the Vig in Chicago, says that after graduating in 2014 from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he carried $65,000 of debt, with a $700 monthly payment. His first several line-cook positions, in Boston, Charleston and Chicago, paid between $10 and $14 an hour. To cover his cost of living, he worked overtime, and throughout his career has routinely worked 60- to 84-hours a week.
This summer, after spending many nights sleepless and finding himself trembling during his shift, terrified of making a mistake, he sought help from a therapist.
Mr. Ford, the Chicago general manager, says his suicide attempts happened at a time when his relationship with a girlfriend was ending and he felt very lonely. The stress of his first job as a general manager at a restaurant where 70- to 80-hour weeks were typical, added to his hopelessness.
After he cut his wrists for the second time, on a Saturday night, he got up the next morning and worked a 12-hour shift, he says. A third attempt prompted him to quit the job and take time off.
Mr. Ford says he wore long sleeves for two years and didn’t tell his co-workers or his family about his ordeal. Though he didn’t seek out professional help, a roommate who is a therapist provided support, and a new job as the general manager of S.K.Y. restaurant in Chicago makes him feel more positive, he says. He is in a new relationship and focuses on a healthy diet and getting enough sleep, he says.
“There are so many great things about the business, I’m good at it, and I love the people I work with,” Mr. Ford says. “It just happens to be so stressful.”
Write to Katy McLaughlin at email@example.com