In The Weeds: Creating a culture of self-care in the restaurant industry

Young Joni employees and patrons during a weekday dinner rush // Photo by Daniel Murphy

A weekday dinner rush at Young Joni // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Several years ago, chef J.D. Fratzke went missing from family photos. Juggling his role as co-owner and chef at The Strip Club Meat & Fish in St. Paul and opening a new venture, Saint Dinette, meant he was rarely at home with his wife and his daughter. Instead, he’d arrive at Strip Club around 11am, answer emails, do ordering, set up his saute station, get slammed with tickets until it was time to close, and clean up.

Back at home in the wee hours of the morning, Fratzke would prepare a sandwich and open a bottle of wine. Maybe he’d make another sandwich. Maybe he’d finish off the bottle of wine. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter slept.

His wife was “pissed” at him because they hadn’t had a real conversation in weeks and he’d only spent four hours with his daughter over the past 10 days. Despite his success, he was dogged by feelings of inadequacy and overwhelmed with hopelessness. He needed someone to talk to, but didn’t want to burden his wife.

“It becomes this cycle that you don’t get out of. It’s debilitating,” he says. “I lost perspective on so many things doing that same thing every day. I had four walls at home and I had four walls at work and I would go back and forth between these two.”

Just as Saint Dinette was close to opening, Fratzke’s mother-in-law died. It was a two-week process that required his wife be in Wisconsin. Fratzke, unable to take time off to comfort her in her grief, ended up dragging his daughter to meetings with colleagues to argue about linens, lighting, and the HVAC system.

By the time Saint Dinette opened, “Cooking became hard for me for the first time in my life,” he says. Writing menus, which used to feel like poetry, was a chore. Setting up his station every day was agonizing. “I remember standing in front of the line, seeing everybody being so intense about all these things, and being like, ‘What is the fucking point?’”

Feelings like Fratzke’s are commonplace among chefs and restaurant workers, though each person’s experience is unique and not everyone suffers from diagnosed depression. Chef Jorge Guzman (formerly of Brewer’s Table at Surly) suffered a persistent and pervasive unhappiness. Chef Steven Brown (of Tilia and St. Genevieve) felt that work made him physically ill and frequently took refuge in bed.

The environment in which chefs and restaurant employees toil is not exactly conducive to mental well-being. Chefs and restaurant employees work when the rest of the world plays, sleep when the rest of the world works, and have little time for personal lives or passions.

When chef Stewart Woodman was coming up through the ranks, the expectation was that “the chef’s life has to be this kind of martyrdom. You’re not going to have a family. You’re not going to have a wife and kids,” he says. “You just come to work, shut your mouth, and do your job.”

Brown calls it “living backwards.” He used to be too wired after his 12-hour shifts to sleep right away, so he’d go home, make a pot of coffee, complete the New York Times crossword puzzle, walk his dog, and fall into bed at 6am. He slept until it was time to get up and do it all again. “Without realizing it, you just fall into that routine,” he says. “Your life starts to really condense.”

“I had engrossed myself in working and that’s all I did. I never took time for myself. I think a lot of us do that in the industry; we’re so hell-bent on wanting to win a James Beard Award and being the next best chef.”

– Chef Jorge Guzman

For 10 years, Guzman only saw his then-wife on Sundays. “It wasn’t enough. You need companionship and you need love and touch and you need to spend time with the person you love,” he says. “I had engrossed myself in working and that’s all I did. I never took time for myself. I think a lot of us do that in the industry; we’re so hell-bent on wanting to win a James Beard Award and being the next best chef.”

“Work hard, play hard” is the motto of kitchen culture. It’s an ethos that attracts adrenaline junkies who thrive in the competitive and deadline-driven work environment where standards are high and praise is rare. Kitchens tend to be loud, hot, crowded, often windowless spaces. “You’re in a cage, so to speak. You have very little control,” Brown says.

The physical demands and stress of the job take their toll, and it’s industry standard to self-medicate the pain away with after-shift drinks or drugs, both rampant and readily available in the hospitality industry. Those substances only compound mental health issues.

“Where there is drug addiction and alcoholism, the most heinous behaviors come along for the ride,” says chef Andrew Zimmern, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict with 26 years of sobriety.

Fratzke and Guzman both tried therapy. Woodman, who has not suffered from depression but from trauma issues, has gone through therapy as well.  “I’m a survivor of childhood abuse and I don’t think I’d have gotten anywhere in my career if I didn’t spend a great deal of time with psychologists working through those issues,” Woodman says.

Even if chefs and restaurant workers manage to acknowledge that they need help, insurance is a huge hurdle. Those who have coverage are usually limited to in-network therapists, and it can take a long time to find the right fit. Those on Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare may not find a therapist at all because providers are reluctant to accept those kinds of coverage due to low compensation rates.

Guzman found that a life coach was more helpful than a therapist. The life coach helped Guzman set goals and find his direction through homework assignments. That said, he paid for those services completely out-of-pocket. “The amount of money I pay to see the guy I see is astronomical,” he admits. “I can’t afford it but it’s worth it.”

Unpredictable schedules in the hospitality industry make establishing a client-therapist relationship difficult. As many hospitality workers don’t have paid days off, they either have to sacrifice shifts (and subsequent income) or suffer the consequences of making schedule change requests.

“There’s a lot of punitive, subtle ways that management kind of punishes people who end up taking time off,” says Erin Hoffman, a licensed marriage and family therapist. She entered the service industry at age 14 and worked as a waitress, cook, and manager prior to her psychology studies. “People are afraid of taking time off because they’ll end up losing good shifts.”

Chef Nalini Mehta teaches cooking classes rooted in Ayurveda, a sister practice to yoga that prescribes diets based on an individual’s body type (or dosha). Through a James Beard Foundation scholarship, she started the Happy Chef program, which teaches hospitality workers meditation and breathing techniques in addition to providing a forum for discussion. Mehta partnered with the Bartmann Group to offer free, 45-minute sessions for anyone in the industry every Monday at The Bird. “It’s amazing when they do it, but there’s a lot of anxiety to even get there,” Mehta admits.

Maintaining inner balance through meditation is rough in a  crash-and-burn kitchen culture, but once learned, Mehta says it’s like riding a bike. And unlike counseling, which requires another person’s participation, an appointment, and payment, meditation is available anytime, anywhere, free of charge.

Fratzke, a Buddhist since age 19, turns to meditation when malaise seeps into his life. “It helps me stay away from bad choices and self-medication. It makes me feel like the person I really am,” he says.

Physical activity is also a popular self-care strategy among these chefs, from running to kayaking to yoga. “Instead of sitting and wallowing in what your thoughts are, I always think it’s best to keep moving,” Guzman says.

Medication does not seem to be a popular treatment option among this crowd. Brown tried Zoloft and says, “I definitely felt different. But I didn’t feel like I was myself. It felt kind of fake. Everything was awesome.” Other brands of antidepressants incur side-effects detrimental to kitchen work like shakiness, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, and blurred vision. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may even worsen suicidal thoughts. In his new book “Lost Connections,” New York Times bestselling author Johann Hari details how the science behind antidepressants is suspect and that medication is often less effective in easing depression than lifestyle changes, community involvement, and meaningful work. “You are not suffering from a chemical imbalance in your brain,” he writes. “You are suffering from a social and spiritual imbalance in how we live.”

Several chefs suggested embracing the melancholy when it descends rather than shoving it down with alcohol or battling to cook through it. “Sometimes you have to be sad,” Guzman says. “Don’t try to fight it. Live in it. And wait for it to pass.”

Change is afoot in the hospitality industry. It’s moving away from the black sheep occupation, no longer a last resort career for itinerant populations or ex-cons. The pirate ship milieu is sinking. And it’s about time. As Guzman says, the aggressive, macho, “fuck this, fuck that” culture is detrimental to mental health. “That’s not an environment you want to be in. You want to be in an environment that coaches and supports and nurtures people,” he says.

In Fratzke’s new front-of-house role at Bar Brigade, he’s more of a mentor than a drill sergeant. “Don’t be what happened to you. Be the person you wish you would’ve had,” is his approach to leadership. He also believes exploitation of management needs to end. Owners shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re “stealing from the company” if they take a mental health day. As he says, “The essence of hospitality is helping someone celebrate their life. How can you do that if you don’t know how to celebrate your own?”

Some restaurants, like Bar Brigade, limit workers’ hours to encourage lives outside of work, but Brown is hesitant to place restrictions on employees’ schedules at Tilia. Flexibility is crucial for students as well as single parents, who may only be able to work certain days due to custody schedules or childcare availability. For them, working a “double” (which often involves two shorter shifts with a break in-between) on their kid-free days can be the only way to make ends meet.

“The essence of hospitality is helping someone celebrate their life. How can you do that if you don’t know how to celebrate your own?”

– J.D. Fratzke

Zimmern emphasizes a caring, loving ecosystem at his businesses. At the offices that house his hospitality company Passport, production company Intuitive Content, and brand management company Food Works, employees have access to relaxation rooms and portable speakers with iPads featuring music and meditation apps. Coworkers cook for each other in the on-site kitchens and participate in team-oriented activities.

“A lot of people think if you work a 15-hour shift and then you all slap each other’s backs and throw down a couple of shots of tequila together and walk out the door, that that somehow makes your food better or your business better. That has absolutely nothing to do with it. There are lots of other ways that you can get esprit de corps and a sense of team established in your business than doing it by overworking people and rewarding them with alcohol,” Zimmern says.

Hoffman would like to see restaurants establish employee assistance programs so employees can have confidential conversations with someone who isn’t their boss. Brown would like to see what effect higher wages would have on the mental health of employees, citing a Princeton University study that “life evaluation” rose in tandem with income up to $75,000 annually. Another radical idea: hire more women for senior and management positions. Two of Zimmern’s most senior employees are women. “That’s been very helpful—taking some of the testosterone out of our company.”

All the chefs interviewed for this piece agreed: talking about mental illness is the first step to eradicating the stigma surrounding it and seeking help. “You don’t have to suffer in silence,” Woodman says. “You’re not alone.”

Editor’s Note: The experiences discussed in this article are solely those of the individuals. No two people are affected the same way by depression and there is no “one-size-fits-all” treatment. If you are struggling with mental health issues, consult a healthcare professional. Find more resources at the National Institute of Mental Health’s website,