Anxiety and addiction in the culinary underbelly

The death of chef and TV presenter, Anthony Bourdain, shocks the world but rekindles his influential account of the darkness of addiction and mental health inside the restaurant kitchen

Food adventurer: Anthony Bourdain was a TV sensation whose media career was launched by his book Kitchen Confidential. His suicide in Paris this week shocked fans and prompted renewed media attention into the lives of restaurant workers he chronicled in Kitchen Confidential
Food adventurer: Anthony Bourdain was a TV sensation whose media career was launched by his book Kitchen Confidential. His suicide in Paris this week shocked fans and prompted renewed media attention into the lives of restaurant workers he chronicled in Kitchen Confidential

Anthony Bourdain, the rock’n’roll chef whose globetrotting gave worldwide TV audiences a taste of far-flung cuisine, was perhaps seminal in opening up the grotty world of the line chef with his personal account in Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

“In America, the professional kitchen is the last refuge of the misfit… Admittedly, it’s a life that grinds you down. Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some fundamental way dysfunctional,” he wrote in a New Yorker piece in 1999 right before publishing Kitchen Confidential.

It was with this gritty description that Bourdain paid tribute to the world of restaurant workers and to the catering industry which welcomed within its folds the downtrodden, from immigrants to drop-outs seeking a trade, starting out as dishwashers and commis, as witnesses to a world that exists only to serve people who rarely get to have a peak behind the kitchen doors.

“It’s a place for people with bad pasts to find a new family. It’s a haven for foreigners – Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Chinese, Senegalese, Egyptians, Poles. In New York, the main linguistic spice is Spanish… you hear ‘Hey, baboso! Put some more brown jiz on the fire and check your meez before the sous comes back there and fucks you in the culo!’, which means ‘Please reduce some additional demi-glace, brother, and re-examine your mise en place, because the sous-chef is concerned about your state of readiness’,” was how Bourdian elegantly described the modern American restaurant kitchen.

Between the brutishness of Gordon Ramsay and Marco-Pierre White’s serial-killer stare, Bourdain oozed flair and confidence, the ease of which made him a welcome TV host. But his global recognition on television hosting Food Network’s A Cook’s Tour, Travel Channel’s No Reservations, and CNN’s Parts Unknown, gave audiences not just a food show, but an insight into marginalised communities, village eccentrics and mad geniuses who believed in food as the world’s social lubricant.

Behind it all was Bourdain’s own past with heroin addiction, and as he laid it down in the New Yorker, the hidden reality of restaurant kitchens and their stressed-out workers, eking out a living in a high-pressure environment working late hours.

“I’m also not sure if the lifestyle attracts people with mental health issues or if in itself, our job is conducive to psychological harm and substance abuse. What’s sure is that it’s common enough for us to take it for granted”

For years a light has started being shone on an industry-wide problem. A survey by British union Unite last year found that almost 25% of professional chefs in London were drinking to get through a shift, while 51% said they suffered from depression due to overwork.

“It’s not uncommon for chefs to suffer from mental health issues, we see it all the time,” says David Darmanin, who cut his teeth in the world-class Noma, in Denmark before packing up for London.

“Christmas last year saw some deaths and suicide attempts by people we know very closely. There’s a fair bit of pressure working the stoves, but it’s also good to put things into perspective: we’re not heart surgeons. I doubt it’s table 12 with the long list of weird dietary requirements that leads to the greater part of chefs to struggle with mental health,” Darmanin says, cataloguing the arduous reality of the kitchen chef.

“We do work dirty hours, and that might contribute. Even if we don’t clock the usual 60 or 70 hours a week – we’re still at work while customers are having fun and having fun while customers are sleeping.”

It’s a lifestyle, and an intensive one at that, says Tarragon’s chef-patron Marvin Gauci, whose success today sees him running six restaurants, two of which are in Budapest.

“It’s a lifestyle, and you’re either in or not,” Gauci says, reflecting on the gruelling workload he takes on as restaurateur. “Had I known what it would be like so many years ago, I might not have pushed myself to do this… but I’ve been inside a kitchen since the age of 13.”

Gauci then summarises the daily grind of the chef. “It’s not like you have a ‘normal’ life. You are serving people who are enjoying their night out, but you have these awkward hours. You have people who even find it hard to see their own families, and that gets to you.”

Topping it all up for Gauci, is the added burden of business responsibility.

“Dealing with public opinion is hard in itself. And if you don’t have a thick skin, and maybe even if you do… well at one point, you’re going to ask yourself, when will I be on ‘that’ verge? Because everyone gets to be a critic and a sommelier these days… so two days after serving somebody an oyster, they’re going to tell me they fell sick.”

Gauci too reiterates a truism Bourdain spoke about in his book. “90% of restaurants fail. It’s usually rich guys who think they can make this business work. But being a restaurateur means being the last one out, first one in… dealing with everybody and pretty much everything. That’s intense.”

In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain spoke about using cocaine, heroin, LSD, weed and mushrooms. “We were high all the time, sneaking off to the walk-in refrigerator at every opportunity to ‘conceptualise’. Hardly a decision was made without drugs. Cannabis, methaqualone, cocaine, LSD… and, increasingly, heroin, which we’d send a Spanish-speaking busboy over to Alphabet City to get,” he wrote, referring to his time cooking in a New York City restaurant in the 1980s.

Sounds off the hook. Gauci says that when he worked in Dublin, staff and line chefs did cocaine and smoked grass. “It was right there, done daily, on the workplace.” It’s a reality acknowledged by other chefs MaltaToday spoke to, who did not wish to be quoted. Bourdain’s sudden death brings this reality into perspective, because his frankness on the subject was something that never departed his TV show. In an episode of Parts Unknown in 2014 in Massachusetts he revisits his own addiction while discussing the heroin epidemic. Even while enjoying the glory of his TV career, Bourdain made sincerity his trademark.

“I don’t think the pressure contributes more than the lifestyle does,” David Darmanin says.

“I’m also not sure if the lifestyle attracts people with mental health issues or if in itself, our job is conducive to psychological harm and substance abuse.

“What is sure is that it’s common enough for us to take it for granted – and that’s what worries me most. We get shocked when a colleague or an inspiration like Bourdain lose their lives. We’re less shocked when people are exhibiting concerning behaviour or when they get into patterns – because it happens all the time.”

The national welfare agency Appogg runs a 24-hour support line on 179 or call the Crisis Resolution Centre on 9933-9966 for assistance, if you know someone who needs help

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