These Chefs Are Turning Grief Into Growth
Loss can exacerbate mental health issues, but it can also enable positive changeLayla Khoury-Hanold
September 16, 2020
Our industry is in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has already permanently shuttered more than one percent of restaurants, forced millions into unemployment, and left chefs, owners, and workers struggling to imagine what the future looks like in the near and long-term. As states re-open and the industry looks to rebuild, we're sharing stories from the front lines of businesses reacting and adapting to this new landscape. In the second part of her exploration of the pandemic's impacts on mental health in the restaurant industry (read the first part here), Layla Khoury-Hanold digs into weight of grief for chef/owners, and how for some, this pervasive sense of loss can promote change for themselves and their businesses.
America is grieving. Amidst a global pandemic and protests against racial injustice, the burden of loss has taken a toll on our collective psyche. The restaurant industry is grieving, too. It remains the hardest hit by COVID-19 job losses for the sixth consecutive month; without federal aid, 85 percent of restaurants could close permanently.
Simply running a restaurant is stressful, but since March chef/owners have also had to balance maintaining a viable business with staff and public safety. The daily weight of stress, compounded with loss—of lives, control, livelihood, and identity—has mental health impacts we’re just beginning to understand.
According to August 2020 results from Mental Health America’s (MHA) online screening program, among people who chose “grief or loss of someone or something” as a top contributing factor to their mental health, 85 percent of anxiety screeners scored for moderate to severe anxiety, and 90 percent of depression screeners scored for moderate to severe depression.1
Yet even with their businesses in survival mode, some chefs are finding that engaging with grief offers opportunities for positive change—for both individual mental health and broader industry culture.
“I imagine that chefs view control as a benefit that’s helped them run a tight ship,” says Theresa Nguyen, MHA’s chief program officer, VP of Research and Innovation, “But when you have no control, the uncertainty is overwhelmingly stressful."
For many chefs, the struggle to provide staff guidance only intensifies the loss of control.
“Everyone wants to know what the answer is and you get tired of saying ‘I don’t know’ a hundred ways,” says Patrick Mulvaney, chef/owner of Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento, California and an alum of JBF’s Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. “It’s a mental health drain.”
And with independent restaurants continuing to close, that uncertainty looms larger still.
“What if [my restaurants] don’t survive?” says James Beard Award winner Nina Compton, chef/owner of Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans. “A lot of us are trying to be hopeful, but when you see major restaurants that have been around for 20-plus years closing, it sends panic through the industry.”
That sense of loss, actual or anticipated, underscores the industry’s collective grief.
"When you grieve, you need time and space to heal. None of that’s happening because of the scale of problems related to the coronavirus,” MHA’s Nguyen says. “You’re grieving the loss of a restaurant: it’s your livelihood, your art, communal space for your workers and patrons, your fellowship.”
This is weighing on Mulvaney as he anticipates dwindling outdoor dining. “What [are] our options? It’s scary because you’re a chef and you promised people meaningful employment,” he says. “Now you have to recalculate if that promise is one that you can keep. And one for your family—my family survives because of the restaurant. And then me; it’s what I’ve done for 35 years.”
This limbo, Nguyen explains, initially increases anxiety, then depression when it feels like no solutions exist.
For Hardette Harris, chef/owner of Us Up North in Shreveport, Louisiana, limbo defines her operating principle: “[Every day] you’ve got to have a plan B. You have to think, ‘what if this doesn’t work?’”
If Us Up North closes, Harris is concerned not just for herself and her staff, but for the loss of the Northern Louisiana foodways that inspired her restaurant. Recipes like her grandmother’s purple hull peas are documented in Adrian Miller’s Beard Award–winning cookbook Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. But she worries that these traditions may disappear without a platform to preserve them.
These times have also called for increased sensitivity toward employees’ well-being, including accommodating last-minute schedule changes, providing adequate PPE, and enforcing safety protocols.
“There’s only so much you can do [to] make sure everyone is okay. But you neglect yourself,” Harris says.
The hospitality industry is all about serving others, so prioritizing oneself represents a radical shift. Harris is looking to change her habits by cooking nourishing meals for herself and journaling.
This kind of transformation speaks to the possibility of “post-traumatic growth.” The theory, developed in the mid-1990s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D., and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D., suggests that people can achieve positive personal growth by confronting the core beliefs challenged by trauma or adversity. Their Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory evaluates individual change by looking for positive responses in five areas: appreciation of life, relationships with others, new possibilities in life, personal strength, and spiritual change.2
Perhaps there is hope in the wake of our collective trauma.
Mulvaney has experienced this before. In 2018, the Sacramento hospitality industry lost at least 12 people to suicide and other mental health conditions. “It ended up giving us a gift,” he says. “That gift was that our community…viscerally understands the pain that comes with mental health challenges.”
“We didn’t care about anyone seeing us crying" at the memorial for his friend and former colleague, chef Noah Zonca, Mulvaney says. "It meant that people younger than us saw us reacting [openly]. [It was] us saying, ‘it’s okay not to be okay.’”
This premise inspired Mulvaney and his wife and co-owner, Bobbin, to found I Got Your Back (IGYB), a program that gives staff the tools to identify and talk about mental health issues in a safe environment. (The James Beard Foundation is an IGYB partner.)
When California first shut down restaurants, Mulvaney’s management team proactively checked on staff, including him. It was the first time he had seen his depression coming and could cope more effectively, which included finding comfort in cooking on the line again.
For Compton, this time has allowed her to reassess industry standards.
“[Chefs] are always the martyrs: ‘Look at me, I worked 18 hours and haven’t had a day off in weeks,’” she says. “I look at the pandemic as way of shaking the industry up in a sense of ‘we need to slow down.’”
She’s traded her 9:00 A.M.–to-close shift for one that starts at 1:00 P.M., allowing for morning coffee or gardening. “I’m pushing myself to have that work-life balance. [Then] it becomes easier for everybody else in the company to follow suit,” she says. “We as an industry have to push for that.”
Layla Khoury-Hanold is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Food Network, Saveur, and Refinery29, and in the Chicago Tribune. Follow her on Instagram @words_with_layla or on Twitter @words_withlayla.
1. Since April, MHA has conducted an online mental health screening and asked people to identify their main concerns with the question: “Think about your mental health test. What are the main things contributing to your mental health problems right now? Choose up to 3,” with options including coronavirus, current events, financial problems, past trauma, and grief or loss of someone or something. In August, 85% of anxiety screeners who chose grief or loss as one of their main concerns scored for moderate to severe anxiety, and 90% of depression screeners who chose it scored for moderate to severe depression.
2. American Psychological Association: apa.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma.