Kitchens are cooking up a recipe for mental illness


By Olivia Lee
Medill Reports

It’s Saturday evening, and the tables are set. Servers are dressed in their finest suits. Chef Ryan McCaskey, owner of Acadia, a two-star Michelin restaurant, and his staff have spent all day prepping for tonight’s service. Every little detail has been planned out. Guests are greeted with a welcome drink, something to warm them up in the Chicago cold. Tonight, it’s a warm apple toddy, fused with thyme and brown butter. They sip while walking down the hallway from the entrance to the dining room.

“I literally timed how much liquid was in the cup and how long it takes to go from one point to the next, and by the time they sit down, where they are in that drink. They should be done with whatever is in that cup. Then service begins,” said McCaskey. He labeled this type of mentality as the “artist brain.” “It’s a creative mind that is searching for something that is close to perfection, but is not always attainable,” he explained.

Marissa Doctor, physician and leader of a local mental health support group for individuals in the service industry, described how this way of thinking can lead to depression, anxiety and substance-use disorders. “It’s horrific for mental health because you’re trying to obtain a goal that’s impossible. And it’s not like a goal over a long period of time, it’s a goal every day you step through the door,” she said.

Patrick Mulvaney, chef and restaurant owner in Sacramento, California, and founder of the I Got Your Back Project, a mental health advocacy group, said, “Our answer to mental health was always, ‘Go home, get back on the line, stop drinking or have a shot.’ None of those are appropriate.” He continued and said of those in the service industry, “What we do really well is make sure you are good. Your coffee is hot, your drink is cold, your steak is cooked right, your pasta is al dente, and we never turn that on ourselves.”

A study conducted in 2018 by Oregon Health and Science University reported that service workers across the U.S., including over 10 million individuals who work in the restaurant and hospitality industry, are more likely to experience mental illness than workers in other sectors. Mulvaney said this is related to the high pressure and stress of the service industry, requiring late nights and time away from family. Further research conducted by the university found that restaurant and hospitality workers have some of the lowest paying jobs. The study reported that employers offer as little as 29% of the minimum wage with few benefits, leaving employees with limited access to health care.

Chefs with Issues, a national mental health advocacy group for those in the service industry, has been conducting an ongoing survey that has gathered more than 2,000 responses from service industry workers since January 2016. According to the organization, when questioned about why there is little discussion of mental health, 57% of respondents said they felt like they were unable to talk to their coworkers. Of those, 68.6% said they didn’t want to be perceived as weak, and 54.1% said they didn’t want to be thought of as unstable.

Acadia owner and chef McCaskey, who recalled struggling with his own mental health, said, “We need to talk about [mental health]. We need to expose it in a much rawer form. I think that it has been glamorized a little bit and it has given people a pass to be destructive. Like, ‘We’re badass line cooks with tattoos and scars from burning ourselves, so it’s okay to down a bottle of whiskey after service every night.’”

After being impacted by the suicides of four colleagues, Mulvaney founded the I Got Your Back Project to answer a question he had been pondering. He asked, “How might we change the culture in our restaurant to be more forgiving, more compassionate, more open-minded and to help break the stigma that’s associated with talking about mental wellness or mental health issues?”

By piloting a mental health check-in system with staff and peer-to-peer support by those trained in mental health first aid, Mulvaney said he was able to provide the right resources to employees who were on the verge of crisis. However, Mulvaney also realized that by having unrealistic demands of perfection, he too was contributing to the negative climate of the industry. This led him to prioritize human connection and conversation. In doing so, Mulvaney changed the culture of his restaurant.

Women in the industry especially face unique struggles that can further impact their mental health, said Khitam Masoud, founder of Blessons for Women, a local nonprofit organization supporting those in the service industry. According to Masoud, women are often valued for their appearance, rather than their skill. “How does that fit with mental health?” she asked.

Wanda Sparks, a bartender at The Grill in the Alley, noticed this kind of sexism as well, saying, “It’s made me a lot more competitive, like I have to prove myself and [show] that I know what I’m doing.” Her mentality was, again, one of a desire to not only meet but exceed expectations and try to attain a potentially unattainable level of perfection.

In order to help women in similar situations, Blessons for Women seeks to empower those working in restaurants and hospitality by conducting skills training, wellness clinics and support circles. Sparks, who participated in one of the circles, recalled being able to talk openly about her experiences, making her feel safe and more secure. Sparks has since authored several books, one being a spoof on the service industry. When asked what drink she makes best, she laughed and said confidently, “A vodka martini, dirty and straight up.”

Chef McCaskey of Acadia restaurant provides a similar type of support to both men and women in his kitchen by offering mentorship and encouraging teamwork without yelling or throwing plates. McCaskey also extends the same level of compassion to himself. In doing so, he is able to shift his perceptive from one being driven by desire for perfection and Michelin stars to one being driven by desire to achieve his personal best. “It’s still super disappointing and defeating when I wasn’t the best I could be for a guest. It makes me angry, but it also motivates me to be better,” said McCaskey.

McCaskey recalled a recent dinner he served at an event in Turks and Caicos. He described everything as exquisite, except for one component of a sashimi dish. Instead of going down a dark path, he smiled and said, “I’ll be bothered for a few weeks, but I’ll move on. I’m also going to go back and make it again next year, and trust me, it’s going to be perfect.”

Photo at top: Chef Ryan McCaskey, owner of Acadia, a two-star Michelin restaurant in South Loop, talks about the current climate of mental health in the service industry. He openly discusses his own experiences and what is being done to help support others in need. (Olivia Lee/MEDILL)