Mental Health in the Food Industry

by Jake Uitti

Restaurant life is hard. In such a hectic atmosphere, tempers can flare and palliatives can seem necessary. Chefs working over equally hot burners to create any number of dishes in a given night can feel the pressure to succeed moment to moment. But often this same surge for success can require an equally fervent release. And it’s this culinary roller coaster that can be increasingly addictive and potentially dangerous, says longtime Seattle chef Karen Nelson.

Nelson has worked in Seattle’s restaurant scene for over a decade, cooking at places like FareStart, London Plane, and Hitchcock. During that time, she’s seen the addictions and depression to which many of her fellow restaurant workers have fallen prey, conditions exacerbated by the rush of the professional kitchen lifestyle. So, after celebrated television chef and author Anthony Bourdain unexpectedly took his own life, Nelson knew she needed to do something help her comrades.


On Monday, Nelson hosted the first installment of her new series Industry Night: Mental Health. The event aims to bring together people in the food service industry to promote unity and positive steps toward mental health preservation, and was held in the basement of the Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church.

“We want to help give people who work in the service industry tools for coping with the high-stress job,” said Nelson. “We are a network of people who are constantly giving to other people. And that can be very draining.”

Nelson is the first to admit her idea for a regular get-together for food service workers is still in its developmental period, but the ambition and intention behind it areis fully formed.

“It’s still a kernel of an idea,” Nelson noted. “But creating a space for people in the industry to get together and connect and to not feel alone— – that’s very important. It’s heartbreaking when somebody gets to the point and feels like [suicide] is all that’s left for them.”

While Nelson’s “industry night” idea was sparked in part by Bourdain’s recent suicide, she said there are many in Seattle, and across the country, who work in the kitchen and deal with mental health issues, which often involve a great deal of substance abuse.

“I have a lot of empathy for people working in the industry who have families,” she says. “That is a whole extra pressure. I’m also not in my 20s— – I’m well beyond that age demographic.— Aand there’s a different set of issues that comes with being older in the industry.”

Post-shift, many in the industry turn to drugs and alcohol to facilitate a comedown and to get sleep, only to repeat the cycle again the following day, Nelson said. With this lifestyle comes repeated self-medication within a community that often can’t afford detox sessions or cognitive therapy.

There are many other challenges people in the service regularly industry face, too.

“The industry attracts people from all walks of life, whether they speak English or not, are educated or not,” said Hala Mana’o, a resident of South Seattle and a care engagement coordinator with the Washington non-profit organization, Big Table, which offers assistance to industry workers in need.

“The industry is open to folks who work hard. But with that, you’re going to get people who are struggling with some things that they don’t necessarily address on their own because they’re too busy making a living or caring for their family,” Mana’o continued.

Mana’o explained that a regular meet-up group could provide much-needed community for people in need of one.

“There does seem to be a high— – or at least a fairly significant number— – of folks in the industry that are dealing with some form of a mental health issue,” Mana’o explained. “Whether or not you heard about Anthony Bourdain, many in the industry know the feeling of being isolated or not having a greater community beyond their workplace that they can share their day with.”

And suicide, said Seattle chef Unika Noiel, is a real, underlying problem in the industry.

“We all know of it,” she said. “It’s just one of those dangers because the industry is so demanding.”

Nelson hopes to hold the next get-together at the Seattle Center in August.