"Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some fundamental way dysfunctional," Anthony Bourdain wrote in 1999, in the New Yorker piece that would lead to his magnum opus Kitchen Confidential. He proclaimed the professional kitchen "the last true refuge of the misfit," and while many would argue that still holds true nearly two decades later, even now there pervades an unfortunate double standard in which the sort of so-called dysfunction that often drives people toward cooking as a profession is still too heavily stigmatized to talk about.
One woman is on a quest to change that: Kat Kinsman, the food writer formerly of CNN and current editor-at-large of Tasting Table, has just launched a project she’s calling Chefs With Issues, dedicated to destigmatizing mental illness in the culinary industry and helping those affected by it get the help they otherwise can't (or won't).
"For a profession that's so much about sensual joy and physical satisfaction, it's hard as hell on the psyche."
"For a profession that’s so much about sensual joy and physical satisfaction for the end consumer, it’s hard as hell on the psyche," Kinsman writes in an introductory blog entry on the site. Take a high-stress environment, add a heavy dose of notoriously long hours and a dash of drugs and alcohol, and you have a recipe for some serious mental health issues — whether they're pre-existing or brought on by the stress of the job.
And in the traditionally male-dominated culinary industry where machismo still largely reigns supreme, any displays of so-called weaknesses in professional kitchens have a tendency to be exploited. "Seeking help for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD, addiction, not only is it a financial impossibility for people who often don’t even have access to basic healthcare — let alone mental healthcare — it’s stigmatized," Kinsman writes. "We’re stopping each other from seeking help, and that’s got to change."
Kinsman has written about her own depression and anxiety and spoken about it on television, even writing a book about her experiences (called Hi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves, it’s slated to be released in May). As she became more vocal about her own mental health, Kinsman says she found that more and more chefs felt comfortable enough to confide in her about their own struggles: "I started to realize, it's rampant in the industry," she tells Eater. "Eventually, the volume got to me and I just decided, it's time to talk about it." She cites Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin and Saveur founding editor/cookbook author Dorothy Kalins as "huge inspirations" for encouraging her to launch the project.
"People are afraid of being thought of as crazy. They're afraid of being seen as weak, afraid of being bullied."
Kinsman recognizes that not everyone has the luxury of speaking so freely about such issues. "I realize not everybody can do that, and that's who I’m fighting for," she tells Eater. "As more people who are thought of as established or successful or notable in their field can stand up and say 'Look, I deal with these issues,' it’s going to make it easier for everybody else."
The response to the Chefs With Issues mission has been measuredly robust so far: Less than 24 hours after the site’s launch, Kinsman says she’s already received around 100 responses to the mental health survey aimed at food professionals, and scores of emails and DMs about the project. "Reading through these survey responses, I’m seeing that people are afraid of being thought of as crazy. They’re afraid of being seen as weak, afraid of being bullied," she tells Eater.
In a blog entry reflecting on the early responses to the survey, she notes that nearly half of all the respondents "say they have remained completely silent about what they’re going through" — and two-thirds say they self-medicate with alcohol. (Suddenly, those ubiquitous post-shift beer-and-a-shot sessions seem a little less lighthearted.) "I’m not trying to sanitize the kitchen, I'm not trying to dampen down kitchen culture," Kinsman says. "I'm not here to enforce an agenda. I'm here to say, look, if you need any help, if you just need solidarity, if you just need resources, it’s here."
While she's not yet certain what the ultimate goal is for Chefs With Issues, for now she seems content to simply get people talking: "Just seeing that there are other people out there that are going through the same thing, once you feel less isolated that’s a great thing," she says. And while she'll be the first to admit that she's "not a policy person," Kinsman is hopeful that by opening up the lines of communication about an issue that so often gets swept under the rug, she'll be able to help ensure that chefs who are hurting get the care they need.