Mind over menu: A look at mental health in the food and beverage industry

Mental health and substance abuse have long been ignored in the hospitality industry. We speak to the chefs and bartenders that are bringing awareness to the issue.

Mental health non-profit, Not 9 to 5

Seven years ago, Ariel Coplan was working his first head chef job at Nyood, the now-defunct restaurant on Queen West. Business was relatively slow and they often didn’t have enough employees to staff their brunch shift. So, despite working the dinner service, Coplan had to step in. “I worked from nine in the morning on a Saturday until six in the afternoon on Sunday, straight through,” Coplan recalls. “I wasn’t sitting down, I wasn’t stopping. I did that about a half dozen times.”

The 33-hour shifts took their toll on Coplan. He was eventually hospitalized for myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle that causes abnormal heart rhythms and interferes with its ability to pump blood. “It’s generally caused from exhaustion and stress,” Coplan says. “I knew I was tired but my brain wasn’t processing how fucked up that was. It was just, ‘I just need to get it done.’ ”

Coplan eventually recovered but his pace didn’t slow down. If anything, he amped things up two years later by opening his Richmond Street restaurant Thoroughbred Food and Drink. “Professionally I was a success but personally I was miserable,” he says. Coplan didn’t have any hobbies or interests outside of work, and spent his limited free time doing research for the restaurant or sourcing items. “I started thinking about some of my other chefs. A lot of them weren’t happy. They just seemed like miserable people.”

Coplan’s experience is not unusual in the hospitality industry. With long shifts averaging about 12 hours, low profit margins and a widely accepted practice of leaving your feelings at the door, chefs and restaurant staff are under extreme amounts of stress, yet no one seems to talk about it.

Some kitchens require staff to say ‘chef, may i?’ before they can talk to their boss

According to Coplan, the archaic and military-esque brigade system that dominates most kitchens is partly to blame. Some kitchens require staff to to say “chef, may I?” before they can talk to their boss. Others prohibit cooks from speaking directly to chefs. Instead, they are required to address the sous chef first.

A constant onslaught of negative reinforcement is taxing for cooks. “You only hear about something when you do a bad job,” Coplan says. “It’s ‘this dish was overcooked. The customer didn’t like this’. It’s very seldom that you hear ‘great job’. It just builds a really bizarre life balance when it’s constant negatives.”

But one of the most dangerous and widely accepted habits in the industry is substance abuse. Alcohol, drugs, you name it. “I’ve heard stories of chefs buying cocaine for their cooks,” Coplan explains, describing a scenario that’s still happening in kitchens today. “Some chefs are like ‘it’s Friday night, guys. It’s gonna be a busy service so I got you a little treat.’ ”

Alcohol abuse, in particular, can be a slippery slope. The culture of rewarding with substances is ingrained in the industry. Megan Chan, a Markham-based sous chef, recalls how a busy shift at the restaurants she’s worked at would often conclude. “Some of the managers would reward us with beer,” Chan says. “If you did a good job, you get alcohol.”

Ariel Coplan

Chef Ariel Coplan makes sure to model positive lifestyle choices in his kitchen at 2nd Floor Events, a downtown venue

After those 12-plus-hour shifts come to a close and most of the city has gone to sleep, industry workers turn to each other to blow off steam. Most shifts wind down with a few rounds at the restaurant after close. The party continues from there, often joined by other overworked hospitality staff collecting at bars promoting ‘industry happy hours’ – three shots and a pint for $10 from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. at one local watering hole. Chan remembers how her coworkers always knew which bars or restaurants in the area were still open. The manager, despite finishing their shift earlier than the kitchen staff, would stay at the bar for a few drinks to wait for the rest of the team, so that they could then get drunk together.

Several big-name chefs have gone public with their alcohol and substance-abuse battles and struggles to recover. TV host Matty Matheson famously sobered up after suffering a heart attack at 29 – his close friends and the owners of his restaurant, Parts & Labour, staged an intervention. In Montreal, after decades of self-medicating with alcohol, Joe Beef’s David McMillan finally faced his alcoholism by going to rehab and sharing his story earlier this year through a viral personal essay in Bon Appetit.

But not all the stories feature a positive transition to recovery. At the height of Coplan’s period of excess, one of his kitchen staff at Thoroughbred tried to kill himself. “It wasn’t the first person that I have known to attempt,” says Coplan.

And we’d be remiss not to mention Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in 2018. Many see Bourdain’s passing as a turning point, which made industry professionals take action. Vancouver restaurateur Shoel Davidson started Mind the Bar last year to offer resources for industry professionals seeking help for addiction, depression, anxiety and workplace harassment. Since going sober, McMillan started hosting a Sunday evening Alcoholics Anonymous-style support group for hospitality workers at one of his Montreal restaurants.

And in Toronto, Coplan is spearheading one of the city’s first organizations bringing awareness to the mental health challenges of restaurant workers. He hosted a panel at Thoroughbred in late 2017, inviting sommeliers, chefs and other industry experts to chat about mental health issues. One of the panel members was Hassel Aviles, a hospitality consultant that has worked with operations such as Stackt Market and the Annex Hotel. “As soon as it ended, Hassel and I decided that we needed to carry this on.”

Hassel Aviles

Shortly afterwards, Coplan and Aviles launched Not 9 to 5, a non-profit group that brings awareness to the mental health struggles of those in F&B. Aviles, who spent over a decade as a bartender and server, comes from the industry’s front-of-house ranks. “You’re always ready and able to service with a smile,” she says. “This industry is so brilliant at teaching you how to wear a mask. It can be a blessing and a curse.”

Substance abuse is a common thread for both a restaurant’s servers and cooks.“I had managers that fed me shots throughout my shift,” Aviles recalls. “We used to have ‘meetings’ every two hours. We would hunch behind the bar, do two shots and then go back to work. That was totally normal, and it was encouraged by my manager. He was the one that was pouring them for us.”

Meanwhile, Aviles was processing her own mental illness, eventually taking initiative to seek help and treatment for her anxiety and depression. “No one was having conversations about mental health or addiction with staff,” she recalls.

They’re connecting industry workers with resources, whether a crisis line or therapy

With Not 9 to 5, Aviles and Coplan are starting these conversations. Alongside social workers and therapists, they’ve hosted workshops called “Mindfulness for Stress Management” and “Mental Health Basics for Managers.” They’re also connecting industry workers with resources, whether that’s a crisis line, low-cost therapy or something as simple as a recommendation for a mindfulness app.

To help break down the stigmas around mental health, the Not 9 to 5 blog serves as a platform for industry folks to share their personal stories. Everyone from Matt Jones, brand ambassador for Beam Suntory (makers of Jim Beam and other spirits), to chef-nutritionist Rachel Bies, plus servers, bartenders and chefs, share stories that are equally resonant. They help those struggling with mental health feel like they’re not alone. “It’s powerful,” says Coplan, who blogged about his story last year. “The idea of people being able to relate is super important.”

Ariel Coplan and Hassel Aviles

Coplan and Aviles co-founded Not 9 to 5 to connect colleagues with mental health resources

Connecting with industry workers is a critical part of Aviles and Coplan’s initiative. But the power to enact change comes from the top. That means encouraging restaurant owners, managers and chefs to take a hard look at how they run their businesses and what they can do to foster a healthier work environment.

Aviles believes it begins with role modelling. “In our industry, specifically, that means taking breaks, enforcing and encouraging breaks, eating right, like actually eating in front of people and drinking enough water,” Aviles says. “These seemed like really irrelevant little things but the impact on the environment is massive.”

As a manager, Coplan also believes what you don’t do is just as important. “I don’t get wasted at the bar after work,” he says. “I don’t bring my team out for drinks and get crazy with them. There’s a lot to be said in the standards you set.”

Chefs, owners and managers can also help to foster an environment where staff feel comfortable sharing their struggles, quashing the ‘suck it up’ mentality that currently prevails. Aviles and Coplan believe that, like health and safety policies, restaurants should have mental health policies and strategies in place. This could look like resources posted on a bulletin board, announcements at staff meetings and, if management feels comfortable with it, sharing their own experiences with mental health. “Create a safe space, create an open dialogue,” Coplan advises. “Your staff needs to feel comfortable sharing what they’re going through.”

Some restaurants are taking it a step further. At Mahjong Bar, owners implemented a $50 wellness credit per month, applicable on anything from gym memberships to massages, therapy or yoga classes. And at Gusto 54, the restaurant group behind Gusto 101, Chubby’s and Pai, to name a few, they implemented a full health benefits plan across their staff of 300 earlier this year. The Gusto group has also incorporated mental health and wellness into its leadership training for managers and sous chefs.

Working too hard and flaming out might be a normal practice in the industry today, but Coplan and Aviles believe it doesn’t have to be that way. “I don’t think everyone figures out a way to turn it into a long career,” Coplan says. “It’s hard on the body. And it’s really hard on the mind.” Aviles and Coplan have both forged successful careers for themselves. And they hope to help future generations of hospitality workers do the same. “We do this because we love the industry,” Aviles says. “We want to see it evolve.”