Written by Chef Joshua Young owner Fruits of Labor Hospitality.
A surprising thing has happened to me as the pandemic has been steamrolling on. Besides ruining my calendar and disrupting every aspect of my life, I have had a remarkable number of conversations with a wide range of folks in the hospitality industry about mental wellness and the toll that this pandemic has taken on our industry and our careers. Covid has been a blessing and a curse for our industry, everyone stopped working, everyone stopped dining out, in fact, everyone stopped going out period, and this gave us cooks a second to breathe, let our burns heal and give us the opportunity to run toothpicks under our fingernails to finally get them clean.
The blessing is that we finally got to stop; stop sacrificing, stop the long unpaid hours, stop the lower than living wage that we have tolerated for so long. If you think it is only the smaller establishments that are guilty of lack of wages, think again. The large corporations that answer to shareholders have made people rich by keeping people like us underpaid and expendable. The crush of being treated as expendable as you are putting your heart into something you truly love can be devastating, but to the shareholders, our combined creative contributions are only as valuable as the earnings it brings them quarter over quarter. One of us walks off the job, they immediately replace us with another desperate cook looking for quality of life and better wages. Thankfully for us, as the pandemic has droned on, we have had the time to reevaluate our collective self-worth and figure out what makes us happy. We as hospitality professionals had time to reassess how we make a living and the conditions we tolerate. We found out it wasn't the status quo.
For many years, it was, "the customer is king," always right, always the priority, and I never gave it a lick of thought because I was young and having fun. I worked the gruelling hours in this business because I love it. The people are great; sketchy sure, but always good people, just like me. We worked, ate, drank, drugged, and slept together as it was all normal. We had each others' backs, we were dangerous cooks, and together nothing could stop us; The Kings and Queens of all we surveyed. We didn't care about the toll it was taking on our mental well-being. The unpaid hours and the sacrifices to our lives outside of work were all worth it for the cuisine. You didn't quit because in this business, you don't let your team down. After all, Jordan was always there for Pippen and vice-versa, and we followed suit. Five fingers or one hand? The strength lies in the fist and that's what my colleagues and I were. If the food was good, we would put up with anything. It was just accepted.
No one used to talk about any of that, the late night drinking, the drugs that were everywhere, and that the later you stayed out the harder they got. The random drunken hook-ups that you immediately regretted (and pretended to forget) the next day. No one used to say anything, because at one time or another we were all partaking; we were all guilty. We let this happen, hell, at a certain level, we encouraged it, all so could we revel in the stories of drug and alcohol-induced debauchery the following day. We laughed because we were young, or in some cases, still thought we were, and figured that we would grow out of it eventually. But as the song goes; Five to one baby, one in five, no one here gets out alive.
We bounced around from bed to bed, job to job, and it was all normalized. But the actual work, the job, that was the easy part. For me, a job interview had always gone like this: I smile, show my skills, and know that I am qualified for whatever position that I am applying for. My confidence/arrogance is shown in how I move about the kitchen. I own that shit, no one can touch my skills. I am the best cook in that kitchen at any given time, even when I am not, but I need and want to believe that to succeed. It doesn't matter if it is true, as long as I exude it while I am in my element. By force of will, I propelled myself through each hiring process with the confidence of a man who knew no better, and it always worked. Tragically, it's the human side of life that always alluded me. I was and still am never sure that I am qualified or even fit for society.
Working for the same pay year after year because I needed work, it was all I knew, and it's all I thought I deserved. I didn't hold what I did in high regard, I didn't hold myself in high regard. I still think that anyone can do what I do, all it takes is experience. Like I tell my students, "I am The Gods' gift to nothing, I have just been doing this longer than you have been alive." Being a Cook (because that's what we all really are) has always come easy to me. I never really gave any thought around what I put into it. I just showed up and succeeded, or so I surmised. It takes more than that, believe me, but I was used to taking myself and my skills for granted. No matter where I worked, I fully believed that I couldn't quit and it this was the best I could do.
I got older, but The Song Remains The Same, and mine, I assure you, didn't change all that much. I may not have gone out to bars as much, maybe the drinking and hard drugs lessened over time, but lord knows I had my vices. They helped me to hide from the shit in my life that was piling up, and man, was the shit pilling up. Strangely, or in retrospect, obviously, I had no idea.
I replaced alcohol with chasing skirt, most of the time at the expense of my career, I can much-too-easily say. It definitely wasn't healthy, but it made me feel good in the moment, which I desperately needed between the abusively long shifts I willingly worked. I was as empty and pathetic as a day-after-the-blowout, half-empty bottle of Night Train, smelling sour with a pungent aftertaste of wretched. When they say its not you, it's me, I was always and every single time the "me" they meant. If I even had the guts to tell those women anything. Usually I would ghost them, though this was before there was a word for it, and usually, I was out finding the next woman just to drown out the memory of the last. They were right, fuck, I was a cliché.
What worked for me before, when I was younger and more resilient, no longer worked, or felt good for that matter, as I got older. My pain was no longer dulled, in fact it hung quite viscerally around my neck, choking me, pulling my head underneath the toxic water that had become my life. Chasing the dragon isn't as fun as they make it look on Game of Thrones, nor is chasing skirt.
I hurt a lot of people, or maybe, hopefully, I am just not that important and I hurt no one. I wouldn't know as I very rarely ever spoke to those women again. The self-esteem battle has been continuous, unpredictable, and bumpy. Did I hurt others or just myself? Am I a good person or am I not? I know where I am good, where I have always been good, in the kitchen. My one oasis in the desert, a port in the shit storm that my life had become. I led everyone on, including myself, into believing something that wasn't true. I was anything anyone wanted me to be on the surface, gregarious and happy-go-lucky, blessed, even, but underneath I was quite hollow. I was a great cook but not necessarily a great human being. I didn't love myself, I didn't even like myself. Now, half-full of regret, for everything I did in my past I am profoundly sorry. In my own way, in my own time, I got help, even though I didn't know just how much I needed it, and for that I am thankful. But I do carry these actions around with me, the memories cling to my sides and envelop my chest in shame.
When the using and abusing lifestyle passed, what was left was the awareness that I felt I was professionally paralyzed as a chef. I happened to hold a chef's job at a prestigious law firm, and my mind was telling me that I could not quit this job that I hated with every fibre of my being. Cooking was the only thing I knew, and for reasons physical and psychological, it was becoming unbearable. I can blame many things, but the work itself was not to blame. There had been seven chefs that had come and gone through that place in the previous 18 months before I took over and it was my arrogance, peppered with a bit of desperation, that told me that I would be different. I wasn't, that job sucked ass. Sure, I had weekends off but I worked fifteen hours daily. The stupidity that went into the day-to-day running of that operation is too sad to write about. Suffice it to say that the way corporate had that place set up, Alain Ducasse would have thrown in the towel. Additionally, the numbness in my right (knife) hand was not getting any better, in fact, it had gotten much, much worse. I could stick a sewing needle through my pinkie and not feel a thing. Even with all that, I couldn't bring myself to just quit my horrific job.
Addiction and mental illness in the hospitality industry are vastly underreported and undiagnosed as we in western cultures have a difficult time understanding, or even speaking up about something that isn't physical, like a broken bone or cancer. Alcoholism and all other forms of addiction are so normalized in the hospitality industry, many places have contingency plans for handling and treating addiction. I can fry an egg or cook a piece of meat to any temp without much effort or thought, but talking about my struggles, even now, is next to impossible. Now, we are also buried in our phones, listening to podcasts, or reading some stupid blog, that we are even more unaware of things that are happening right under, or even within, our noses. We need to be more aware and more self-aware, maybe even more vulnerable. But it is almost impossible to be vulnerable in an industry which treats its workers as expendable pieces of a greater money-making machine. The damnedable misery is that if you have worked in the industry, you have felt the vitality of the team and the love of the people you work with, while simultaneously feeling the crushing pressure in a system that is designed to grind the life out of you.
Covid has presented us all with this blessing, this one opportunity to be better, to do better. We can move forward in compassion, not only for the people in the industry, but for the food we serve and the planet we live on. The old mentality of this industry is clearly self destructive in that, if things keep going this way, the industry can and will destroy itself. Food chains are breaking and workers are not coming back. Customers seem to be becoming more abusive as the divide in our country grows. These are all fixable problems, I assure you, but the minds that created the problems will not be the minds that fix it. If people do not want to participate in an abusive system, then we must improve the system to get our great people back. The same goes for me, and how I move through the world.
I know now that even though my life is in no way what I thought it was going to be, I am happy with where I am. I may not be happy tomorrow, but that too shall pass. I live in the moment, and as I do, I am able to take in the unexpected beauty that is all around us. If I can change, and come to this place, surely the industry I love can also evolve.
That is my truth, until next week...