Cleveland’s culinary world changes the conversation on mental health and addiction in the service industry
June 21, 2018 | By Nikki Delamotte
It was 3:30 a.m. on the bathroom floor of a Massachusetts motel when Kimberly McCune Gibson knew she hit rock bottom. It was after a restaurant shift that day in the summer of 2001 that the then-20-year-old took a cocktail of painkillers, vodka, ecstasy and cocaine.
She knew she was on the verge of an overdose.
“I was working in a kitchen where hard drugs, casual sex and excessive amounts of booze were rampant,” Gibson recalled. “If I got out of this one, I vowed, I’d never touch a drug again.”
Gibson credits the wake-up call and subsequent return to Northeast Ohio and outpatient treatment for who she is today: a wife, mother of three and owner-operator of three successful Chagrin Falls restaurants, Hungry Bee, Cultivate and Sapphire Creek Winery & Gardens.
It’s a cautionary tale she’s only now going public about, which she’ll detail in her own forthcoming memoir, “More than Food.” Some might see the parallels to Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 book, “Kitchen Confidential,” which took readers behind-the-scenes of the culinary world, unafraid to tread through darker territory, including his own history with addiction.
The June 2018 suicide of the proclaimed bad boy chef and globe-trotting television star spurred mourning around the world. It also ignited conversations about addiction and mental health in the service industry.
The intense pressure. The long hours that turn into late nights, and the relationships that are hard to maintain alongside those untraditional schedules. After a 16-plus hour day, there’s little time to worry about anything else, much less yourself. That’s all set against conversations about wages and health care access.
Restaurant jobs often require no background checks and allow workers to go home each night with cash in their pockets, a reason why many who are predisposed to substance use are drawn to the industry.
Soon after news of Bourdain’s death broke, Gibson made a public statement: “I hope other restaurants stand with me today and call all-staff meetings. Never in a million years did I ever expect I would have to discuss depression and suicide with all my co-workers at my three establishments.”
The statement made me recall my years in the industry, where it wasn’t something you talked about. In the kitchen, you do whatever the chef orders. If you work front of house, you put on a happy face no matter what. After the last table clears out, you head to the corner dive bar where the rest of the local restaurant workers gather. It’s the only thing open after an adrenaline-fueled shift, so you trade therapy sessions for rounds of pool with your cohorts and rounds of shots with the bartender.
The tides are shifting as a new generation of culinary workers are opening up about their experiences. In 2016, author and food journalist Kat Kinsman launched the website, “Chefs with Issues,”dedicated to telling those stories. It was inspired in part, she said in an interview, by how often the topic came up during her own reporting – but only in strictly off-the-record conversations.
This new openness and discourse is one wave in an industry sea change. But it begins at the restaurant, and Gibson says she doesn’t want her employees to look at her just as someone who cuts their checks.
“In this industry, your coworkers become family,” Gibson says. “It’s important for me to connect with all of them. It’s important to show ‘your family’ that you love and appreciate them, that you value them, that they are important and that you couldn’t do it without them. To stress that you have their back as long as they have yours.
“I’m a firm believer that everyone needs and deserves a little therapy from time-to-time, a quality of life, a living wage, and most importantly, an outlet to an open door – an open door of non-judgement and extreme support.”
The changing tides
The service industry is, for many, a path for anyone who might have traits and lifestyles that may fall outside of mainstream careers. In the kitchen, there’s a certain level of focus, an orderly nature, an obsessive quality, as pointed out by notable Cleveland pastry chef Maggie Downey. The same reasons a misfit can finally find success can also coax out and fuel existing anxieties, she says.
This catch-22 surrounds the industry.
As someone living with depression, Downey began cooking as a teen as a method of self-care. Her first suicide attempt was at 19, and she later continued down the high-pressure culinary path, landing jobs in some of the city’s top kitchens. Now, at 57, as the pastry chef at Normandy Catering, she has a new perspective on what needs to change.
“In our business, and in our city, we’re very lucky to have a group of chefs with hearts,” Downey says. “And yes, we’re all bruised and battered, and yes, we have our demons, but we try to look out for each other.”
At this point in her life, she says, she’s “in teacher mode.” It can be as simple, she says, as asking, “Would you like to talk?”
“You can interrupt that circuit,” Downey says. “And it all comes down to what? Being human, being decent, being humble. Being of service. And that what matters most in the service industry.”
While Brett Oliver Sawyer may have fewer years under his belt, the young rising star chef feels a similar responsibility at Ohio City’s The Plum Cafe.
Sawyer grew up witnessing the effects of alcoholism in his family, but it was hard to avoid being surrounded by a party lifestyle when he landed his first job as a server while living in Columbus.
He moved on to bartending and eventually made his way into the kitchen, where he worked in restaurants in Chicago and Cleveland. Kitchen mentalities were beginning to shift away from the old-school – the angry chefs, the screaming to get things done – but the stories were still passed down.
“It was always my intention to open my own place, and it was always my intention that I was going to do things my way,” Sawyer says. “I didn’t want to continue that. I don’t want to be that chef. It starts with us and it has to trickle down.”
While Sawyer says the chefs he worked with were comparatively mild-mannered and calm, mental health and addiction were still rarely discussed. He lost kitchen acquaintances to suicide, some under stress directly related to the job. In 2013, Sawyer began going to a therapist regularly to talk about his own depression and has been an active advocate since.
“Ten years ago, nobody wanted to admit they had any type of problem,” Sawyer says. “We’re at a point where we’re losing too many good people for this to stay swept under the rug any longer. The more open you are about it, the easier it becomes. When you’re trying to better yourself, you shouldn’t be ashamed of it.”
Sawyer’s chef de cuisine, Vince Thomascik, also celebrates three years of living clean this month.
“The two of us have been through it,” Sawyer says. “We’re seeking help in different ways. We understand each other.”
The Plum has plenty to focus on. Since it opened in 2016, it’s racked up accolade after accolade as one of the best restaurants in Cleveland. None of that detracts from Sawyer and the restaurant team from one of their main priorities – taking care of one another. Sawyer credits his family and coworkers for making sure he’s able to be at sessions when he needs to be, and he wants to do the same for the rest of his crew.
“It’s all about that work-life balance, and we’re in an industry that’s never focused on that before,” Sawyer says. “And I think we’re getting to a point where the younger, newer generation of chefs realize it and are willing to do something about it.”
A thousand second chances
Ritesh Singh, part owner of The Plum, credits Sawyer for pushing him to begin seeking help for his own depression and substance use after people in his life tried to do the same for years. It started with a simple, “Listen, whenever you’re ready.”
Singh’s entry into the service industry began at the heyday of the high-octane Warehouse District nightclub Mercury Lounge, and led him to restaurants like Flying Fig, Luxe Kitchen & Lounge and New York’s acclaimed John Dory Oyster Bar.
“I’m not blaming the industry,” Singh says. “I was just never as excessive as I was until I started. It just made things more available. It was like an ongoing party with work peppered in the middle.”
Around the same time as he began getting serious about his own mental health, Singh started talking to Michael Flaherty, general manager of Serenite. The Medina restaurant, which is dedicated to giving people recovering from drug and alcohol abuse a culinary education, was founded by Brandon Chrostowski, who started Cleveland’s Edwins Restaurant and Leadership Institute as a re-entry program for people recently released from jail.
Fittingly, Bourdain gave rave reviews of the Oscar-nominated short film, “Knife Skills,” that documented the Edwins mission. “Restaurants are for those of us who don’t, won’t, or can’t fit in elsewhere … ‘Knife Skills’ is the compelling, funny, heartbreaking and thoroughly human story of one such place,” he said
Singh now splits his time between The Plum and serving as a bar manager at Serenite.
“To have this kind of impact is something I never thought possible, or something I could partake in,” he says.
For Flaherty, overseeing a restaurant completely dedicated to recovery means rethinking the industry status quo. Luckily, he had a good mentor in Chrostowski, who was the manager at the renowned University Circle restaurant L’Albatros when Flaherty started as a bus boy.
“He and I hit it off because we both had checkered pasts of sorts,” recalls Flaherty, who was addicted to heroin between ages 19 to 22.
Much like the mission of Edwins, and his own personal experiences, Flaherty doesn’t subscribe to the “one strike and you’re out” mentality seen in kitchens, especially in the past. Seeing the potential in someone, like Chrostowski did for him, can go miles for someone’s self-worth, he says.
“For me, it’s about a second chance. It’s about a thousand second chances,” he says. “These are human beings. There’s a way to deal with things other than firing or kicking someone out, which is very much the kind of mentality of a lot of kitchens and restaurants in general. There’s always very much been this hard-ass way of life. You have to be committed to this for 80 hours a week, you can never call off, you have to eat and breathe this industry.”
His role transcends the kitchen.
Flaherty’s Serenite students sometimes text him late into the night – and his phone is always on. He knows his own recovery took the support of close friends and family, and that’s not something you can punch in and out of on some time clock.
“It’s my duty to be there for them, not just as my student or as my employee, but to be there personally,” he says. “It’s so important to have that patience and take that extra three minutes and say yes, I will listen to you. I needed a ton of support. Now I have to be that person.”
Flaherty also knows he’s found the success, status and guidance to feel comfortable speaking out. Not all service industry workers have the same privilege. But using that power to lead is a way to pass the torch from mentors, and to turn the tables on the culinary world at same time. It’s what makes first steps and second chances. And there’s still plenty more to do.
“It’s nice that these discussions are happening – but we still have a lot of work to do in the way we’re pushing forward and being compassionate,” Flaherty says. “And ultimately, when it comes down to it, it’s about compassion.”