The food world trembled when it awoke last Friday to reports that renowned chef, author and popular television host Anthony Bourdain had committed suicide in his hotel room in France.
The news came on the heels of information released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on June 7, which noted that suicide rates have risen significantly across the US, with some states showing increases of more than 30 percent.
Sadly, suicide has become an all-too-familiar story in the the world of high-profile restaurant news. In 2016, we saw the loss of Swiss Chef Benoît Violier of Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville. The year before, Chef Homaro Cantu of Moto in Chicago took his own life. Just over a decade prior, French chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide after local newspapers reported that his restaurant was to lose its coveted three-star Michelin status.
And these are just the stories that make the press. What about the line cooks who overdose? Or the sous chefs who waste away, unnoticed, one after-work shot after another? They're very real. And they happen more often than we think.
In fact, these deaths have underscored a growing concern about the deep, unspoken current of mental health challenges that flow through countless professional kitchens. And, for at least one Milwaukee chef, bringing awareness to the pressures that plague those in the kitchen has become a personal mission.
"Like most chefs of my generation, I grew up with Anthony Bourdain," says Chase Anderson of Mason Street Grill. "I had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with him when I was in culinary school at the CIA. He’s one of the first chef personalities that I really related to. He had the cynical attitude that so many of us share."
When he heard the news of Bourdain’s passing, he says he didn’t react as so many others did.
"My initial thoughts weren’t, ‘I’m really sad. I need to mourn this,’" he recalls. "It was more: ‘What can I do to prevent this? How can we keep the future generation from going down this road?’"
His conclusion: There have to be more conversations about what’s really going on behind the scenes, the pressures that chefs face and the struggles that happen behind the kitchen doors.
"We need to have conversations about the isolation in the profession," he says. "The perfectionism. The pressure. There are so many sources of stress, from challenges with staffing and training to the increased overall competition. All of the things that make chefs great in the kitchen – drive, focus, perfectionism – are the things that take a toll on your daily life.
"But just because it’s always been this way doesn’t mean it needs to stay this way."
Anderson speaks from the heart. After all, he’s fought his share of demons. And mental health concerns have been at the fore of his life for as long as he can remember.
For Anderson, the struggle began when he was a child. His parents were high-powered professionals, so he spent a good deal of his childhood alone. He found solace in watching cooking shows on PBS and falling in love with the industry in which he would eventually build his career.
However, his relationship with food was complicated. From the age of 9, Anderson says he struggled with body dysmorphia. He began seeing a therapist at the age of 14; however, things continued to get worse. By the time he was 19 years old, Anderson says, his weight dropped to a low of 110 pounds.
Under the recommendation of his therapist, he entered an intensive two-month inpatient treatment program to combat Bulimia Nervosa, Anorexia Nervosa, Obsessive Exercise Disorder, narcotics addiction and depression.
"It helped," he says. "They provided me with tools I could use to deal with my day-to-day struggles. But my battle wasn’t over. In fact, one of my darkest periods was when I moved to Milwaukee to work with Dan Van Rite at Hinterland. I was alone. My family was in Tennessee, and it was a real struggle."
He says he also struggled with his own identity as an openly gay chef.
"There’s a lot of machismo in this field," he says. "You don’t talk about emotion. You don’t talk about your feelings. So working in a world where, if you cut your finger, the way to fix it is to sear it on a hot pan. It’s tough.
"I would be lying if I said I’ve never thought about suicide. I have. And I did. And what always brought me back around was thinking about my family and friends. I found myself saying, ‘This too shall pass,’ a lot. At this point, I feel I’ve reached a healthy place in terms of my health. I’ve learned to stand back and gain perspective. But it’s something I have to do every single day."
The drive for perfection
"Accomplished chefs share similar characteristics," Anderson says. "We’re all perfectionists. We obsess over details that ordinary people might ignore, from the way we cut a carrot to the flavor of a dish. We put so much pressure on ourselves to perform at a certain level, and at the same time, we’re always up against a high level of criticism.
"Add to that the fact that this industry takes you away from your family and friends, and it can feel very lonely. You feel like it’s you against the world, and you only see the negative ... the bad Yelp reviews and the criticism.
"Chefs also share a real need for control. It’s tied up in our egos. And so often that results in an escape to drugs or alcohol. And when you look at the decisions that you make when you’re under the influence, they’re often not so great."
Anderson says one of the main problems he sees in the industry is that people aren’t open about the things with which they struggle.
"I think mental health and wellness is something we don’t talk about enough," he says. "If we don’t talk about it, it’s never going to get better. But I’m convinced that opening up, sharing our ideas and feelings, and being open and honest with one another could help."
Part of that, he says, is creating a sense of family in the kitchens where he works.
"For me, one of the things that really helped me was to know that I could really be here for other people. It sounds like a lot of hugs and trees, a really hippie thing to say, but I think it makes a big difference," he says. "In so many ways, it’s made me more kind and caring. It’s also made me really work to improve the mood in the place where I work.
"The happier we are, and the less we’re bogged down by stressors, the better our food will be. And I try to create an environment where people can work and be their best."
Anderson says sharing his own experiences and struggles has been part of the solution, and he hopes it inspires others do do the same.
"I would say to anyone: If you’re ever at a place where you feel like you have nowhere to turn, come to me," he says. "I’m happy to listen. I’ve been there and I know how it is."
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.