I love Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, two Fox shows hosted by Gordon Ramsay, OBE, a British celebrity chef and very strong personality. Watching this season of Hell’s Kitchen reminded me of the stress and rigors that chefs in training regularly undergo. And something rarely mentioned on these shows — substance and alcohol abuse amongst student chefs.
While on internship in New York, I had the pleasure of serving at the local county department of mental hygiene (yes, mental health is like your teeth — you need to floss your brain regularly to keep it clean!). In one of my rotations there, I had the pleasure of seeing a few clients who were attending the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. This is one of the premier chef schools in America, and if you’re ever in Hyde Park, New York, you should definitely make reservations at one of their restaurants (way ahead of time — they book up quickly).
One of the things related to me by some local mental health professionals was that a good many chefs-in-training grapple with the stress of the culinary training through excess — substance and alcohol abuse are commonplace. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find a single study that examined substance abuse amongst chefs in culinary school. I know it’s a niche area, but these are the same people who then go on sometimes to become world renowned chefs. I think it would be interesting to see whether these issues resolve themselves after training is completed, or whether substance abuse continues on in the high-end, high-pressure kitchens. It would also be good to know that if this is a real problem, what schools can do better to help their students grapple with the stress of culinary studies. Word of mouth suggests it does go on, but that’s highly unreliable and akin to gossip.
Violence and bullying are also commonplace amongst chefs working in high-end kitchens (Johns et. al., 1999). The stress to perform consistently and produce high-quality food of excellence day-in and day-out is overwhelming to most chefs. It seems reasonable to suppose that one way to deal with this stress or bullying is by turning to alcohol or substance abuse, if not during work hours, then definitely when the workday is all done (often in the wee hours of the morning).
These are not public health issues, since high-end kitchens do not stand low-quality output. Such chefs quickly are shown the door if their food preparation is not up to par (although, as our local public health board regularly shows, high-end restaurants seem just as susceptible to food poisoning incidents as the local McDonald’s). But I do worry about the toll such jobs take on a person’s humanity and sanity, all in the pursuit of excellence in cooking.
And so while I sit there enjoying my episode of Hell’s Kitchen, I can’t help but wonder if I’m part of the problem, enjoying watching other people being bullied, harassed and threatened over the simple act of cooking.
Johns, N. & Menzel, P.J.; (1999). ‘If you can’t stand the heat!’ … Kitchen violence and culinary art. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 18(2), 99-109.