After it nearly killed him twice, Craft Corner Kitchen chef-owner John Cote knows the scorn of a fiery kitchen all too well in an industry that glorifies stress and little self-care.
He is one of three B.C. cooks and chefs who spoke to Black Press about mental health in the kitchen in the wake of the apparent suicide death of famed chef Anthony Bourdain.
Cote has worked in all sides of the restaurant industry, from front to back, across the country, starting young at his parents’ restaurants in Montreal. Over time, he worked his way to management positions and eventually owning restaurants.
Fifteen years ago, while managing an Ottawa pub, Cote said he had been working pretty well every day of the week, and would drink and smoke pot after work with his staff. The ensuing breakdown nearly killed him.
“Basically your mind starts floating, and starts losing concept of what reality is, really. Without the intention of, I almost committed suicide twice,” Cote said.
He walked down Bank Street in Ottawa, disregarding any traffic lights “just because I felt like I was untouchable,” before walking around the back of the Parliament Buildings.
“I went into the Ottawa River at the beginning of May, and they scooped me out almost three-quarters of the way into Quebec. And then I woke up in the hospital like ‘what the hell, what happened?’” Cote said.
“I left that hospital feeling very, very paranoid. … I kind of alienated myself from everybody. They gave me some time to relax and I just cooped myself up in my room and started losing it, really. And I threw myself off a second-storey building.”
In both cases, Cote said he never intended to kill himself, but was functioning under logic that now feels alien to him. In the Ottawa River incident, Cote had come dangerously close to drowning. In the fall from the roof, he was so out of it and believed he was invincible, so he didn’t tense up for the impact. That, he believes, saved him from any significant injuries.
Cote wound up on medications and in the hospital for two or three months, told he wouldn’t be able to go back to society off his medications.
“I refused to accept that and slowly got off medication,” he said.
For a chef, the stress comes from every direction. They have to pay attention to food waste and other costs, scheduling and staffing, food portions, food supply, bill times and the presentation of food going out to customers.
They hear from the front of house staff who relay concerns or complaints from customers and who are under their own pressures. And they get pushback from kitchen staff who, themselves, are feeling the downward pressure from all of those same factors.
And that stress gets expressed in a variety of ways.
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“I’ve seen guys throw knives. Seriously. I’ve seen guys throw knives because they either get angry or they get irritated, and they figure why should I be doing this for this person or whatever,” said Nick Vassilakakis, owner of The Cellar Wine Bar and Kitchen.
Cote spoke of cooks partying until the sun comes up and only getting to sleep with seven hours left until their next shift.
“So it is a big thing, and I guess for a lot of them, and for myself for a while back then, too, the escape was to have a few drinks after work, a lot of drinks after work and then do it again the next day, and that’s just what the life of the kitchen is,” Cote said.
“I made a joke when I went back to the kitchen from my restaurant saying ‘oh, now that I’m back in the kitchen, I can start chain smoking and going on benders again.’”
That self-destructive lifestyle is glorified in kitchens, and the ill-effects of the party from the night before is visible in their work the next day, Cote said. And self-care is also an issue for many people working in kitchens.
“It’s funny how a lot of these chefs will get home and eat Chef Boyardee,” he said.
“On payday, they go out and get drunk, so the next day they don’t show. It could be drugs, it could be booze. So that’s always out there,” Vassilakakis said of some kitchen workers, adding he has been lucky to largely avoid that at Cellar.
And that culture can in some situations compound with a toxic masculinity in a line filled with stressed out men and lead to some abusive relationships within the industry, according to Elite Restaurant chef-owner Barry Wood.
“It was the persona, the aura of being a bunch of raging, crazy guys, working outrageously hard and partying really hard,” Wood said.
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Wood said he feels that has cooled to some degree with the #MeToo movement — and there have been other improvements in the kitchen culture.
Having worked in the front of house, Cote said he’s gotten a different perspective on “how self-destructive it can be.”
“It’s good to care about what you’re doing and stuff like that, but to overwork yourself and to put that much pressure where there really isn’t a need for it” can be problematic, he said.
Learning from the Ottawa incidents, Cote doesn’t allow his staff to work longer than eight hours and makes sure they get the full two-day weekend. He doesn’t do the regular drinking binge anymore, himself, and he takes a different approach to managing kitchen staff.
Gone are the days of screaming and barking orders, a stereotype immortalized in reality TV.
Vassilakakis and Wood both agreed there has been a shift in how kitchens are run, away from that fear-based respect for the chef and toward something more supportive or mentorship-based.
“I wouldn’t like being yelled at everyday, but some people take that abuse and eventually they snap. You have to,” Cote said.