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A Top Chef’s Suicide Has Prompted A Rethink In Kitchen Culture

The death of Benoît Violier in Switzerland over the weekend is renewing calls to address the high-pressure, high-stakes environment that can take a heavy toll in the kitchen.

Chef Benoît Violier was at the top of his game. On Dec. 12, 2015, the French government proclaimed his Swiss eatery, Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville, the best place in the world to eat in its official “La Liste” ranking. “A veritable temple of gastronomy!” the Michelin Guide had remarked in awarding his restaurant three stars, placing it among the very best in fine dining establishments.

According to reports, though, Violier feared his hard-earned success would soon come undone. The influential Gault & Millau guide had recently given his restaurant a slight demotion, and he was said to fear the potential loss of a highly coveted Michelin star.

On Sunday, the French-born chef’s body was found at his home in Crissier, Switzerland. “It would seem that he has ended his life with a firearm,” police said in a statement.

Violier’s death has rattled the world of haute cuisine.

“Without a doubt, one of the most gifted chefs of his generation left us yesterday,” Gault & Millau said in a statement.

But the chef’s apparent suicide has also prompted discussion across the Atlantic about what the U.S. culinary industry is doing to assist those struggling with mental health.

“I learned about Benoît’s death this morning and my first reaction was, ‘Not again,’” Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson told BuzzFeed News. “This industry is so full of stress, and we’re constantly under a microscope. There’s so many personalities that strive to be really something special, and it’s a very difficult relationship to have with yourself and can really take its toll.”

Benoit Violier with his “La Liste” award in Paris on Dec. 17. Thomas Samson / AFP / Getty Images

The job of a chef is not an envious one. Delicious and innovative dishes must be timed to speedily arrive as one on the table, despite their individual intricacies and complications. Then there’s the army of kitchen staff that needs managing in hot, loud, and cramped quarters.

In addition to the hordes of hungry customers and meticulous health inspectors, exacting critics demand perfection and can eviscerate reputations with a single review. When the New York Times food reviewer demoted chef Thomas Keller’s New York restaurant Per Se from four stars to two in a excoriating review last month, readers salivated over every barb in the piece, which became one of the newspaper’s most read articles in January.

“One of things people forget when they’re judging a chef or restaurant is that they’re judging human beings,” Acheson said.

Acheson, who is behind a number of top restaurants in Georgia, cannot recall ever having a conversation about mental health with the more senior chefs in the kitchens in which he was trained.

“It’s been a historically rigid and masculine and tough environment,” he said. “It’s always been an industry where you have to make it by yourself, and only recently are we coming to terms with the fact that it can take its toll. The industry needs to change. It can’t be so demanding.”

Writer Kat Kinsman, who previously ran CNN’s food site Eatocracy, in addition to writing frequently about mental health, recalled interviewing numerous chefs who would take her aside for off-the-record conversations about their struggles.

“Diners are so oblivious to what’s going on. People in the back are breaking their backs,” she told BuzzFeed News. “They’re dying and no one is talking about it.”

Kinsman, who now serves as editor-at-large for Tasting Table, last month started the website Chefs With Issues for culinary professionals to find mental health support and resources. More than 600 kitchen workers have since completed an informal survey on the site, Kinsman said, revealing struggles with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

“People don’t want to appear crazy. They don’t want to appear weak. They don’t want someone to say, ‘You can’t hack it,’” Kinsman said. “It’s an infinitely macho culture that doesn’t allow for weakness, but if they knew the person next to them on the line was going through the same thing, it would be easier.”

Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty Images

At least some top U.S. culinary schools are aware of the need to prepare their students for the harsh realities of the industry. Michael Sperling, vice president for academic affairs at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York, told BuzzFeed News his school has “evolved” in recent years and now includes a focus on mental health.

“There’s a culinary expression known as mise en place, this foundational concept of having food in its place,” he said. “We extend that concept to what it means to live a balanced life, a healthy life, in spirit and body.”

Students at the CIA participate in meditation workshops, play on sports teams, and speak with counselors if they find themselves struggling.

“The rigors of the kitchen are really intense and we really want students to develop a sense of balance,” Sperling said. “If they don’t have an inner sense of balance, then they’re not likely to be successful.”

The industry, though, is still catching up and needs to do more to promote a better work-life balance, according to chef Jonathan Ory, a director at the Heirloom Foundation, which works to raise awareness of mental health issues in the kitchen, in addition to youth development programs.

The Charleston, South Carolina–based chef told BuzzFeed News more restaurants need to provide psychiatric treatment under insurance policies for kitchen staff, in addition to offering better paid time off and mental health days.

“I keep looking at friends outside the industry and it’s interesting to see in perspective,” he said.

However, Ory and Acheson said much of the change needs to come from the current industry leaders, with better teaching and mentoring, as well as a shift in macho kitchen culture. “On TV and in some kitchens, it’s all about being a loud and aggressive chef,” Ory said. “I think you’ll get happier people that’ll do a better job when you take time and work with them, instead of just bullying them.”

To get a great crew, Acheson added, chefs today need show empathy and compassion.

“That change needs to come from us,” he said.

In Paris on Monday, Michael Ellis, the Michelin Guide’s worldwide director, held a minute of silence in memory of Violier before announcing this year’s stars. The rating for Violier’s Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville remained unchanged, but a star was removed from the restaurant of Bernard Loiseau, the famed French chef who fatally shot himself in 2003.

“It was a difficult decision,” Ellis said, “but it’s part of the job.”




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David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News in New York.
Contact David Mack at david.mack@buzzfeed.com.
 
 

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