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The Salt

California Chef Aims To Help Restaurant Workers Prevent Suicide

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Chef Patrick Mulvaney talks with his kitchen staff as they prepare dinner at B&L restaurant.
Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Chef Patrick Mulvaney talks with his kitchen staff as they prepare dinner at B&L restaurant.

At six-foot-three, Patrick Mulvaney is a commanding force in his busy kitchen at B&L in the Midtown neighborhood of Sacramento. As staff prepare for a large dinner crowd, the chef strides through the restaurant's narrow back hallways, where the scent of roasted chicken wafts over dishwasher steam and clanking cookware. His gravelly speech is peppered with curse words, and he's quick to make adjustments to a tray of hors d'oeuvres or a specialty cocktail.

But even when it's busy, he says the servers, cooks and bartenders treat each other like family. And as "captain of the pirate ship," as he calls himself, he says it's his job to make sure they're staying afloat in the chaos.

The chef has made a name for himself on the local and national culinary scenes, both for his widely praised farm-to-fork menus and for his leadership on causes such as homelessness and domestic violence. Now, he's channeling some of his energy into suicide prevention.

Mulvaney lost a longtime friend, 41-year-old local chef Noah Zonca, in May. Zonca's son, Evani Zonca, said his father suffered from depression and addiction before his drowning death.

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A month later, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain took his own life. Mulvaney felt compelled to act.

"This is a place for me to help my people," he says. "We are storytellers at the end of the day. And one of our stories is going to be about mental health."

Mulvaney says hot tempers in fast-paced kitchens and rampant drug use during and after business hours are often seen as the norm in an industry of "stress junkies."

"You have to be [messed] up to work in restaurants," he says. "There's an acceptance that we're an industry that takes misfits."

That mentality deters some people from asking for help, even when they have a serious problem.

A 2016 survey of more than 2,000 restaurant workers by a national nonprofit called Chefs with Issues found that 73 percent reported suffering from multiple mental health conditions. A 2015 study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that food service employees had the highest rates of illicit drug use compared to 18 other occupations.

So, Mulvaney is working with Kaiser Permanente, WellSpace Health, and the Steinberg Institute to roll out resources for struggling bartenders, servers and chefs.

Earlier this year, he hosted a series of mental health first aid trainings to help restaurant workers learn the warning signs for suicide. He's hoping to create an online portal where they can take an assessment and find treatment.

There are chefs working on suicide prevention all over the country, and if Mulvaney's model gains traction, it could spread well beyond Sacramento.

Katherine Miller, vice president of impact for the James Beard Foundation, has written about some of the pervasive issues in the restaurant industry — long hours in a busy environment, casual drug use, and the idea that stress is just part of the job.

She said what Mulvaney is doing on the mental health front could save lives.

"For a long time, it's just not been something you talked about in this world," she says of mental health. "Looking at a leader like Patrick, and having him stand up for this issue over all the other issues he could be using his voice for, means a lot. It shows young chefs in his own kitchens that it's OK to talk about the issue, it shows his peers that it's OK to talk."

Former restaurant critic Kevin Finch became concerned about the struggle of kitchen workers in Washington state more than a decade ago. He learned that employees with mental health or addiction issues were afraid to talk to their bosses. So he set up Big Table, an informal support network operating in three west coast cities.

He says he wants people seeking help to "encounter another relationship rather than encounter a system."

"So our first step is a cup of coffee, to sit down with you and figure out what's going on," he says. "We see lives changed on a daily basis, and we are working on systems that allow anyone, not just someone who's a mental health professional or a social services agency, to find ways to engage."

In Sacramento, many restaurant workers are still grieving Zonca, and other chefs and bartenders who've taken their own lives over the years.

Bartender Laura Bruce lost a close friend to suicide, and still struggles to talk about his death.

"He was always like my big brother," she says. "If something bad happened, he'd show up like, 'All right, who am I fighting?' He always took care of me."

She said his death has made kitchen staff think more deeply about their co-workers' mental well-being.

"There is this feeling you have to keep it all together, and if you can't keep it together, there is something wrong with you," she says. "People are becoming more comfortable asking for help when they need it. Whereas before they might wash it down, people are realizing now that mental health is important and it's OK to be more vulnerable."

Mulvaney hopes to see this shift continue. He wants every kitchen in Sacramento to have at least one person trained to look for signs of suicide, and to be able to approach struggling co-workers.

"What I want is someone to help us figure out how to have these conversations in a productive manner that increases mental health and reduces the stigma, so we talk about it more," he says. "I want it to get better, for everybody. And I maybe want it to get better for myself, too."

Find Help

  • If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
  • Ben's Friends is a food and beverage industry support group based in Georgia and North Carolina. It offers hope, fellowship and a path forward to professionals who struggle with substance abuse and addiction.
  • Big Table, an organization in Washington State, and the Giving Kitchen, in Atlanta, help chefs and culinary professionals access community and emergency resources.
  • Visit wellspacehealth.org or call their crisis chat line at 916-368-3111.

This resource list comes from the James Beard Foundation and chef Patrick Mulvaney. More chef-specific resources are available at chefswithissues.com.

Becky Grunewald contributed to this story.

Copyright 2019 Capital Public Radio. To see more, visit Capital Public Radio.

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