Chef Nina Compton and psychologist Errol Rodriguez recently held a panel discussion answering questions about mental health issues in kitchens. Here’s what they had to say on a wide range of concerning topics.

A live Facebook Q&A event

Chefs, we’ve lost some good people to suicide in the past year. We’re seeing more and more clearly that mental health can’t be a taboo topic. Some of us – maybe even you – are struggling with mental illnesses that no one else even knows about. Maybe even if we know about them, we don’t know what to do. That’s why we wanted to talk to some experts.

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS

QUESTION: "Depression is a big issue in general but the time I feel least depressed is when i’m cooking. It just all hits me again later. Advice on how to deal with depression? (I can’t afford therapy)”
– Ricardo, Buffalo

Chef Nina Compton: Depression is a very lonely place and many in the industry don’t even realize that they are depressed , many resort to alcohol and drugs as an outlet which is not the answer but this allows the individual to spiral out of control without knowing or control. my advice is to speak to someone close to you, I think speaking out instead of internalizing the issue helps, especially finding out what makes you depressed and finding a way to change it is a starting point. Try making the change is important and should be the motivation of getting out the black hole of depression. Clearly you are able to zone out your depression while cooking , but you need to find out what triggers that after the fact. maybe also finding a hobby to help keep you occupied my help. I started Kung Fu to help with focusing my energy on something else while being active and healthy.

QUESTION: “How can you tell if someone is joking about killing themselves or if they’re serious?”
– George, Portland

Chef Nina Compton: You can’t really tell, because those words have been used so loosely in the past. But now people are taking it more seriously when someone says that. When in that situation, the best approach is to have a one-on-one with that person and try and get to the root of it. Also remind that person that you are there for them when they are ready to talk. I think being supportive and also suggesting resources that are available.

Dr. Errol Rodriguez: Suicide is a scary topic for all of us, but one we must address. If someone says they feel like hurting themselves, it is important to stay with that person and listen for as long as they need listening to. Keep an open door for them to check-in. Get extra support for them should the situation escalate. Share whatever additional resources you have. I always suggest kitchens need a go-to checklist of resources to offer help. We all should carry handy the national suicide hotline number.

QUESTION: “It’s honestly stressful being the only woman in a kitchen staff of all men. I get that there will be sarcastic jokes and subtle misogyny in any kitchen, but when it gets to a point where it effects my self esteem and work ethic I hopelessly wonder if there will be a day where going to work won’t feel like being thrown back into the lions den. My question is are there certain ways I could cope with this inequality, to have a respected voice in a kitchen where others don’t care to listen?”
– Sidney, West Palm Beach

Chef Nina Compton: Sidney, I have been in many kitchens where I have been the only woman, it is not easy because boys will be boys. I have learnt over the years that you have to be faster, smarter and at the end of the day tougher than them, which is not always easy. I have made a point to be honest with them when they get out of line, if something is appropriate to make them aware of it, and that at the end of the day we are cooks to do a job and this should not be based on gender. I have always looked at myself as a cook first.

Dr. Errol Rodriguez: Hi Sidney, this is a great question... actually two quuestions - the first about coping with inequality and the second about having a respected voice. Since we live and work in a diverse society finding ways to cooperate, collaborate, and respect each other's unique voices and contributions can be quite the challenge. Here are a few things to consider:  

  1. Prioritize taking care of YOU – that is, kind to self and honest to self. Consider a new routine or practice like yoga or mindful meditation as a way to relax your mind and body; 
  2. Maintain integrity – that is, stay true to who you are and deflect negative vibes from others that have the potential to move you in a negative direction; and 
  3. State your boundaries – that is, let people know what is ok and not ok in your presence. For example if someone makes an insensitive or irresponsible comment, call them on it in a professional, clear manner. Finally, there is a concept in social psychology called social conformity. People in a group such as work will conform to the standard to be accepted in the environment. So the trick is to define the standard. Hope this helps.

 

QUESTION: “Excessive competitive environment in the kitchen affects anxiety and stress management, so how to know when it’s worth it and when to remove yourself from the situation?” – Alex, NYC

Chef Nina Compton: Kitchens are extremely stressful, from the second you walk in you are running around to get set up, you racing against the clock at all times. I have worked in kitchens that are competitive and cooks have sabotaged me, or worked in kitchens where cooks are not team players and want to see you fail. In those environments I have always tried to keep the focus on what I am here for which is to learn. At the end of the day, the goal should be why am I doing this, what am I getting out of this, if there are more minuses than pluses then you have your answer. 

Dr. Errol Rodriguez: Hi Alex, this is a great question! The answer will depend on a few things and will be unique to each person.

  1. Is the environment affecting you in negative ways? 
  2. Is the environment bringing out the best You? 
  3. Are you experiencing any physical problems such as headaches, sleep issues or other physical signs of stress? 
  4. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 representing the worst symptoms and 1 representing no symptoms, rate your anxiety level. 

If you answered yes, no, yes, and rated your anxiety level above a 7, then a change in the work environment might be a positive step in taking care of yourself.

QUESTION: “I think it would help my mental health if I could start drinking less but honestly I can’t.
Is there a way to trick myself or something to drink less when I get off my shift?”
-Anonymous

Chef Nina Compton: Hello there, this is rampant in the industry, you get off work and you “need a drink ” to take the edge off . Everyone gets off work and goes straight to the bar. My advice to you is give the bar a break, bars will always be there, they are not going anywhere! When you put yourself in a situation where you are with the cooks, it starts off as it’s just one drink, then it becomes 5 or 6 and then it’s 3 am or the bartender is asking if you would like another and you are likely to say “why not.” It’s a viscous cycle, so my advice is to go home have a glass of wine, (stay away from hard liquor) watch T.V. or even read a cook book or any book. Removing yourself from the environment is the first step and also surrounding yourself with people with the same mindset, because having support helps as well.

Dr. Errol Rodriguez: Great that you have already identified what you need to do! In fact, you are 50% there! The other 50% is committing to a new routine and planning ways to support your new way. If we are talking about alcohol, here are a few things to consider since you have already identified drinking less as your plan:

  1. Identify what I call a CAP number. This means if I am going to drink, at what number of drinks do I start to feel the effects of drinking. If you say 4 drinks, then your CAP should be 2; 
  2. Commit to your CAP number; 
  3. Know what triggers you to drink (people, places & things); 
  4. Develop a new enjoyable routine such as yoga or swimming–changing a behavior usually requires starting a new one; and 
  5. Become a good self-monitor–understand your emotions and how they influence your decisions, your behaviors, and your drinking, and your creativity.

 

QUESTION: “Being mean spirited is “funny” to some chefs. They have had to come up the ranks being abused so they reciprocate that behavior because they have earned the right. The chef I work with does not only do what I described, he is a unhappy person so his jokes are not funny. How do you move forward without being tagged as a troublemaker when confronting the chef? The chef needs therapy but will not seek it and will continue to to make people feel like crap and say it’s only joking. Human Resources is no longer a place for employees to feel protected. HR is now for the protection of the corporation. This has played out in more than one kitchen. How does one deal with this? Keep looking for a kitchen where people are smart and witty, rather than mean and shitty?” Robert, Long Beach

Chef Nina Compton: Hello Robert, sadly many chefs have worked for abusive chefs and they feel like they have to be the same way because of the way they were treated that has been passed on by many. This practice is so common and wrong, I have made a conscious decision not to be that way because you don’t get the best out of staff that way. We spend too many hours in the kitchen not to be happy and safe and this behavior should not be tolerated. I think the chef needs to be made aware of his behavior and how he is affecting the morale of his staff and how this will affect the longevity of his staff and ultimately affect when he keeps losing staff because no one wants to work for him.

QUESTION: “Where do you draw the line between assisting an employee with personal issues that affect their performance at work, and holding them accountable for their performance? 
Do you assist them at all?” – Erin Waddell

Dr. Errol Rodriguez: Great question! Has the employee’s performance declined since the onset of personal issues or has their performance generally been lackluster? Personal issues can impact anyone on the job in a variety of ways. Divorce, substance abuse, trauma etc. in the family can wreck one’s motivation, aspiration, and impact their abilities. For some, even their creativity is impacted. Lurking behind the scenes is usually depression and anxiety, as these symptoms take root in our daily functioning. So, if the employee has been a contributing member of the team, solid, a good person, then supporting them through a tough time means helping someone rebound and hopefully return to being a meaningful contributor to the team. A happy team member who remembers the company was there for them…pays dividends over time!

Chef Nina Compton: Everyone has “stuff” going on in their lives, sadly some people leave these issues at the door and they enter kitchen and affects everyone. I am very good at reading people and when I find they have personal problems, I pull them to the side and ask them if if they want to talk about it, I am here for them, and if I can help them I will in any way. I also remind them that I need them to try and keep it together because everyone is counting on them to do their job because everyone needs each other and we all feel it when we are not on it.

QUESTION: “Chef, what are steps you take in your kitchen to alleviate stress
and maintain a positive environment?”
Erin Waddell

Chef Nina Compton: Erin, kitchens are stressful, hot and high pressure. It is important to decompress a volatile situation immediately. I love interacting with my staff, whether it is asking about their day off, it is important to know my staff. We spend a lot of time together, so it needs to be worthwhile for both of us. Also an occasional joke doesn’t hurt!

ABOUT THE PANELISTS

Chef Nina Compton is an award-winning chef originally from St Lucia. A fan favorite on Top Chef Season 11, she helms two restaurants in New Orleans (Bywater American Bistro and  Compère Lapin), and was recently named the 2018 James Beard Best Chef: South. Compton is also an outspoken advocate for equality and well-being in kitchens.

Dr. Errol Rodriguez, Ph,D, CRC is a psychologist based in New York City. He offers services to treat a range of mental health conditions including alcohol and drug addiction, ADD/ADHD, anxiety, depression, and general work-related stress. Errol has provided clinical services for NYC chefs since 2000, and is currently researching stress and mindfulness among chefs and working on a book titled, A Mindful Kitchen.

Thank you again for participating in this important project! We’re working together to make our kitchens a healthier place for everyone.