The day Anthony Bourdain died, the phone did not stop ringing at the Giving Kitchen, an Atlanta nonprofit that provides support to restaurant workers sidelined by illness, injury or other emergencies.
Bourdain’s death by suicide hit close to home for those in the food service industry facing the same highs and lows Bourdain chronicled in his memoir, “Kitchen Confidential,” Bryan Schroeder, executive director of the Giving Kitchen, told CNN Travel.
The long hours and intense physical labor in a high-stakes, fast-paced environment can lead to unhealthy ways of blowing off steam, exacerbating the symptoms of mental health issues.
But it doesn’t need to be that way, Schroeder said, echoing a point Bourdain made later in his life.
After Bourdain stopped working in kitchens and became known for his globe-trotting epicurean adventures, he expressed regret for his role in fostering the “meathead bro culture” that valorized self-abuse and workaholism.
Now, some in the industry say suicide prevention is becoming another part Bourdain’s legacy.
People search for ways to help
On June 9, 2018, the day of Bourdain’s death, Schroeder said his colleagues were prepared for the onslaught of phone calls from restaurant workers and owners seeking help dealing with mental health issues for themselves and their employees.
Just a few weeks earlier, the Giving Kitchen’s staff had completed suicide prevention training through the QPR Institute. The nationally recognized program promotes bystander intervention through three steps that make up its name: question, persuade, refer.
A call from a suicidal food worker long before Bourdain’s death made the Giving Kitchen realize that its staffers should be prepared to answer such a call – not just case managers, but everyone in the office, Schroeder said.
Bourdain’s death underscored the need for the industry to address suicide in a more direct manner, starting with recognizing the signs and knowing the right questions to ask, Schroeder said.
“After that initial flood of calls, we began receiving additional calls from the food service community at large asking what they could do to help their fellow industry workers,” Schroeder said.
Now, the Giving Kitchen is partnering with QPR to offer online training in suicide prevention free of charge to anyone in the food service industry.
“Once we announced the free online QPR suicide prevention training, we saw food service workers in all positions signing up to take advantage of this resource, including owners and management teams who were eager to share the training with their full staffs at one or more location,” Schroeder said.
Celebrating Bourdain Day
So far, more than 400 people have signed up since May for the training, Schroeder said. And more organizations are honoring Bourdain’s legacy through initiatives that help members of the service industry.
Some efforts are tied to Bourdain’s birthday on June 25, an occasion his friends and fans are using to celebrate his life.
Chefs Eric Ripert and José Andrés, who announced Bourdain Day, said they would mark June 25 with the launch of the Anthony Bourdain Legacy Scholarship in partnership with the Culinary Institute of America.
The goal is to award the scholarship starting in Spring 2020 to CIA students pursuing a semester abroad or taking part in the college’s global cuisines and cultures international programs, the chefs said in a statement.
“We hope that this scholarship will help his memory live on for students who want to experience the world as Anthony did – through cuisines and cultures everywhere,” they said.
Indeed, restaurants across the country are hosting benefit dinners for Bourdain Day or donating portions of sales to organizations that focus on mental health or the service industry.
Several restaurants in Tampa are donating a portion of sales to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. A dinner in Kentucky dubbed “A Taste for Life” pledges to benefit the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Everything will be OK Project, another mental health advocacy organization.
“We want to hammer home the point that working in the service industry is incredibly hard on those who make and serve our guests’ food,” said Chef Chris Williams, owner of Four Pegs Beer Lounge in Louisville, which is hosting the event.
“We want to bring awareness to mental health while offering something special to our community,” said Jesse Souza, the executive chef of the hotel’s Six Seven Restaurant.
Talking can save lives
Long-term initiatives such as the suicide prevention training build on broader efforts across the country to alleviate the stigma surrounding mental illness and its symptoms, including substance abuse.
Food festivals are building wellness programming into their line-ups and creating after-hours sober spaces just for industry professionals. Owners and managers are hosting their own closed-door meetings in communities across the country.
Many of these efforts started before Bourdain’s death. And as food columnist Tim Carman noted of Bourdain Day, the late chef would likely “despise” attempts “to transform his messy life into some towering monument at which we can pay our respects.”
“It’s human nature to want to recall only the good stuff, and there were, of course, many good things about Bourdain,” Carman wrote in The Washington Post.
Now, for better or worse, another of Bourdain’s legacies is the manner in which he died and how we can learn from it, Carman said.
“… evidence suggests the more we ignore the problems that beset us and/or our loved ones – the fears, the shame, the fevered thoughts in the night – the more we contribute to the growing suicide rates. Talk, experts tell us, can help save lives.”
How to ask the right questions
Chef and restauranteur Katie Button disputes the notion that the industry and its members are inherently prone to substance abuse or mental health issues.
The two-time James Beard Award finalist believes it’s up to those in charge to create a healthy working environment, which is what she tries to do as CEO of her eponymous restaurant group, which has two businesses in Asheville, North Carolina.
Staff are not allowed to drink alcohol on the premises at her nationally-acclaimed tapas restaurant, Cúrate, not even after closing. The shift drink, a popular pastime among both front of house and back of house staff in many restaurants, doesn’t exist here. But Cúrate’s benefits, which include employee assistant programs similar to those offered by bigger corporations, with free counseling and financial incentives for participating, are another atypical restaurant initiative.
As a continuation of those efforts, Button said she and her management staff took the QPR suicide prevention training through the Giving Kitchen.
She was surprised to learn that it’s OK to ask someone directly if they’re feeling suicidal, especially if they hint at it, she said.
According to the training, it’s worse to avoid the question if the signs are there – or, to imply a desired outcome with the question, such as, “you’re not thinking of killing yourself, are you?”
“It opened my eyes to how changing the language we use can make a difference,” she said.
Joseph McCaffrey decided to take the training when he was general manager at Punch Bowl Social, a food and entertainment venue at the Battery in Marietta, Georgia, home of the Atlanta Braves’ stadium SunTrust Park.
He thought he might learn something, he said. But he didn’t expect it to come in handy as soon as it did.
The morning after completing the training, McCaffrey said he encountered an employee at the restaurant in clear distress.
When he found out that the employee’s son had attempted suicide, he remembered the training’s lesson that a family crisis could trigger suicidal thoughts. He asked a question that he would not have thought to ask before: “Are you having suicidal thoughts?”
When the employee responded, “I’m not sure,” McCaffrey said he continued listening. Then, McCaffrey said he pointed the employee to QPR’s hotline, which helped the employee find counseling resources.
“I would not have had the language to use to get him into a better spot and make sure he was OK,” McCaffrey said.
“You think it’s something people don’t want to talk about, but when I did he was open to it and it made a difference.”
Sophie Sherry contributed to this report.