Chef Austin Hu on Mental Health and Kitchen Life in Wake of Bourdain Suicide

By Austin Hu, June 9, 2018

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In the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s tragic death, Chef Austin Hu reflects upon a bigger issue: mental health for chefs and hospitality professionals in China and beyond. 

The passing of chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain casts an unfailing shadow over the industry I have called my own for near 20 years. Our lives, my life, are lessened by his departure. As I sit down, moved and troubled, attempting to make sense of the world, I reflect on how much his words and spirit have been a part of who I am. And it is in his honor and his memory that I am compelled to pick up the proverbial pen once again to talk about the true dark underbelly of the culinary world: mental health. 

Some might claim that rampant drug use, functioning alcoholism, a culture of machismo and misogyny are the biggest issues facing hospitality today, but as a working chef I can assure you that all of these are but symptoms of a far quieter, far more pervasive issue that our collective pride has ignored for far too long.

A cook’s world is not a healthy one. Bourdain himself would be the first to admit this. His Kitchen Confidential, which took the world by storm when it was released, celebrates and revels in the debauchery and sadomasochism that embodies our lives. The best of us take pride in the hours we put in behind the line, the injuries that we work through, the tears we leave in our wake, and the bodies we beat out in our climb to the top.  

In places like Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou, with our own little expat city-within-a-city mentality, the pressures are magnified. Not only are most of us faced with the troubles of assimilating in a foreign culture and being far from home; the language and cultural barrier keeps you from what is normally your first line of defense, your very own staff. Instead of kindred spirits, fellow warriors of the service industry, we are tasked with leading a team of individuals whose motivations and priorities simply differ from our own, a very isolated boat in an ocean that you barely recognize.

There is a certain gleam I see in the eyes of the chefs I respect, the all-seeing eye, at once taking in all the information around them and quick to focus on any miniscule disturbance in the force. I interpret this as a hard earned prize for a lifetime of dedication, sacrifice and commitment to the craft. Those very same qualities can just as easily be interpreted as manic, obsessive, and in the worst case, self-destructive.

Combining such traits with the daily pressures of life in hospitality, and the reputation chefs have established as hard living gluttons riding on a razor wire of adrenaline and substance abuse, not only encourages the worst of our behavior but mask and actively discourage us when we are at our lowest. Because the simple truth that anyone with common sense can tell you is that the higher you fly, the further you fall. 

And when you do fall, as we all do at least once in our careers, in a glorious ball of foie gras-infused fire, you are left with nothing but an empty restaurant, an overstocked bar, disappointment and pity on the faces of your staff, and a rising mountain of debt that threatens to bury you under on a daily basis. 

We are taught to rough it out, to put a Band-Aid on it and keep working. So we do, telling everyone we’re fine, burying ourselves in menu changes and late nights at the bar. We take pride in being able to do it all ourselves, and so we do; surfing a downward spiral of doubt, failure, self-loathing and ultimately: despair.

If my exposition sounds a touch personal, it is. Some of you may remember a restaurant I ran called Madison a few years back. Put simply, it was my dream – one that I sketched out on cocktail napkins in New York over 15 years ago, menus I discussed with old chefs, peers and mentors. And surprisingly, for a few years it actually worked. I felt like I was on top of the world, garnering international recognition and a customer base that I remain forever grateful for. 

Through my own failings and ignorance (or arrogance if you prefer), the dream ultimately came crashing down. The reasons behind Madison’s fall are too numerous to recount and beyond the scope of this piece, rather I retell this story to let everyone know that the pain is very real. As is the loneliness, the helplessness, and the overwhelming conviction that you have failed everyone that has mattered most to you. 

We are told to not take it personally, but the truth is that every chef of note wears their heart on their sleeve when they build something. When the peanut gallery throws rocks from the safety of BonApp and Dianping, we laugh it off with a string of expletives, but I guarantee it’s something that we think about before we go to sleep every night.

To further muddy the waters is the trend of pedestalizing chefs and the work we do. The dangers of celebrity chefdom are manifold, but I think the most worrying is the pressure to live up to a larger-than-life persona. We are not superheroes, we are not rock stars, we are simply individuals that happen to work in a field that is very public and very subjective. 

The pendulum of adoration and public disdain swings so fast that most chefs I know can’t even be bothered to enjoy the highs, rather we become fixated on the lows, and learning to mitigate the damage it does to our own sense of self-worth. 

Most days, I tackle the world with a sense of purpose colored with a dash of culinary curiosity, excited for what I will see, do, and taste. This was not always so. In my youth, I toed the line of darkness, on occasion treading far closer than I am strong enough to put down on paper and share with the world, searching for a sense of belonging that I’ve only ever found working in a kitchen. 

But I have learned since, with the help of friends and family, and in the collective voices of my betters, Anthony Bourdain very much included, that even when we are at our most lost we are never truly alone. Compassion comes from all around us, in all forms great and small. Your friendly neighborhood chef may laugh off your compliments or get awkward in the face of your public declaration of love but believe me, they are grateful. We cook, not for the awards or the media fandom, but because we often know no other way to bring happiness to the world. And your joy reminds us that every now and then, just maybe we’re getting it right.

My brothers and sisters in the culinary arts have been tempered by the same flames, barraged by the same insecurities, and survived the same gauntlet. I speak of my world because that is what I know best, but the truth applies to everyone equally. 

The tragedies of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain will hopefully remind everyone that all lives, no matter how seemingly ideal, are fraught with trials and challenges. There are no easy answers to your own questions, but I can assure you that first step to dealing with them is to reach out for help.

To the esteemed Mr. Bourdain, your vision and your voice live on in the millions of us pan-slinging grunts. You remind us what real food is really comprised of, an endless collection of human stories. You shared with us the joy you found in every bowl of noodles, every slice of bread, every pot of soup. I only wish we could’ve helped share your pain. 

[Cover image via Tookapic/Pexels]

Find yourself struggling? The Lifeline helpline is confidential, anonymous and open 10am-10pm 365 days a year. If you need assistance please call (021) 6279 8990 or start an online chat via their website.

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