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Depresstaurants (Part 1)

I Ate Oklahoma is brought to you in part by:

Anthony Bourdain’s suicide last week took a lot of his fans by surprise, as well it should. Death is inevitable, but suicide is not.

Apologies if the word suicide seems harsh. Writing it feels harsh, but that’s because it is. So many euphemisms exist for it, but the one I hear most is, “took one’s own life.” And that’s fine, I guess, but I think we have words for a reason and suicide is the best way to say suicide. I don’t want to sugarcoat the word because I don’t want to sugarcoat the deed.

Bourdain spanned worlds. He was a writer and raconteur. He was a documentarian and a TV personality. Maybe that’s why so many people I know knew him, or felt they knew him. And before any of that, he was a chef. He was part of a behind-the-scenes group of Americans who work long hours for low pay in hot kitchens. He did work that was boring and mind-numbing and stressful. He drank and he used drugs and if any of that seems out of place in the heart of a restaurant, then you haven’t spent much time working at restaurants.

The first time I met someone who I knew was using drugs was as a busboy at a little fine-dining restaurant in Edmond that has long since gone away. It was the first time I was offered drugs (and the first time I refused them). Drug use is not unique to restaurants, but it was the first place I understood it to be an open secret.

Drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness go hand in hand and mental illness is a part of the restaurant industry’s DNA.

Chef and writer Daniel Patterson published an essay in 2016 that gets to the core of depression and why so many people suffering from it end up working in kitchens.

“Imagine the worst thing anyone can say to another person. Now imagine that one hundred times worse. Imagine having that voice in your head every second of your life. Imagine that voice is someone you trust. Imagine that it’s you.
That is what I heard, day in and out, for most of my life. Cooking – obsessively, to the exclusion of everything else – was a way to hide. When I started cooking, kitchens were environments that accepted, and to some degree encouraged, aberrant behavior.”

We all must work to live and, in many cases, we must work to feel alive, to feel necessary and needed and worthy. And if you are struggling with a depression or another type of mental illness, you might seek to work in the shadows, behind the swinging doors of a restaurant’s kitchen, surrounded by people who may not say the words, but who are all struggling like you’re struggling.

That camaraderie can be dangerous, of course. You may lean on each other, but you may also learn how to lean on substances that can quiet the voices for a while or turn sadness and anger into productivity...at least for a while.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be talking to Oklahoma chefs, servers, bartenders, owners, etc. who are dealing with depression and bringing their stories to you. And, if you want to share your stories with me — whatever industry you’re in — I want to hear them. It’s time to break down the stigmas attached to mental illness and let people know they’re not alone in this. Because, as someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, I can promise you that it can feel very lonely.

I want to specifically thank The Pritchard executive chef Shelby Sieg for coming to me with this idea. I’ll be talking to her about her experiences, too. Stay tuned.

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About the Author

Founder and Eater-in-Chief of I Ate Oklahoma, Greg Elwell has been reviewing restaurants and writing about Oklahoma’s food culture for more than a decade. Where a normal person orders one meal, this guy gets three. He is almost certainly going to die young and those who love him most are fairly ambivalent about it. You can email Greg at greg@iateoklahoma.com.

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