Kitchen Help: The Chef Initiatives Boosting Staff Welfare

05 November, 2021
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On the (Life) Line 

The hospitality industry is one rife with high rates of depression, suicide and alcoholism, and prioritising mental health — especially amid a global pandemic — has become top-of-mind for many chefs and restaurant owners. Often, as many are discovering, the simplest gestures prove to have the greatest impact. 

“Who’s in the weeds [and] could use some extra help tonight?” 

That’s how Patrick Mulvaney, chef-owner of Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento, California, begins every service. It’s his way of gauging the “temperature” of his staff - a mental health check-in of sorts. After watching so many of his employees and colleagues struggle, he decided to shine a light on what many feel is the restaurant industry’s not-so-secret practice of suffering in silence. He created a pilot program called I Got Your Back that offers employees peer-to-peer counselling by designating one restaurant employee to be a 'purple hand' (a trained peer counsellor). At the start of each shift, employees are asked to fill out a card to gauge their current mood; the on-hand counsellor then uses the ‘happy’, ‘angry’, ‘neutral’, and ‘in the weeds’ responses to offer support to those who need it in order to keep operations (and tempers) running smoothly.  

The program may be simple, but its methods are effective. To date, twelve California restaurants have participated in the I Got Your Back pilot program to great success; a panel of psychologists and mental health experts have joined in Mulvaney’s efforts as he plans to scale the program and make it available nationwide.  

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To say that chef Philip Speer of Comedor in Austin, Texas, has had a roller coaster career is an understatement. A battle with addiction, two failed marriages, and a separation from a well-known restaurant group caused a life-changing tailspin from which he fought hard to recover, and it has not been without its challenges. After he hit rock-bottom professionally and personally, he sought to inject a bit of calm into his otherwise chaotic existence, and it was from this desire to bring a little zen into his life that he discovered the restorative properties of yoga. Today, the same peace he found in the exhalation of ‘ommm’ is the same peace he offers to his employees in the form of free weekly yoga classes and a running group whose schedule doesn’t interfere with their work.  

At Elvie's in Jackson, Mississippi, owner Hunter Evans is leading the way with his progressive employee initiatives, which focus on mental wellness. He is focused on de-stigmatising the mental health issues that are often the by-product of working in the restaurant industry. Yoga, time off for therapy sessions, daily opportunities for physical activity, and annual group retreats ensure that there are multiple outlets for workers to decompress, especially while coping with the unprecedented stress of the pandemic. 

Jezabel Careaga, of Jezabel's Café in Philadelphia, founded Fuerza for Humans after seeing a glaring void in support for restaurant workers when dealing with her own mental health issues during the pandemic. Spurred by the disappointment of being unable to find affordable mental health care, she has made it her mission to provide access to resources for her employees through her non-profit organisation. 

At Lighthouse restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, owner Naama Tamir fosters a culture where employees can speak up and say how they’re doing any time of day. Like Patrick Mulvaney, she has established a daily mental health check-in with staff to gauge workers' moods and discuss any issues before they fester and get out of control. She has seen a marked, positive difference in the way her employees interact with not only each other but customers as well.  

For Kyle Algaze, owner of Iron Rooster in Maryland, the pandemic has given him time to consider mental health measures that would be beneficial to employees at his cluster of restaurants. He decided to close his restaurants during certain shifts to allow his staff some deserved time off to decompress and relax - a brave move to make when many businesses are drowning in financial troubles. He is also considering implementing a 4-day work week for managers to encourage a healthy work/life balance. 

Chef Camilla Marcus of zero-waste restaurant West-bourne unapologetically gives cold, hard cash in the form of a $35 stipend to her employees to use toward their well-being, which they are free to use at their discretion.  

Food for Thought 

It cannot be overstated enough: No one should struggle with hunger in the United States, especially the employed. The fact that some working adults in the world’s wealthiest country and—ironically in the food industry—are going hungry is beyond belief. But, indeed, it is the stark reality for many food service workers.  

In Los Angeles, the burgeoning issue of food insecurity continues to prove to be a problem in the restaurant industry, especially among undocumented immigrants who are, undoubtedly, the backbone of the greater Los Angeles hospitality sector. The unforgiving and unglamorous back-of-house positions in a restaurant are often overlooked and, with little to no pandemic-era government assistance, the industry’s most vulnerable population is flailing. Created by Va’La Hospitality, a bar consultancy group, No Us Without You is the brainchild of founders Damian Diaz and Othón Nolasco who realised the need for food relief for the trade’s most disenfranchised workers. Initially, they used their own money and calculated that a family of four could be fed for just $33 a week. 

The two partners transformed their Boyle Heights office into a food distribution centre, and today the makeshift site has distributed over 160,000 pounds of food to local back-of-house staff, including dishwashers, line, and prep cooks. With just over 1,600 recipients, the organisation has exceeded its initial goal of feeding thirty families a month and continues to provide support to workers that are often viewed as expendable.  

In the same spirit of being a true 'brother’s keeper', Culture Aid NOLA is a New Orleans, Louisiana-based group of restaurant workers whose mission is to provide free bags of grocery for food insecure industry colleagues. The organisation, in true New Orleans style, not only focuses on its core mission but also pays special attention to the mental health and wellness of local restaurant workers by hiring local deejays and musicians to play music at its pop-up food banks and grocery pickup lines. 

Certainly, there will always be a need to assess staffing issues and streamline operations, but the restaurant industry must continue to look for ways to hire and retain good employees and support them in the best ways possible. 

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