For the Maui Chef Community, the Fires Were Just the Beginning

I was born for this business. It’s in my blood with my father’s family having owned restaurants long before I ever came to be. I have been blessed to have an incredibly unique and successful career in the food and hospitality world over the 30-plus years I’ve worked. As a chef and restaurateur, I have created multiple concepts from scratch, employed hundreds of people, and served over a million customers. I’ve had a successful television and media career that has spanned almost 20 years. And yet right now, I am dealing with my own mental health crisis, like many of my peers. It threatens the very thing that I love: this life in food, overseeing my restaurants, taking care of my family and my employees, and serving my customers. 

The Food & Wine Pro Guide to Mental Health and Sobriety Resources
We need to talk about mental health in the hospitality sector. It’s the elephant in the room that affects an industry that generates over $1 trillion annually. For centuries, restaurants have been a place of respite and communion, where patrons can enjoy a delicious meal, celebrate, and sustain. There is an unspoken trust and social contract, an exchange of goods and services, and an expectation that the restaurant is fully there to serve the customer. But what if behind the curtain something has changed and is, in fact, an alarming crisis unfolding before our very eyes?

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My restaurant in Maui burned down in August, 2023 and my community is still suffering during an intensely difficult and long-projected recovery. The impact of this event crept up on me as I ignored my own trauma for months, but it is unprecedented and anxiety permeates my every day now. I struggle with the stress and balancing act of being a mom, wife, head of household, and a chef who is juggling multiple restaurants and projects while trying to figure out what comes next. I normally handle these things pretty well, but the landscape feels different this time around and brings the question of what sort of help is available to someone like me? 

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Anyone who has worked in a restaurant understands that stressful situations are often part of the job. Pressure to perform, working 12 to15-hour shifts, the demands of service and crushing deadlines on staffing, insurance, permits, and paying your bills can feel like there’s no end to the grind. As a young cook, we don’t think about business models or check averages or health insurance. We want to climb that kitchen ladder and learn how to make incredible food and lead our teams. What it takes these days is much more complex and demanding than the restaurant job of old. Too often, the cost of success can lead to physical ailments, mental health issues, substance abuse, and even death. 

I am a vocal advocate for restaurant workers because the job continues to evolve and it takes real interpersonal skills and a level of perseverance to be able to do it successfully, whether you’re front of the house or back of the house. Our industry is second in line to construction workers in opioid and drug-related overdose cases. Stress, anxiety, diabetes, insomnia and sleep disorders, long-term debilitating injury from being on your feet all day, heart, liver, and kidney related issues are all higher risk for those who work in our hospitality community. I can say from personal experience that I haven’t slept well in years. 

We Need to Talk About Anthony Bourdain
The difficulty of running a business, whether it be a small mom-and-pop situation, or the hottest restaurant in a major city, engenders the same problems. Being at the top of one’s game perceptively is disconnected from how happy one is. Every year Anthony Bourdain tributes flood social media on his birthday — a painful reminder that we don’t always see or are unable to recognize when someone is struggling.

The pop culture depictions of our industry in Hollywood, whether it’s movies like The Menu or the hit television show The Bear highlight a darker side to our craft and call attention to the real-life impacts of dedication and obsession. Entertainment reviews call it “captivating drama.” I call it trauma. I don’t need to watch, because I, like many, are living some form of it every day. 

This Season of 'The Bear' Reminds Me Why Working in Restaurants Can Be So Joyful
The pandemic caused unimaginable damage to our industry and many businesses are still trying to catch up, with what seems like a massive exodus of workers and labor, combined with expenses that doubled and tripled almost overnight. The current backlash against restaurants and tipping exhaustion is just another example of the common misconception that we are all getting rich at the customer’s expense, when the truth is we are all just trying to keep our heads above water, financially and otherwise. 

The call for better wages, health care, equal opportunity, and equity are all being addressed and often championed and supplied by business owners who recognize the value of healthy, happy employees. Beyond health insurance and mental health support, steps towards wellness in the workplace can include flexible scheduling and time off policies, creating supportive work culture and monitoring workload and stress levels, and encouraging peer support and team building. I enthusiastically encourage my own employees to utilize their mental health care coverage, and we make it a point to constantly check with our individual workers to see how they are doing. 

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But not everyone in this sector has access to healthcare and too many people are falling through the cracks. I will openly state that more needs to be done to support our industry from both the inside and outside, in identifying and getting the necessary help for those who need it most, regardless of health insurance status.

At the end of the day, there’s only so much listening my therapist can do. Resourceful solutions, coping mechanisms and tools, direction, guidance, and implementation are all necessary for forward motion. As captain of my ship, these are the things I need for my own health and recovery. There should be more mental health care professionals who specialize in strategies specific to helping those who work in hospitality. 

What Does It Mean to Feel Safe at Work?
We can come together to address this, but our entire industry is under duress like never before. We share an intense understanding that we are all dealing with challenging circumstances beyond our control. With advances in communication and technology making it easier to reach more people than ever, innovation could help millions of workers who are struggling with mental health and substance use disorder. We must get health care, technology, and hospitality in the same room to create new tools and resources for those who need help. We need to do away with the stigma that we aren’t allowed to talk about it when there is so much healing in community. 

We are millions strong. We must give each other the skills and awareness to recognize when we have a peer in distress. For the millions of workers whose objective is to make the customer happy, this conversation is vital to the future and survival of our industry. 

I know I’m ready to talk about it. This is my call to action, and I’m asking for help. 
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