Chefs and Restaurants

Chefs Find a Way to Create Space for Grief and Loss in Their Restaurants

For the first time in her career, Kelly Fields doesn’t know what her day will hold. In pre-COVID times, the team at Willa Jean, her New Orleans restaurant, rocked 1,000-cover brunches. Now, with just 28 open seats in the dining room plus a few al fresco tables, they might feed 50. Fields’ muscle memory is in shock.

“There was so much fear in quarantine that I never thought about how it would feel to come back and work in the absence of everything that had become so familiar,” says Fields.

Gone are the masses of people, the energy of service, the routines, her business plan. Many of her workers are frightened to return, too.

 

“Almost everybody on my staff has lost someone or knows somebody who was sick or is currently sick,” she says. “My sous chef lost four family members to the Coronavirus. There is loss on top of loss.”

Fields’ team and the restaurant industry are collectively grieving. In the past few months, workers and owners have witnessed death, sickness, and fragility. Jobs have vanished, as have dreams, independence, and security. Businesses have shuttered. Workers can’t pay rent. Sheltering in place has strained relationships. And the videos and other revelations of police brutality against Black people and other protesters adds more stress and despair on top of everything.

“In the most immediate sense, we’ve lost structure in our lives, and layered on top of that is a loss of culture,” says Laura Green, a bartender turned licensed professional counselor.

Spring 2020 has turned out to be a grief bomb—too large for even the most grounded among us to process, especially for an industry that’s notoriously rough on mental health. There is no guarantee of safety for the foreseeable future. No one knows when the world will return to normal or what that new normal will look like. It’s put Fields and other industry leaders in the position of having to lead even as they are grieving. She posed the question on Twitter: how can owners lead grieving teams while grieving themselves?

Counselors have been hearing this question a lot lately. “It is especially intense right now because we’re not just dealing with loss. There’s also this society-wide trauma we’re going through, which is a particularly traumatic kind of grief and loss,” says Kara Nassour, a licensed professional counselor intern at Capital Area Counseling in Austin.

Add to that feelings of guilt and shame and the emotional labor long associated with restaurant work. “Just one of those things would be exhausting,” says Nassour. “Your body needs more resources and rest to process. Make sure you drink enough water and eat regular meals. You need mental rest when you’re not doing anything for anyone. Grief can distract us from our body’s basic needs.”

Green says that for owners and managers to be able to lead and create a healthy environment for their workers, they first have to be emotionally stable. Sorting through grief looks different for everyone, and there’s no set timeline. Fields has regular check-ins with a therapist. Green recommends journaling, breathing exercises, and meditation. Going for walks, spending time alone, and talking to friends on Zoom may help. Purpose-filled work can also be beneficial.

“It’s brutal, but because paid time off doesn’t really exist in hospitality, it forces us to multitask emotional processes,” Green notes. “Take a restaurant owner who’s battling their landlord every day. You can reframe that as a positive form of coping. When you put energy into solving problems, it can help you move to the next phase of grief in a healthy way.”

She adds that managers and chefs need to find balance while supporting staff members. Helping your team process grief does not require taking on individuals’ problems and acknowledging grief in the workplace does not mean workers are welcome to share everything about their lives. However, there is merit in creating a space for collective grief right now, and there are a few ways to start.

“During pre-shift, an owner might say, ‘Hey, I want to take a moment to say that this shit sucks. This is the situation we’re in, and all of us are struggling.’ That creates vulnerability and transparency,” says Green.

Every time a new worker rejoins the Willa Jean workforce, Fields has a similar conversation. “The minute I talk about grief, everyone relaxes and joins the conversation,” she says. We talk freely about why it feels so uncomfortable, how anxious we are, and that it’s going to take a long time to redefine normal. We let go of the idea that anyone has answers.”

Post-shifts are another opportunity to talk about what went right and wrong during service, as well as how safe your team felt while working. “These check-ins help people leave their shift and not go out and down themselves in alcohol,” says Green.

Talking about fear and safety and acknowledging the risks of returning to work are also important. One of the biggest sources of anxiety for workers is the uncertainty of contracting the Coronavirus and bringing it home to their families. Even if owners take every precaution, and train their employees to closely follow new protocols, mask-less dine-in service is inherently unsafe. Among a mountain of new requirements, Fields minimized risk by switching to counter service and requiring guests to wear masks any time they interact with her team.

“I have all the PPE and equipment; anything the team asks for I have on hand,” says Fields. “I’m going at their pace. What’s the point of rushing and bringing people back to work if they don’t feel comfortable? If I can’t build confidence in my team, or the public, there’s no long-term picture.”

She is also making sure her staff has a voice in deciding how Willa Jean moves forward. When she reopened Willa Jean in May, Fields handed over more decision-making power to her longtime general manager. And she invited her team to participate more actively in problem solving. “For me, grief was the radical acceptance of zero control,” says Fields.

In giving her team agency, Fields passed onto her staff the same healthy coping mechanism enjoyed by owners.

Outside of team meetings, owners and managers can take employees aside one by one. “People in our industry are brilliant. There are so many capable workers. By touching base individually, someone may share an idea that could save your business,” says Green.

But it’s important to remember that while lots of people process grief by throwing themselves into work, others will need more support, breaks, and time off. Not everyone adapts easily to change.

“I know from past experience that the amount of training necessary for new systems puts a big strain on workers, managers, and owners,” says Zia Sheikh, a chef and founder of the industry mental health nonprofit Restaurant After Hours. “Things are going to be changing on a daily basis—between the government, customers, and systems. There are a lot of people who can’t handle change that quickly.”

Workers need to know that someone is listening and acknowledging their grief and individual struggles. It’s not a matter of pushing employees to open up. It’s about opening a door and creating a safe place for people who want to talk.

Empathy for people in recovery is especially important; stay-at-home orders and unemployment can be especially challenging for people in active addiction or recovery.

“Fundamentally, isolation is the enemy and co-conspirator of addiction,” says Steve Palmer, managing partner of Indigo Road Hospitality Group and co-founder of Ben’s Friends, an industry support group for workers who struggle with substance abuse and addiction. “In the process of recovery, the fundamental backbone is community. People in this environment are at risk of relapse, overdose, and suicide.”

Ben’s Friends offers support groups in 14 American cities. The organization moved meetings online in March and launched a daily nationwide meeting that’s regularly attended by 40 to 50 restaurant workers, some of whom chose to start recovery during the pandemic. 

In some ways, returning to work and structure and friendships might be helpful for people in recovery—but only in open, healthy work environments.

“One of the social obstacles to recovery is when we see people struggling and don’t want to say anything. Employers would be surprised at how welcome those conversations are,” says Palmer. “You don’t have to be an expert to check in and ask how someone is doing. You just need to ask a few thoughtful questions: Are you seeing a therapist? Are you going to a meeting? Recovery isn't something to be done alone.”

In setting up Ben’s Friends chapters over the last few years, Palmer has been surprised by the number of state-funded mental health resources and services. Owners may have to dig to find them, but connecting workers with local services can be invaluable. Look for grief support groups and counseling resources. Capital Area Counseling, where Nassour works, has partnered with Mike & Sherry Project to provide reduced cost and free counseling to Austin's hospitality industry. Suicide prevention hotlines may feel dark for a company email, but these are dark times, ripe for suicidal ideation. Restaurant After Hours produced a coping poster that restaurants can download and hang up in their kitchens. Green consults for the Chicago-area nonprofit Support Staff. She recently launched a mental health survey and is working on wellness curriculum for the industry.

Green also says it’s helpful to share articles that aren’t related to mental health. “Collective trauma is a way for people to come together. But we want to make sure that togetherness isn’t exclusively rooted in trauma. That makes it harder to move forward,” says Green. “You can send an article about whales. Just asking, ‘Do you want to talk about that dope whale article?’ provides healthy escapism from what’s happening right now.”

There’s a difference between repressing emotions and setting them aside for a bit. The former can lead to outbursts and unhealthy numbing behaviors. It’s a disaster in the workplace. The latter may be necessary for a lot of people in the industry who are operating in survival mode right now.

Through Restaurants After Hours, Sheikh recently helped a worker find support groups in the Bronx. A few weeks ago, the man’s wife died. When he reached back out to Sheikh, he told him that between funeral arrangements and work, he’d had no time to grieve. “He didn't have the option to be sad at the moment,” Sheikh says.

Without universal paid time off and other built-in safety nets, the restaurant industry is likely to be filled with such deferred grief. Owners can help their teams acknowledge and face loss, but everyone will process it on their own terms and timelines.

“People may feel like they have to do the emotional work of grieving as they go through other stuff, but there’s only so much emotion your brain can process. It’s ok to put some emotions aside for the sake of your own sanity,” says Nassour. “But it will come back, and it doesn’t feel good.”

Caroline Hatchett is a New York City-based food and drinks writer, who also happens to host the world’s only casserole lifestyle podcast.