For chef Gregory Gourdet, a Top Chef contender and the culinary mind behind Departure in Portland, Oregon, Bourdain’s death spoke magnitudes about an industry in trouble.
“Bourdain is such a global icon for our industry his passing shook us all,” he says. “The fact that he had it all and every resource at his fingertips to change anything he wanted to about his life and still choose what he did proved that we have a long way to go in terms of helping each other talk and be open and be able to ask for help. This coupled with the sexual harassment reckoning that has taken place in our industry as well lately brings to light that big conversations need to keep happening in our restaurants so everyone feels they can be successful, appreciated and have safe outlets.”
Gourdet is a sober chef because, like many who choose sobriety, he knew in his soul that he could not continue his life with alcohol and addiction. In his own words, he was sick and tired of being sick and tired. He witnessed friends around him moving on with their lives. He felt stuck in a cycle of addiction. He also saw that his work was suffering.
“I was constantly lying to employers about my whereabouts and reasons for calling out or being late,” he says. “The sad part is the more I got promoted, the deeper I got into my addiction.”
The behavior didn’t always fly, and, after losing his favorite job and working in places where bad behavior was acceptable, Gourdet finally faced an ultimatum. A coworker told him he could only continue his current job if he went to rehab. He finally had to tell his family and friends.
“Many of my friends expressed concern over the years,” he says. “Some of that concern was expressed through anger and disappointment.”
Once he chose to get sober, it wasn’t an easy path. Gourdet says it took two more years of ups and downs, but ultimately he knew deep down that he had to make this choice.
“You don’t get sober because someone tells you to,” he says. “Addiction is too strong of a disease. You only get sober when deep in your heart, soul, and mind you know you are ready to give up drugs and alcohol for the rest of your life—or at least one day at a time.”
Since then, Gourdet has been reaching for the stars and getting pretty darn close to them. Once he got sober, Gourdet says, he was full of vigor and passion. Work became easier—no hangovers! Without drugs and alcohol, he began to change all his habits, both in and out of the kitchen.
“[I] started running and going to the gym after work to replace time spent at the bars and clubs,” he says. “I set goals. They were mostly based around running farther than ever, and after many marathons I ran my first 50-mile race.”
Gourdet’s cuisine has changed, too, both in what he eats and what he cooks. He started following a paleo diet—he gave up dairy, gluten, and processed foods. It’s switched his view of food to the lens of nourishment. He says this inspires all his cuisine today.
“My food became better because I had a much clearer head to seek inspiration and create with.”
Moving fast toward change
Patrick Mulvaney, chef and owner of Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento, California, was about to hop aboard a plane when news of Bourdain’s death hit. His wife called him. She knew he’d find out as soon as he landed if she didn’t get the news to him right away. But months before, Sacramento’s restaurant community had seen a wave of suicides. To Mulvaney, change was past due, and he had already put a ball in motion.
“We’ve had 15 people die in Sacramento hospitality in the year,” Mulvaney says. “Four in December alone.”
After a chef who had been a friend of Mulvaney’s passed away, he and his staff and the greater restaurant community began talking about what their responsibilities were when it came to mental health. Mulvaney planned a meeting with Kaiser Permanente, the healthcare provider. Then news of Bourdain’s death hit. Mulvaney thought, Change needs to come faster.
“A chicken takes eight minutes to cook—we need something to change now,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s ineffective, it’s fine, that’s how we learn. In the kitchen, if we make something and it’s wrong, we move forward. If the tribe wants to move fast, let’s go.”
Ten days after Bourdain passed, Mulvaney hosted a meeting with several key stakeholders in his community and 15 restaurateurs. He later served as keynote speaker to a conference of mental health professionals. What came from all these talks was a program called I Got Your Back that encourages restaurant team members to look out for each other’s mental health. A designated team member wearing a medallion or pin will be certified in helping people in the restaurant find mental health resources.
“It also means that for leadership, that we have empowered that person to reach out,” Mulvaney says. It’s along the lines of the slogan, if you see something, say something. A designated I Got Your Back team member is looking out for others who may seem in need and checking in with them.
The program has been informally beta tested in Mulvaney’s restaurant. Eventually he hopes it will evolve into an online portal that will spread nationwide. He’s received interest from his state restaurant association and hopes the program is released through the state’s food handler license database, letting anyone who works in the restaurant industry know that they can get help.
“We had a server die by suicide on Christmas,” he says. “If we can save one, that’s good, if we can spread it to other restaurants, that’s better.”
Cooking for the craft, not the rush