Support group launches for hospitality workers

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When restaurant patrons enjoy a meal, they’re likely not giving a thought to what sort of day the chef, bartender or waiter is having. Diners come in for great food, service and a good time, assuming all is well because in the hospitality industry – bars, restaurants, lounges, clubs – it’s all about fun, pleasurable experiences, right?

Not necessarily. The music, laughter, relaxed and even celebratory vibe in the dining room or at the bar can belie the truth of what these industry workers face. We see smiling faces, flowing wine and beautiful entrees. Yet that cook, waiter or busing staff may have been on his/her feet for the past 12 hours, haven’t had a day off in months, or may even be struggling with mental health issues or addiction. This is far more common to this type of work than most of us may think.

Mental health in the hospitality industry has long been a simmering topic, but many issues keep it on the back burner. The stigma of talking about it may make some workers think they have to tough it out. They may be concerned about appearing weak, losing face with coworkers or maybe even fear about job loss.

But no longer. Local area chef Cory Rakowski (known to St. Albert residents for his recent stint at 12 Acres restaurant) has openly acknowledged his own struggles with addiction and mental illness. Rakowski has banded with fellow chefs and Culina alums Stuart Whyte and Daniel Letourneau to create Food for Thoughts, a support group and sharing space with the aim of removing the stigma surrounding mental health in the hospitality industry.

“We want to share stories – our trials and tribulations, and our successes too. We want a space where such workers can talk about how they’ve been affected, how they deal with the challenges, on our Facebook page, Twitter account – @FFTYEG – or at a regular support group session,” says Letourneau.

“The pressures of working in a restaurant kitchen are well known, but it’s hardly talked about. We’re still at the grassroots stage, of reaching out to people in the industry to start a dialogue – we want to change the culture from both outside and within,” Letourneau said.

There are notable efforts to change some long-established industry practices. In B.C, for example, the provincial government is seeking to pass a law banning employers from dictating the height of heel/style of shoe a woman wears in the workplace. Social media has helped put public pressure on employers who make form-fitting or revealing clothing or high heels a condition of employment, whether implied, suggested, or said outright.

“We definitely want to hear from female restaurant workers – there are issues unique to them in the hospitality industry,” adds Letourneau.

For his part, the 31 year-old Ontario native understands the battles hospitality workers can fight. After a self-described ‘troubled youth’, the former Culina Mill Creek chef said falling into the food service industry fueled his own addictions.

“About 85 per cent of food service workers are under 25. There’s a drinking party culture – it’s a way to unwind after long nights – with easy access to alcohol, and when everyone gets off work at 1 or 2 a.m. there’s not much else to do but sit at the bar for a drink or two before going home. This high-pressure type of work can easily feed issues of addiction and anger management.”

Letourneau says he had to consciously back away from the pressure-cooker of long hours of work as a chef in a busy restaurant. He has worked to create a new work/life balance – one that includes exercise on his day off. Letourneau is now chef at Ocean Odyssey Inland, a specialty seafood store, where he keeps more regular day-time hours.

In the restaurant business for nearly a decade, chef Andrew Cerrato has faced months of 12-hour days, six or seven days a week making the kitchen, menu and restaurant’s reputation his own. He has been head chef at 12 Acres restaurant in St. Albert since last year. That means training kitchen staff, regularly updating the iPad-based menu with newly-created dishes, ordering supplies and doing the paperwork. That is all part of the job he finds challenging, exciting and sometimes stressful.

“Sometimes your brain is barely working, and you’ve got a busy restaurant to run. I can get angry over small things. And in the bigger scheme, there’s the pressure to stay relevant, to create exciting menu items and follow what’s happening in the culinary scene,” Cerrato says.

“It’s easy to see how restaurant workers can get into trouble, when you go to bed at 4 a.m. and you don’t have to work until 2 p.m. You’re always going out for a drink. I was that way for two years, I didn’t save a penny. This younger generation of workers, they’re your peers and sometimes the only people you see, and who understand the same work stresses. So you relax and party with these same people night after night. It can be a recipe for trouble.”

To fight against burn out, or getting bitter, Cerrato slots in time for a day off, and a week’s vacation. Cerrato is dedicated to the industry and to improving his skills. He says he’d love to compete in the Gold Medal Plates-type culinary competition to further his training, and to be where there’s an appreciation for creativity and plating skills.

“I still want to be part of this industry; to challenge myself and continue to grow. It’s hard for that to happen without a safe outlet to talk and share with others who understand the experiences. We have to get rid of that stigma of ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out the kitchen.’ ”

Following last fall’s one-off awareness event/fundraiser that garnered a big reaction from those inside and outside the industry, Food for Thoughts teamed up with Momentum Counselling to plan a once-monthly, free group counselling session for those in the hospitality industry. Launching this month at the Whyte Ave. (82 Ave) site, there is high hopes the sessions will be a well-used resource for food service workers.

Kim Knull, registered psychologist and executive director at Momentum Counselling, understands the stresses in the food industry.

“We hope the group will offer healthier ways to deal with the emotions that come up in the industry. I worked in food service going through university, and I saw how people’s health and well-being was put at risk. Customers are first, and workers are trained to put themselves last. There’s a lot of alcohol, drugs, sex. We want the group to offer peer support and coping strategies,” says Knull.

Letourneau the need to support service industry workers is “the elephant in the room.”

“The hospitality industry is one with long hours, low pay and rarely any benefit plans. We hope this grassroots movement will grow and become an advocacy group too, to improve the field for everyone,” Letourneau said.

Food for Thoughts Facebook page offers a way to connect. For information on the newly-launching support group for hospitality workers, see info@walkinedmonton.org

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About Author

Lucy Haines

Lucy Haines has been a freelancer writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2012. She writes features on travel, food, seniors, homes and gardens.