Being a Celebrity Chef Can Kill You
The suspected suicide of Chicago chef Homaro Cantu has shone a harsh light on the high-stakes, high-pressure lives of chefs, for whom success is an all-or-nothing game.
“You think it’s glorious to date a chef? Not only does he not cook for you, you usually end up eating alone,” Phillip Foss, the chef and owner at Michelin-starred EL Ideas in Chicago, tells me, a hint of dark humor to his voice as he recounts the two divorces under his belt.
“When most people are at home having dinner and putting the kids to sleep together, I’m in the restaurant winning the bread for the family,” he said. “Whoever gets together with me has to have an understanding about the business.”
Such an understanding may have been absent in the third failed marriage of Food Network star Bobby Flay, who filed for divorce from actress Stephanie March.
According to TMZ, March was “livid” when Flay failed to visit her in the hospital until the day after her appendix burst.
“He said he was busy with work and had to leave before she was discharged…but offered to send his assistant to help out,” the site noted, alluding to the very same marital stresses that Foss described.
However, marital strife seems relatively benign compared to other pressures and tragedies plaguing the culinary community.
This week, Chef Homaro Cantu was found dead, his body hanging in the Chicago building where he was set to open a brewery later this year.
The 38-year-old father of two left no note clarifying his suspected suicide, an act which can never be fully comprehended by those left behind.
His death is only the most recent—and grim—evidence that the kitchens of America’s most popular and prestigious restaurants are filled with crippling pressures, illicit temptation, and lurking inner demons.
In July 2013, Colin Devlin, the owner of Williamsburg foodie landmarks DuMont and Dressler, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a cemetery in Pennsylvania.
“The loss of Devlin seems like evidence of a harsher Williamsburg than the one where he opened DuMont’s doors a decade earlier,” wrote Rebecca Flint Marx for Grub Street at the time of his death. “What once felt casual, accidental, and ad hoc has turned as competitive as any heat-fueled restaurant row in New York.”
Americans have come to revel in the drama of the cutthroat culinary world as they would delight in any boozy ‘Real Housewife’ ripping off a weave or knocking over a table.
Anthony Bourdain is a former heroin abuser and famous British TV cook Nigella Lawson admitted to abusing cocaine to cope with her unhappy former marriage to Charles Saatchi. “I did not have a drug problem, I had a life problem,” she said.
In addition to the pressures of toiling in kitchen and building a restaurant (more on those uniquely devastating financial constraints in just a bit), many chefs face the additional appeal—or onus—of the media spotlight, with the explosion of interest in food and chefs on mainstream TV (The Chew, Rachael Ray) and specialized channels, like Food Network and the Cooking Channel.
Food porn is everywhere; the demand for personalities to cook and explain the glistening and delicious dishes is high, and so chefs have become the new small-screen rock stars.
The hunger to dramatize, scrutinize, and hype life in restaurants is also insatiable. Cooking competition shows are as much about sob stories—*cough* Chopped *cough*—and histrionics that have almost nothing to do with what’s on the plate being judged.
“There is 100% more pressure to have a big personality and be in the limelight and be perfectly primed for media attention than there was 10 or 15 years ago,” said Carolyn Alburger, the cities editor at Eater and wife of Blair Warsham, the chef and owner of American Bao Bar in San Francisco, in an email.
“Most successful chefs and food truck owners I know in San Francisco [where she is based] have been contacted by TV producers from one of the many, many food-related TV shows at some point,” she said. “The producers present it as this huge honor for you to be selected for the show, but in reality they are often looking for someone to typecast into a plot.”
“In this crazy world that the restaurant industry has become there’s so much pressure. The public talks about you like you’re some sort of celebrities. It’s only in the last few years that chefs have become like rock stars,” said Bernamoff, who founded the popular Mile End Delicatessen in Brooklyn, spawning not only another location but a cookbook, as well as Black Seed bagels and an oyster bar, Grand Army, later this year.
Alburger was quick to stress that fame is not the norm, but the possibility of it looms over up-and-comers as a deleterious shadow.
“If anything, it has set an unrealistic premise for young cooks,” she said. “Instead of aspiring to work their way up the line for years in the traditional sense—from commis to chef de partie to sous chef to chef to cuisine and then years and years later maybe to executive chef—they aspire to be a ‘tv chef’ and fast track to success via food media, food trucks, pop-ups, etc.”
Are chefs the new Kurt Cobain’s and Janis Joplin’s? Maybe not exactly, but chefs and rock stars have an eerily common background of troubled upbringings filled with abuse, homelessness, and illicit substances.
Cantu was open about being homeless from ages six to nine, and he posted on Facebook about being raised first by a drug-addicted mother and then “Sal, the stepmom” who “insisted (i.e. my dad allowed her to) kick us out of the house and force us to live in a shed for eight months. No plumbing, no heat, a leaky roof, and rats.”
As a result of this horribly abusive childhood, Cantu said he became “a grade A fuck up. I almost got sent to a juvenile detention center for lighting fires in the boys bathroom. My sister and I were out of control and hated authority.”
“Most of us didn’t get a university education. We’ve usually gotten into some kind of trouble at school and wound up in the kitchen,” said Foss.
“I’ve encountered a lot of people who are recovering drug addicts, recovering from substance abuse, recovering from situations of homelessness,” said Bernamoff.
He said he had to release one of his employees when he noticed a change in his performance for the worst and eventually realized there was a drug problem.
“It’s like a petri dish for substance abuse. It’s long hours with a ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude. It’s what a lot of people do,” said Bernamoff, who point-blank described the restaurant world as “drug-fueled” and “alcohol-fueled.”
The same temptations are always brewing when it comes to sex. “There’s a lot of stuff that goes on between employees, between managers, that’s not conducive to pre-existing relationships,” said Bernamoff. “There’s definitely a hookup element,” he said, explaining it thus: “If you work in a kitchen with another person for 12 to 14 hours a day, for five or six days a week…you throw some drinks on that…”
“It’s a joke in the restaurant industry, ‘Oh, look who I found in the walk-in box: Mary, the server, and Tom, the line cook. I don’t think they both needed to get the celery.’”
Bernamoff started Mile End with his wife, Rae Cohen. “We definitely experienced a lot of misdirected frustrations, something at work because of something discussed at home or a personal issue at home that we took to the restaurant and aired our dirty laundry in front of people,” he said.
They eventually decided that running the restaurant together was not good for their finances or their marriages, especially after Hurricane Sandy wiped out their smokehouse and bakery.
“After Hurricane Sandy, we decided we wouldn’t have all our eggs in one basket. We realized we could be in a terrible situation,” he said, and his wife took another job.
Problems with sex, drugs, and alcohol may the damaging manifestations of the kinds of personalities attracted to being a chef.
“We’re usually people with a bit of a masochistic side,” said Foss. “We have a high tolerance for poor working conditions and long hours. Honestly, we have a love for food as powerful as scientologists have for scientology. There’s a cult-like addiction.”
This “cult-like addiction” can prove emotionally toxic when coupled with the crushing financial pressures of running a restaurant. “Restaurants operate on insanely thin margins,” said Bernamoff. “There are very few people who would be willing to go into this for how thin the margins are.”
Bernamoff said that it’s standard for chefs to work 14 to 16 hours a day, sometimes six or seven days a week. “It’s not sitting in an executive’s chair. It’s pretty serious labor in a windowless kitchen or a basement,” said Bernamoff, who averages between 70 and 90 hours of work per week.
Their intense love for food and pride in their work make it such that the success or failure of a restaurant becomes not only a comment on their professional, but personal, status.
“People put everything they’ve got into a restaurant. It’s not just a business investment for most people. It’s a personal endeavor,” said Bernamoff. “It’s reflection of themselves, publicly. People see it as a person failing, not an economic failure.”
“It’s a great honor to do what I do. I don’t take it for granted, but once criticism starts coming in and once your product is not being received in the light you don’t feel it deserves, it can be incredibly taxing on the psyche,” said Foss.
At the same time, these extreme stresses are magnified by the fact that most chefs are not trained to deal with the nuts and bolts of business. “You have to deal with bills, with taxes, all these things you never realized you had to contend with as you work your way up,” said Foss. “No one gives you a playbook. You have to learn on your own, and there are casualties.”
Cantu may very well have been one of those casualties. He said he actually collaborated with Foss on a special presentation the day the lawsuit filed against him by a former investor went public.
Alexander Espalin claimed in a March 19 suit that Cantu used the bank account for the restaurant Moto for his personal expenses. He also claimed that Cantu used the account for Moto to support another one of his restaurant, iNG, which has since closed.
There’s no clear indication that the suit contributed to Cantu’s death, but it is evidence of the extreme financial concerns chefs and owners face. “I assumed it was going to be tough but that he’d persevere,” said Foss. “Obviously, I don’t know if other things were in play.”
When I ask Foss if he thought there was a higher rate of mental health issues among chefs, he didn’t miss a beat. “Absolutely,” he said. “I would almost say the only profession with a higher rate of mental health issues are firefighters or paramedics dealing with life and death. Beyond that, the pressures of working in a restaurant are unrelenting, they never stop. You’re only as good as the last dish you make. You fuck it up, you won’t have guests in the next day. It’s that cutthroat.”
It’s critical to remember that most chefs never earn Flay or Bourdain-level fame, but they are still grappling with the same crippling pressures, addictive temptations, and dark pasts—just in an anonymous state of near-poverty.
“The average guy or girl is making no money, working their ass off, and if you come from a place of emotional fragility, I could see someone saying, I’m done with this hamster wheel,” said Bernamoff.
“We go into this because we love what we do, but it could really drive someone to question their place in the world.”