The Dark Side

For Poets United mid-week motif – the food we eat. For dVerse Poets, Open Link Night. Sorry for the long ass poem. When it comes to cheffing and cooking, I have diarrhea of the mouth.  As an aside, I am 4’10” and weigh 95 lbs.  When I was cheffing, I weighed 80 pounds.  This is for Jeff, Tony, and Jose.  Wish you were here.

The Dark Side
“And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees” Paul Simon, American Tune

I walked out of the restaurant forever –
my knife roll in my hand.
I was burned out, drunk out, coked out.
I worked 14 – 16 hours a day, six days a week like many a chef.
My body was old before its time –
from standing long hours,
from lifting heavy stock pots, and sides of beef,
from putting up with bullshit from
a lot of male owners, waiters, lower chefs.
Every day in America at least one restaurant worker
commits suicide – I lost close three friends in three months
in 2018 to suicide – two by hanging,
one by purposeful drug overdose.
The food comes out to you all clean and arranged on a plate,
put down by a polite runner or waiter.
You don’t know the chef who prepared it.
You forget there is a human behind the food.
People who work in restaurants often do not
fit into Corporate America, Mid-America,
Family America.
Restaurants are like families – some
are totally dysfunctional, there is abuse, there is substance abuse.
Others are well organized and run like clocks,
some are supportive and kind.
I attempted suicide twice.
I finally bottomed out and got myself
to a 12 Step Meeting.
After being out of the industry for 25 years
I finally felt safe enough to volunteer
at a soup kitchen and food bank –
as one of their three cooks.
I am finally talking and writing about being a chef.
I am writing about my life as a chef –
before and after sobriety.
35 years drug free and sober.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

46 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. susanstoo
    Oct 16, 2019 @ 10:49:28

    O! This is a shocking and powerful story–and all of it is new to me–except for the invisibility. I worked as a breakfast cook at a Holiday Inn during College. Only the waitresses knew that how I cooked and arranged the plate accounted for their tips or lack of them. Keep telling your story–in poetry and song–make the invisible visible and save lives. And bravo for the soup kitchen!

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  2. Ron.
    Oct 16, 2019 @ 11:14:08

    I have a brother that travelled the same road and, sadly, has succumbed to all the predictable pitfalls–and is still suffering, will probably never be able to fully regain himself, and will definitely never be able to undo what he’s done to others.

    Reply

    • kanzensakura
      Oct 16, 2019 @ 11:27:59

      But hey, as long as he is alive, there is still hope. I did coke (serious coke) for 10 years and alcohol since I was 14. I eas 32 when I hit 12 steps. I have yried to make amends. I realize in all honesty I will never make amends for all I did. I accept that

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  3. magicalmysticalteacher
    Oct 16, 2019 @ 12:13:59

    What a nightmarish behind-the-scenes life.I had no idea…

    Reply

    • kanzensakura
      Oct 16, 2019 @ 12:25:58

      It is an invisible life. Anthony Bourdain”S suicide cracked the lid on it. The stress, the long hours, the bickering, the competitiveness…you have to really love the work. I love it but it osn’t safe for me.

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  4. Sherry Marr
    Oct 16, 2019 @ 13:50:31

    My youngest waited tables for too many years and the dynamics that go on in restaurants are so stressful. Thankfully she is out of it now. I am sorry it took 30 years to recover from the experience enough to work at a soup kitchen and I admire that you do – it makes for full-circle healing. Thank you for sharing this. To me, working as a chef would be the single most stressful, high-pressure job I could imagine. I tried waiting tables and chopping veggies in a restaurant for an IMPOSSIBLE owner ONCE. I didnt last a month. I walked.

    Reply

    • kanzensakura
      Oct 16, 2019 @ 15:36:31

      People think being a chef is like it is on TV. They don’t have a clue. Some restaurants are like families – some are calm, supportive, others are like fastfastfast and compete, others are totally dysfunctional and crazy and substance abuse is rampant. There is also abuse of the workers – verbal, mental, and sexual. My substance abuse was really bad – I’d have nosebleeds while I was cooking and stuffed paper towels up my nose until I could get away to the bathroom. But it is a profession you have to love. If you had really loved it, you would have hung tight and surpassed that owner. As a chef, I was way picky. Sort of like Ramsay –

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  5. Eileen T O'Neill
    Oct 16, 2019 @ 16:58:08

    The food industry and restaurant life in the US, is a dreadful experience, for both the guest and the worker. One is very dependant upon the other for that moment in time.
    The guest needs nourishment, while the server needs to sell their charm, if they are to earn an extra few dollars as a tip. It is a very harsh environment and one that needs to be regulated…fair wages..

    Reply

    • kanzensakura
      Oct 16, 2019 @ 17:08:00

      I wouldn’t call it a dreadful experience ad I worked in it for 15 years. Restaurants are like families – some are dysfunctional, others are nourishing. The dreadful thing about restaurants in Europe is that they put your food down and sometimes, could care less about the food or the service. I am curious if you have ever worked in the restaurant industry in the US – as a chef, a waiter, a dishwasher, etc. It is regulated but here in the US, we don’t believe in regulating everything, sort of socialist. Both the server and guest needs to be nourished. Yes. Some restaurants add an automatic tip on to the meal. It doesn’t matter how charming the server is if the food isn’t up to par. I would like to see the minimum wage for wait staff raised. But then, you add onto the cost of the food. It is all circular. As much as I rant about the stressful environment of the US kitchen, I am also quick to defend it. My point being, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to work there or eat there. If the industry is regulated, it keeps people from trying harder – everybody gets the same wage no matter how “charming” the person is or isn’t. I have worked in a couple of kitchens in London. I must say, I didn’t care for it.

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      • msjadeli
        Oct 17, 2019 @ 16:49:20

        Toni, I’ve seen some restaurants here that grow their own food, or contract directly with the farmers, which has got to lower the price of preparation so the staff could make more per hour. Do you know anything about that?

        Reply

        • kanzensakura
          Oct 17, 2019 @ 17:45:48

          I know quite a bit about it. And actually contracting directly with farmers, does not really lower the prices and in many instances makes it more expensive. The vast majority of people leave a 20% or more tips for wait staff. Often more. Many times, they make approx. $15 an hour due to tips. I like the tip system. If there is a minimum wage or a base pay that is the same for all workers, like in the State payment system of no raises by merit – the work quality lowers as why bother? You are going to get the same amount whether you try or not. The workers that really suffer are the dishwashers. Most of them are migrant workers who get paid under the table and low amounts indeed. I always provided meals for my workers, the origin of “family meal” as used in most houses. Many restaurants do that to try to save them some money on food expenses. It isn’’t always the cost of preparation but rather, utilities, taxes, permits, linen services, etc. that put the meals at a higher price. I like the thoughts of restaurants raising their own food but I have wonder how viable that is, given the amount of food required. I knew a farmer in Japan who raised his own buckwheat for udon noodles. He barely paid his bills. But he loved his restaurant and noodles. Of course it was him and his wife only. He and she worked like dogs – about 18 hours a day, every day. He lived on the farm left to him by his parents. It was slowly being encroached upon by the suburbs. Not every every restaurant has the space to raise their own food. Many local restaurants in the Richmond area buy micro greens, veggies in season, fresh herbs. But they still had to buy meat and fish products. If they are vegan or vegetarian, they still have to buy grains, veggies, make their own tofu – very expense actually, serve a very limited menu to a limited populace. I started my career in a small vegetarian restaurant many years go in Durham NC – one of the first in the state. They only way they made money – a necessity in any business, was the change the format and go to country French. That restaurant is still in business today. They not raise their own food. They are highly successful. I don’t know what the answer is but I do know, putting a minium wage in effect for the workers is not the answer, although I agree with it.

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          • msjadeli
            Oct 17, 2019 @ 22:56:45

            Thank you for your well-informed and wise response, Toni.

            Reply

            • kanzensakura
              Oct 17, 2019 @ 23:43:29

              Thank you Lisa for the question. Around us is farms that raise veggies for a living. Most of them barely eke out enougg to pay their bills and often they don’t. Poultry, hog, cattle farmerrs, dairy…often live hand ro mouth and too often they go bankrupt. I would rather we subsidize farmers to be honest. We don’t need restaurants but we do need farmers.

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              • msjadeli
                Oct 17, 2019 @ 23:45:21

                I have no problem with subsidizing small farmers, but I do with the monoculture thousand acres farmers.

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                • kanzensakura
                  Oct 18, 2019 @ 00:14:29

                  Yeppers. But somdtimes those 1000 acre wheat fields are necessary. Like that wretched Pioneer Woman with their thousands of acresof cattle. Rich to start with and making money off gov’t subsidies. Buying up small farms around them. Ugh.

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  6. RedCat
    Oct 16, 2019 @ 17:31:47

    As someone who’s only alive because friends stopped me from suicide, I know how long the road from not wanting to die to wanting to live fully and share your story can be.
    Heartbreaking reading. ❤️

    Reply

  7. oldegg
    Oct 16, 2019 @ 19:53:32

    In any business competition is the driving force so that customers choose your shop over others. This is certainly the case with restaurants where their customers are usually limited to lunch or dinner times, so satisfying the diners is umost to ensure they will come again or recommend you.

    Reply

  8. Marja
    Oct 16, 2019 @ 20:54:54

    oh my very powerful Very brave to express your story and so well. I think in other countries the same is happening. How wonderful that you help in the soup kitchen and food bank. My respect. Wish you peace and love

    Reply

    • kanzensakura
      Oct 17, 2019 @ 12:23:25

      Thank you Marja. It is a way I can make amends and do some good for those in need. The respect goes to my co-workers who some of them, are volunteering the same reason as I.

      Reply

  9. Rosemary Nissen-Wade
    Oct 16, 2019 @ 23:25:38

    A friend of mine has recently written a (factual) book about chefs, highlighting this very problem.

    Reply

    • kanzensakura
      Oct 17, 2019 @ 00:24:46

      It is finally coming out. I have seen these problems in different parts of the world,not just the US. The mental health issues are of grave concern.

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  10. Sumana Roy
    Oct 16, 2019 @ 23:47:54

    Your words are very powerful. Everywhere in the world behind the scenes are not always as full of light as in front of the camera in every sphere of life.

    Reply

  11. jaerose37
    Oct 17, 2019 @ 05:39:43

    I can really feel the struggle and the determination to thrive

    Reply

  12. Björn Rudberg (brudberg)
    Oct 17, 2019 @ 15:14:56

    My brother in law is a chef in Boulder Colorado… I have never heard about the darkest parts, but I know that he burnt out. Now he works as a chef at an up-scale retirement home. Less late hours at least.

    Reply

    • kanzensakura
      Oct 17, 2019 @ 15:26:46

      Exactly. The chefs in nursing homes/retirement homes is much less stressful. The on at my mother’s facility did it in his sleep. By 8:00 pm he was out of there.

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  13. Glenn A. Buttkus
    Oct 17, 2019 @ 15:23:53

    My brother was a chef for 30 years. It ruined his health. Now he’s a security guard, broke but happy. Damn, Anthony’s death hit a lot of us hard, but your story is incredible.

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  14. lillian
    Oct 17, 2019 @ 15:24:12

    A poem that is an ode and a memoir at once. Creativity and the pressure it can cause if one is to be a creative professional….and then add human dynamics with others and the incessant clock ticking and table 1 needs this and table 6 needs that and now the turnaround on table 1 and it starts again and again and again. Not like the Great British Baking Scene’s tent — that is competition yes — but those in that competition know it is just for the period of time and not day in and day out and night in and night out.
    Anyone who works through the 12 steps and achieves the years of sobriety that you have is truly to be commended. My PhD dissertation was on early female alcoholics…I interviewed Lois W, wife of Bill W, exactly 1 year before her death and have her on tape and photos. She did for Alanon what Bill and Dr. Bob did for AA.

    I am so so glad to interact with you on dVerse, Toni. You are an amazing woman who stands very very tall for 4′ 10″.

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  15. rivrvlogr
    Oct 17, 2019 @ 15:32:22

    This is very powerful and underscores the need to recognize the hidden effects of stress and to understand what others are going through.

    Reply

  16. Mary (tqhousecat)
    Oct 17, 2019 @ 15:50:11

    My daughter is in culinary. I fear for her sobriety. She has some issues. I think this can be true in any profession, but I am sorry for all you went through and I am so happy to hear you are substance free. Your pain can be used for others and will not be wasted. Blessings.

    Reply

  17. Frank Hubeny
    Oct 17, 2019 @ 16:05:28

    I am sorry to hear about your friends’ suicides. Best wishes.

    Reply

  18. msjadeli
    Oct 17, 2019 @ 16:54:08

    Toni, you are courageous to share your story. I admire you for choosing 12 steps and staying sober. I am 100% in support of paying all workers across the US a living wage. Since I learned so many moons ago how little restaurant workers were paid and that the wait staff are virtually tap dancing for tips it threw a shadow over the experience.

    Reply

  19. Beverly Crawford
    Oct 17, 2019 @ 17:35:02

    A revealing look at the back side of “dinner out”. Sorry for your battle, applaud your victory!

    Reply

  20. Bodhirose
    Oct 17, 2019 @ 19:46:06

    Toni, I’ve not read anything from you regarding your addictions and the conditions of being a chef before now. I’m glad you made it through and got the help that you realized you needed. And you’re right, I sure don’t give much thought to the behind the scenes goings on at a restaurant when I’m being served. I would hate to think that my food came from a really negative environment. Love to you, honey. xoxo

    Reply

    • kanzensakura
      Oct 17, 2019 @ 21:42:02

      😊 the vast majority of chefs love their work. In spite of substance abuse and mental issues, the atmosphere is neutral – meaning food is produced as a job. Nothing more and nothing less. I was cheffing in the 80’s – a heavy duty time of sibstance abuse and I worked in high pressure atmospheres. In the late 1990’s, the kitchen has become more sane, especially smaller kitchens and conversely in large kitchens. If there is some place you eat on a regular basis, I think you are safe from negativity. There is a restaurant my husband and I frequent. The staff knows they will be rewarded with good tips and the chef or sous come out to say hi and share a new dish the chef has been working on andto get feedback

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  21. Arcadia Maria
    Oct 17, 2019 @ 20:14:13

    Powerful piece. I knew it took a lot of courage to write this. Well done.

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  22. sdtp33
    Oct 17, 2019 @ 21:12:06

    an honest and vivid poem about the people behind the food! Well done..JIM

    Reply

  23. Laura Bloomsbury
    Oct 18, 2019 @ 05:02:05

    this is powerful poetry – the lines come short and fast the way orders in restaurants do. Having read Orwells’ ‘Down and Out in Paris’ when I was young, I learnt to respect those behind the meal I’d ordered.

    Reply

  24. Colleen@ LOOSELEAFNOTES
    Oct 18, 2019 @ 17:37:07

    I had no idea. I tried waitressing once and couldn’t handle it I just saw the movie Burnt and it was an eye opener.

    Reply

  25. memadtwo
    Oct 19, 2019 @ 23:09:52

    A harrowing journey. I’ve witnessed it with friends and you are strong to have survived. Sharing it is brave. (K)

    Reply

  26. Pratibha
    Oct 21, 2019 @ 20:58:27

    I am not much for cooking and creating amazing dishes regularly while my husband is so so passionate about it and I see the time and effort it takes. Even though he enjoys it , it makes me think of the chef / cooks who are responsible to let me have the luxury of eating out. Much power to you for writing about it and staying strong always.

    Reply

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