In the past few years, mental health concerns have increased in the restaurant industry, as in the world as a whole. Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in 2018, especially, brought attention to the issue. Unfortunately, drinking and drugs are often par for the course in the food industry, as highlighted by a 2015 study on the high rates of alcohol and drug abuse among restaurant workers. The pandemic has also generated a mental health crisis, increasing the anxiety of those who were already experiencing it.
In 2019, chef Zia Sheikh founded the New York City-based mental health awareness nonprofit Restaurant After Hours as a way to offer free and affordable counseling resources to hospitality workers and to host free virtual support groups. A Staten Island native, Sheikh worked at prominent restaurants like Zahav and ABC Kitchen before becoming a private chef and caterer. On Dec. 3, 2018, he became sober. “Sobriety for me is more than just freeing myself of alcohol addiction,” he told HuffPost. “It’s about learning to cope with my emotions in a positive and healthier way.” For this edition of Voices in Food, Sheikh candidly told Garin Pirnia about his struggles with mental health and how he channeled them into helping others.
I’ve been through a lot. I have anxiety. I have depression. But it kind of went unchecked for many years. I attempted suicide when I was 19. I lost my father when I was 16.
Cooking has always been a hobby of mine. I started cooking when I was 10 years old as a way to just kind of escape what was going on in the outside world. I went to college for engineering, but then, when I got to college, I realized this was just not something that made me happy. So even during my college days, I was cooking for friends and I realized I [wanted] to do that with my life. I ended up dropping out of college and went to culinary school instead.
The fast pace, the high stress [of restaurants] — it was exciting, almost like an addiction in itself. And it was also a world where drinking and drugs became very normalized. Fast forward 10 years into this industry, I grew an alcohol addiction just because alcohol was so apparent. I fell into the hashtag “chef life” lifestyle where I was working 12-14 hours a day, leaving work, getting blackout drunk, and then going right back to work the next day as if nothing happened — this was accepted.
In 2015, I had a bad night where I almost accidentally killed myself due to drinking. I went to a bar, started drinking and — in the middle of July — I remembered I felt extremely cold inside the bar. I left the bar, I went to my car, sat down, blasted heat and ended up passing out. Somebody found me. I know that because around 7:30, eight o’clock in the morning, I woke up in my car and the windows were down and my keys were on the passenger seat. My seat was reclined. Someone had found me in that state and tried to save my life. I tried searching for the person that helped me and couldn’t find this person. I have no idea who it was. But up until this day, I kind of see them as a guardian angel.
“It’s not OK to ignore someone’s emotional problems. It’s a lot more dangerous than people think.”
I realized that I do have a problem, but it still went unchecked. Between 2016-2018, my mental health completely deteriorated. Anybody that knows me knows I’m a very kind-hearted person, but I became a very toxic manager. I started snapping at the staff. I started snapping at all the people around me. I was always angry. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I had a lot of trouble keeping control of the kitchen. In 2018, I was laid off from my job, and that’s when I realized that this was actually a perfect opportunity for me to finally get the help that I needed. I ended up taking six months off the industry.
I wanted to start therapy, [where] I ran into a lot of issues because I had no job and I had no insurance. I was able to find a nonprofit that was offering counseling for free. I started therapy that way, and I also became sober during that time. But during that six-month period, I did so much research in terms of trying to find ways to help people and help myself, actually, that did not require any money, did not require too much of a time commitment and did not require any type of insurance. With that research, I founded Restaurant After Hours.
When I started the organization, there were a lot of people that were happy to see that this organization existed, and there were the same number of people who were laughing in my face. They were just like, “Why are you dealing with mental health? This is a nonissue. This just shows weakness amongst a lot of people. This is crazy that you’re thinking about this. You’re wasting your time.”
Fast forward another year, the pandemic happened. Now, instead of these issues affecting a small number of people across the world, it was affecting all 14 million of us [U.S. restaurant workers] all at once. People realize we can lose our jobs in an instant. There’s no safety net here. We can fall into a spiral of depression of not knowing where our next paycheck is going to be from. There’s definitely a shift. There’s a lot more people who are ready to have that conversation, and I am trying to help them through whatever struggles they are going through.
We need to find a way to deal with these issues in a better way because there’s a lot of things that can happen over the course of a night, like anger. Our immediate thing is to take that anger out on somebody else for whatever reason. I tell people to take a pause, take a step back, get your thoughts right before approaching somebody else, because you don’t know how that’s gonna affect somebody in a receiving position.
I’m Pakistani by nationality, and even in my community, it’s a hard conversation to have. My family completely ignored [my problems]. It was a nonexistent thing. When you talk about your struggles, it’s like, OK, chin up and just keep going forward, a you-will-feel-better-tomorrow-type thing. And that’s a stigma many people deal with, and it’s not OK. It’s not OK to ignore someone’s emotional problems. It’s a lot more dangerous than people think.
I tell people, I’m not a therapist — all I can do is share my story. If you think that you need help, I can help you find that help. I’m all for sharing my story because I don’t know who’s listening. I don’t know how it’s gonna affect somebody else. I’m hoping someone can just use my story as a way to help themselves.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.