For the last nine months, Patrick Mulvaney has spearheaded a coordinated effort alongside Kaiser Permanente, WellSpace Health and the Steinberg Institute to treat mental health and addiction in Sacramento-area kitchens.
The chef/co-owner of Mulvaney’s B&L has recruited people for mental health treatment classes, installed a support program in his own restaurant and is helping create a formal resource and advocacy network for restaurant workers. When combined with the work he and his wife/co-owner Bobbin have done to support and develop the farm-to-fork movement, it was enough for the couple to be named the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s Sacramentans of the Year in January.
And yet Mulvaney feels drained. Even as industry members tell him he inspired them to seek out mental health treatment or addiction counseling, he’s loathe to call his efforts successful. Not in the light of the four people with Sacramento restaurant ties – three of whom had worked in his kitchen – who died within a five-week span this winter.
Former 33rd Street Bistro, Rio City Cafe and Sudwerk Restaurant manager Gavin Turner was 40 years old when he took his own life on Dec. 8, according to the Contra Costa County Coroner’s Office. Devin Goodearle, a sous chef at Bidwell Street Bistro in Folsom (now called Bacchus House) and Mulvaney’s B&L from 2006 to 2011, left behind a wife and four children when he did the same at age 35 on Jan. 13, the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office said.
Then there was Cassie Asta. The 46-year-old had just joined Mulvaney’s B&L in September after working as a Localis server for years. She was upbeat, attentive and maternal in the best way, with a gift for guiding less-experienced employees. That’s part of what made her Christmas Eve suicide hurt so much, Mulvaney said.
“It f---ing sucks,” Mulvaney said. “You feel pretty good because now there’s an organization in place, there’s conversations happening between people. Then four people die in (five) weeks, and three of them worked for you at one point in their career. That’s tough. It makes it hard to move on.”
“It sucks to be in a room, to see a memorial here on a Sunday and wake up Monday and find out there’s going to be another funeral we have to go to. And then go to a memorial on Monday afternoon and to see your friends at the memorial on Monday afternoon who don’t know about the (person) who’s just gone – it’s just crushing.”
Nearly 17 percent of full-time food service and hospitality employees suffer from substance abuse disorders, more than any other employment sector, according to a 2015 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study. A Mental Health America survey published last year also deemed food and beverage service the United States’ unhealthiest industry after hearing from more than 19,000 respondents. By Mulvaney’s own estimate, at least a dozen people connected to the Sacramento restaurant industry died young in 2018.
Restaurant work can be fast-paced, stressful and nocturnal. It requires thick skin and talent, not a college degree. It’s an industry where facial tattoos and criminal records don’t prohibit career advancement, and shifts that begin at 2 p.m. leave plenty of time to sleep off last night’s hangover.
“We party hard. (There’s) drinking and plenty of drugs going on, and people going out to the bars. For many restaurants, I think, it’s that kind of atmosphere every night,” Taylor’s Kitchen executive chef Casey Shideler said. “That’s only sustainable for so long.”
Substance abuse and mental illness are often interrelated, as was the case for Shideler. She freely talks about her alcoholism, relapses and four years’ sobriety come April.
Talking about the bipolar disorder that left her white-knuckling her way through most days, on the other hand, makes Shideler extremely uncomfortable. She chose to do so anyway, she said, because she wants kitchen staff to be willing to have painful conversations about their own mental illnesses and get the necessary help.
Shideler had unsuccessfully tried to get sober before moving to Sacramento from Kansas five years ago. After being fired from two different kitchens during her first two years out west, she hit “a different kind of bottom” that forced her to reevaluate her outlook on life and made her want to cut out drinking for good, she said.
Shideler left the industry for 30 days to meet with a sponsor, talk to other recovering alcoholics and find ways to stay busy that didn’t involve working or drinking. When it came time to return to work, she opted for a low-level job at Taylor’s Kitchen, where the staff skews older and there’s not much of a post-shift party atmosphere. She now usually feels comfortable adding wine or liquor to dishes herself, would rather die than drink again and trusts she’ll stay away from booze for good, she said.
Bipolar disorder and its associated anxiety remain more pressing. When Shideler first sought treatment in 2015, her doctor suggested drinking chamomile tea and taking baths, she said. As someone who regularly woke up gasping for breath under a feeling of impending doom, the suggestion was almost laughable.
“It felt like I was just hanging by the skin of my teeth all the time, just barely hanging on,” Shideler said. “To go a few hours into the day with just simple steps – getting ready for work, walking to work, walking into work – every single part of it was excruciatingly difficult, and it shouldn’t have been.”
Eventually Shideler’s mother connected her to a Kaiser employee who helped her come up with practical solutions, she said. She found medication that worked and an outlet in distance running, and rose through the ranks of Taylor’s Kitchen to head the elegant Land Park restaurant.
For every success story like Shideler, though, there are chefs who weren’t able to conquer their demons. The most noteworthy national example is perhaps Anthony Bourdain, the immensely influential chef/TV host who overcame a heroin addiction and opened American eyes to far-off cuisines and cultures before taking his own life last June.
Weeks before Bourdain’s passing, The Kitchen’s former chef/emcee Noah Zonca was found dead following a multi-year spiral out of the local restaurant scene. Zonca’s son Evani later told Capitol Public Radio his father struggled with depression and addiction before his drowning death, which came nine months after LowBrau and Block Butcher Bar bartender Ben Moore committed suicide in August 2017.
A mental health treatment program won’t be successful in Mulvaney’s mind as long as people keep taking their own lives, he said. Fewer failures, though? That’s doable.
Mulvaney started talking to Kaiser Permanente Senior Vice President Trish Rodriguez about establishing a meaningful mental health program shortly after Bourdain’s death, Rodriguez said. She helped bring restaurant partners together with representatives from Kaiser, WellSpace Health, the Steinberg Institute and VSP Global. The partnership started a conversation about what could be done and resulted in a mental health first aid class put on by the National Council for Behavioral Health in October.
Mulvaney also helped develop a program called “I Got Your Back” with the Innovation Learning Network that’s currently being tested in his own kitchen. At least one restaurant employee trained in peer counseling will wear a shirt with a purple hand emblem or pin on it, identifying themselves as an ear to listen to co-workers’ mental health and addiction troubles. The person wearing the purple hand also has a green light to seek out co-workers they believe may be battling a private crisis.
Plans are also in motion to develop an online portal that asks kitchen employees about their mental well-being and directs them toward appropriate resources. Mulvaney is working with consulting firms Capitol Impact and Third Plateau on establishing one large, cohesive organization to address and treat mental illness and addiction across Sacramento-area kitchens.
“The restaurant industry is ripe for this,” Rodriguez said. “It’s ultimately an opportunity for individuals within that industry to identify people who might be showing signs of mental illness, and ensuring that they have access to the resources they need to be well.”
In an industry built around service – Is your steak rare enough? How does the soup taste? Can I get you a refill? – restaurant staff often don’t look out for their own well-being, Mulvaney said.
That was part of Turner’s story, said Gavin McPoil, who met his future wedding groomsman at American Graffiti Tattoo & Piercing in 1998. They grew close in 33rd Street Bistro and Rio City Cafe’s kitchens, with both jokingly referring to the other as “No. 2” instead of giving up their title as first Gavin.
The day after Turner’s suicide, McPoil was trying to stay busy by cleaning out his junk drawer. At the bottom was a single Scrabble tile: the letter G, worth two points. When reached by phone, McPoil was headed to American Graffiti to get the tile tattooed on his forearm, an enduring reminder of his departed friend.
“(Turner) was probably the most selfless person I’ve ever met,” McPoil said. “He was always the one who was there for everybody. There’s not a single restaurant that he worked at where people didn’t think ‘if I have a problem, he’s the one I’m going to talk to’ ... people are suffering so much man, and sometime it’s just in their genes to make sure everyone else is happy.”
If not happy, then at least safe. Mulvaney started organizing mental health resources to help his “tribe” of cooks, servers and bartenders across the Sacramento area. As time went on, he realized he was doing it for himself as well, he said. If he could help other people get the treatment they needed, maybe that could help him in his own battle with depression.
And sometimes helping people just means getting them into the kitchen to start with. The newest busboy at Mulvaney’s B&L is a 19-year-old with a trim goatee and quick smile who was born around the same time Patrick Mulvaney stopped working with his father at The Kitchen. Time will tell if Evani Zonca has Noah’s culinary talent, but for now, the staff has got his back.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at (800) 273-8255.