Many workers face serious pressure and mental health challenges. Here’s a way to help

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain dead at 61

Bourdain achieved celebrity status after the publication in 2000 of his best-selling book "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly." Bourdain went on to achieve widespread fame thanks to his CNN series "Parts Unknown."
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Bourdain achieved celebrity status after the publication in 2000 of his best-selling book "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly." Bourdain went on to achieve widespread fame thanks to his CNN series "Parts Unknown."

It’s been a year since news broke of Anthony Bourdain’s passing on June 8. Today, the celebrity chef, author and travel documentarian should be celebrating his 62nd birthday. Both dates stir up emotions for a lot of people, but for us who enjoy the hospitality profession it conjures an unsettling reminder of how vulnerable our industry is to mental health afflictions.

In the year surrounding Bourdain’s death, Sacramento’s restaurant community also suffered a heartbreaking series of lost lives associated with mental illness. They were our friends, peers, coworkers and employees. We didn’t see it coming.

Hospitality is a profession skilled in receiving, serving and entertaining guests. We aren’t trained to take care of ourselves or to look for the warning signs. Long hours, late nights and intense pressures make us prone to disproportionate levels of depression and substance abuse, all of which feed the challenges associated with personal crisis. It’s sadly the nature of what is otherwise a highly satisfying business.

That’s why we’ve signed up to take part in a promising agenda that has the power to save lives by changing kitchen culture.


Twenty Sacramento restaurants will test a peer-to-peer support program imagined by Patrick and Bobbin Mulvaney and designed by the Innovation Learning Network. It’s called I Got Your Back, and it’s meant to disrupt the stigma attached to mental health, create a safe environment for people to talk openly about their troubles, help our staff watch for the warning signs and give them the tools to know what to do if they see any.

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The main component is a “mood check.” Our employees anonymously drop a color-coded card in a box when they clock in for a shift. This gives the crew a safe place to express their state of mind – happy, sad, angry or stressed. The floor manager takes stock of the cards, providing a new method for knowing how the crew is doing and feeling. Taking temperature of employees’ moods this way alerts the manager to red flags they might not otherwise have known, and it presents the chance to check in with team members, offer support and open a dialogue.

I Got Your Back has been in operation at Mulvaney’s B&L since October and has already improved their restaurant’s workplace culture in a profound way. We’d like to see that same culture shift in more kitchens. Thanks to seed funding and support services from local hospitals and mental health service providers, we have the means to test the concept tailored to our industry’s unique challenges. What we learn will inform refinements and improvements. Then we aim to officially roll out the I Got Your Back model to kitchens across Sacramento later this year.

The California Restaurant Association is backing the effort, preparing to deliver tools, training and materials to hospitality businesses around the state. It’s also drawn interest from the James Beard Foundation, making national implementation plausible.

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In fact, so much interest has swirled around this grassroots, homegrown idea that it’s earned media attention on PBS NewsHour and stories in the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.

The Mulvaneys recently hosted a private gathering with Chasten Buttigieg, who was touring Sacramento on a campaign stop. Buttigieg, husband of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, wanted to know more about our local effort. His reaction was exactly the same as others who first learn of I Got Your Back: First, it’s as genius as it is simple. Secondly, it has the promise of scalability to any workplace in any city.

While the hospitality industry ranks among the top for its high propensity of mental health challenges, we’re far from being alone. This program is a model that can benefit classrooms, Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting halls, construction trailers, police stations, break rooms and any other workplace.

I Got Your Back was an idea born from grief, but from it grew meaning and purpose. We are glad to be among those testing its potential and possibilities. If you’re a restaurateur interested in learning how to participate, see the value in making a financial contribution or have support to lend, visit I and make a reservation.

Tokiko Sawada is co-owner of Binchoyaki. Randall Selland is co-owner of Selland Family Restaurants.

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