When I was in college, my roommate was pushing to become an Air Force pilot, and she worked hard to excel academically, in Air Force tests, and pilot training. She flies C-130s, now, and she even spent time as a pilot instructor, training up the next generation of pilots. She’s pretty kick-ass. The pressure was high, to say the least, and she excelled. Several of our peers didn’t, and the risk of losing the pilot slot seemed ever present.
The culinary world’s stress is different but comparable (well, I’m not a pilot, so maybe my roommate would disagree). I glimpsed bits of it when I was in school with a few of the students, and I saw a larger dose when I worked for Modernist Cuisine.
So few in the industry rise to the upper echelon of fame and true wealth, and the competition and pressure are severe. Netflix’s summer feature Chef’s Table showed the journey of a few of chefs, and the common characteristic is their determination to succeed. The sacrifices made to achieve their successes were not flippant and not without victims.
Last weekend, the culinary world lost a notable chef who took his own life. Chef Benoit Violier was at the pinnacle of his career. Writers and journalists are speculating that he committed suicide out of fear of losing his rank and his Michelin star.
The pressure is not unknown to the industry. Disney Pixar’s Ratatouille movie even talked about a chef who dies of a broken heart because of a negative restaurant review. I’ve been in restaurants at the receiving end of those negative reviews – petty when they’re from Yelp, insulting or disheartening from the local paper, and devastating in international assessments.
The pressure to succeed is a necessary and good stress and challenge, and the few that do make it to the “top” deserve the victory. The victory isn’t as sweet when it was more easily gotten. But at what cost?
BuzzFeed writer David Mack talked about stress management and training that into the culture of food, and it sounds like the same rhetoric that the military told us. It also doesn’t seem to change the results for a few who turn to suicide. The suicides that I processed with my squadron in the Air Force never had good answers for the survivors there, and we had no promises for an improved culture. When will it change? How can we change it?