Hitting a New High on My Quest for Mental & Physical Health

We get into the restaurant industry for the drive, the passion, the camaraderie, the creativity and the ability to use our skills to make people happy. To cook for someone, to share a meal with someone, is extremely emotional and intimate. Creating with your mind and hands is not only invigorating, but soothing and gratifying. Instant gratification, that’s what this industry is.

This industry is not set up for success, not in the long term at least. The opportunity for anything beyond this week’s paycheck is bleak. The ability for 401k’s, health coverage, IRA’s, investments, or anything that sets you up for the future is damn near non-existent and impossible to achieve. 

Is there a way to create a sustainable lifestyle within the restaurant industry––an industry plagued with demons, addictions, and quick-fixes, and one in which when we accomplish something, the immediate reaction is to ask “what’s next?” and “what else are you going to do?”

Chef Evan Hennessey plating a dish in his restaurant Stages at One Washington in New Hampshire. (Image courtesy Evan Hennessey)

There seems to be this unspoken and automatic trajectory of chefs. You finally are the chef – you are chef / owner – you win awards – you gain a public image – you open another restaurant – you write a book – you open another restaurant… And so forth… Until what? We burn out, lose our shit and quit? Go rogue? Get on a motorcycle and take off to the mountains where we can’t be found? All after getting divorced, going into rehab, losing friends, battling depression, or worse.

It’s nuts.

And, after all that, when we close our restaurants and cry for a month about it, you know who cares? Nobody. That public that revered you? It’s already at the next new restaurant.

So what do WE get from it? We’re this deep into our careers, and only now realizing there’s no exit strategy. I’m 43 years old, and have no way out.

We’ve been talking a lot recently about the overall health of this industry; the physical and mental health of restaurant workers. We’re seeing more and more people trying to work less and do some sort of physical activity, which hopefully leads to mental clarity. There are a multitude of support groups for us to use, if we feel brave enough to call upon them. These are good things, but we need more of them.

These healthy personal choices are only half the issue. We’re still working within the confines of an industry that doesn’t help us. We help us. We get outside, we go to the gym, we get on our bikes, we run, and we get up early and not stay out late. We do this. The industry, which seems to be turning into quite the monster, does nothing but suck us back in. It dangles another carrot in front of us, and we keep going back.

Chef Evan Hennessey competing – and winning – on Food Network’s Chopped (Image courtesy Evan Hennessey)

I’ve been through many ups and downs, ins and outs. I’ve worked everything from high volume corporate, to fish fry shacks, to 3-star Michelin, and have owned my restaurant Stages at One Washington for more than seven years. I’ve been on the James Beard list, OAD Best Restaurants of North America list, Chefs to Watch list, NH Magazine’s “It List, of most influential people,” won Food Network’s ‘Chopped’ twice, and so on.

I’ve also struggled with alcohol, gotten divorced, gained weight, eaten poorly, and moved back in with my parents at the age of 39. I have absolutely put my career and culinary success in front of everything else in my life, including me. I’m not even sure if I was ever on my own Top 10 list.

I had hit a point of personal rock bottom, and next-to-nobody knew it.

There was only two directions that that was going to go.

I decided I wanted to live, and live a good life. One that I was proud of. One that I could enjoy doing what I love to do, with the people I want to enjoy doing it with. I had to make a change. I starting reading and journaling. I started talking at length and very honestly and deeply with my best friend. I cried. A lot.

Then the next best thing happened; I found rock climbing. I found a positive place to channel and focus my energy, strength, and stresses. I found a place that accepted me, and challenged me, mentally and physically. I wanted to progress, succeed, and get stronger, and in order to do this, I had to put alcohol down. I had to summon all my demons and face them, one by one, until I owned them. I had to be completely and positively engaged. My cooking started to progress, my dishes became more mature and thoughtful. I lost weight, gained muscle, felt incredibly better.

Chef Evan Hennessey rock climbing in New Hampshire, rock climbing has been a major part of his new healthy lifestyle (Image courtesy Evan Hennessey)

I also knew that this choice, this clarity, this new chapter, had to remain a constant.

Three months ago, I rescued a dog. It was the best life choice I ever made. It went hand-in-hand with the lifestyle I had given myself. She’s a two-year-old Blue Heeler/Australian Shepherd mix, and the sweetest girl in the world. By nature of her breed, she loves and needs exercise. I wanted a dog that was active, and could hike mountains with me, go on adventures with me, go, well, everywhere with me. Ellie is that dog.

Chef Evan Hennessey doing what makes him feel his personal best, hiking with his rescue dog Ellie (Image courtesy Evan Hennessey)

Since she’s been with us, my activity level has increased dramatically! We go for a two to seven mile walk in the morning, usually an afternoon three-mile run, then another walk after service. She’s hiked nine 4,000 foot mountains with distances of 10.3, 11.6, and 15.3 miles. She hikes off-leash and stays either with me or very close the whole time. I’ve never felt so happy as when I’m on a mountain with her. It is by far the best feeling. She gives me what I give her; the best life possible. 

One of the many things we do as chefs are charity events. Not only do we have a unique chance to help change the lives of others, but we have the public platform to give important causes greater visibility. People will listen and follow our lead, and hopefully make changes in their own lives.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in an event that combined several things I enjoy: hiking, cooking, camaraderie, honesty, and the ability to use my life experiences to help others. “Chefs on the Rise” is an initiative to benefit the New Hampshire Food Bank, with the sidecar of mental health awareness in the restaurant industry.

Thirty-plus hospitality workers hiked, with food and gear, to the top of Mt. Major here in New Hampshire. The time on the trail allowed us to hear each other’s stories and backgrounds, and the summit brought us together as a team.

Chef Evan Hennessey cooking atop the summit of Mount Major, NH, with forty other hospitality workers who all hiked together for Chefs on the Rise, a focus on mental health (Image courtesy Evan Hennessey)

A few of us cooked on butane burners for the rest of the team, after which, we were inspired by a speech given by a chef who had worked his way from deep depression, through substance abuse, in and out of jail, and eventually and miraculously to a life of taking care of others in need in the DC area.

As we sat quietly on the summit of the mountain, in 30mph winds, we could all relate to a part of his story. Our hope was to carry on the message, and keep the conversation going, with the pledge of being available for anyone else who needs help.

It takes a village. And while the restaurant industry is one the biggest, most diverse, wickedest, gnarliest, motley crews of a village I’ve ever seen, we are a still a village, and real change will take all of us, banded together, to benefit each of us, in our individual lives.

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