How local chefs are changing the culture around mental health from the kitchen

TAMPA, Fla. — Millions of Americans struggle with anxiety, depression, and other behavioral health issues. People who work in industries hit hardest by the pandemic, like restaurant workers, are seeing more and more staff come forward to their bosses to talk about the importance of mental health.

When will talking about anxiety, depression, and your deepest feelings and thoughts become a regular part of our daily conversations? That is the question chefs, mental health experts, and anyone suffering from behavioral health disorders are trying to answer.

Everyone we interviewed in this Full Circle report agreed that starting the conversation with a friend, loved one or total stranger is a step in the right direction.

In this in-depth report, we sat down with chefs across Tampa Bay to see how they are fighting to put mental health first.

ROOSTER AND THE TILL

In Seminole Heights, chef and co-owner of Rooster and the Till, Ferrell Alvarez is gaining a reputation in the industry for doing something that shouldn’t be groundbreaking—being a good boss.

“We just carry ourselves with good principles and ethos, you know of just being really good people,” Alvarez said. “It’s not a rule that we put in a handbook, but there’s no telling there’s no screaming anything that might exist on TV just doesn’t happen within our company at all.”

Alvarez only opens the restaurant 4-days a week to give staff an extra day to decompress. If someone is going through a tough time, his team is ready to help in anyone way possible.

“We’ve seen a lot of highs and lows, really,” Alvarez said. “Some of us are overwhelmed by it. We try to keep an open-door policy. We check in with our people.” It’s family first policy, you know, and business obviously needs to happen so we can all survive from a monetary perspective, but if everybody is not well within themselves, then the business is not going to do well, so it goes hand in hand but definitely family first.”

SOUS-CHEF ON A MISSION

That same philosophy of acceptance and understanding can also be found at Bello Bar and Kitchen in Downtown Tampa. Sous-chef Demetrius Simpson tells ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska that going to therapy and working in a kitchen saved his life.

Sous-chef at Bello, Demetrius Simpson

Michael Paluska

“I use it as a distraction to escape from my everyday challenges dealing with my disorder,” Simpson said. “If you watch Gordon Ramsey, stuff like that, you think all kitchens are like that. Not all kitchens are like that. Some are, but it’s never anything personal we are all just trying to put out the best quality as possible.”

Simpson started his career as a chef late in his young life. The 30-year-old tells me he joined the U.S. Air Force 18, right out of high school. A period that forced him to grow up fast and realized his anxiety and depression was a problem. Even with all his struggles, it would be years of pain and suffering before Simpson finally got a diagnosis in 2017.

“You can imagine living with something for so long, and you are not sure what it is you are dealing with to where at some point after that umteenth time of self-destructing you just want to figure it out,” Simpson said. “I still have my moments. But I’m way better than I ever was. My work is a healthy distraction because it’s also something that I love. But, it gives me the getaway to just create and live in the moment.”

THE BLACK CHEF EATERY

Chef Kyle Luke and his wife Mammie own The Black Chef Eatery in Ybor City. The last year for the parents of three the most difficult they’ve ever faced.

“I never fought so hard in my life to overcome the current situation that we were in I’ve never worked that hard in my entire life,” Mammie Luke said.

“Truly, it is mental discipline because when it comes to anxiety and just feeling all the pressure of everything, it becomes suffocating you have to have the discipline to breathe,” Kyle Luke said. “The emotion is you want to scream or yell or lash out, but you just have to breathe, and that helped us get through. I give kudos to anyone doing this alone.”

The couple spent all their money to sell their prized wings with a side of yuppi sauce at the Juneteenth festival in St. Petersburg. Their food was a big enough hit to give them enough cash to keep going. Savvy on social media, always selling their product, the Ybor City Food Mart owner saw their Instagram stories and asked them to open a location inside the store.

“We were getting denied (loans) like left and right,” Kyle Luke said. “It just felt so divine. Like, it was like, out of anyone out here trying to start a business, they were marketing this place out. But, no one was coming in. Like no one was hitting their links. I just felt like it was being saved for us.”

Despite all the tears, worry, and challenging days the Luke family wanted to share their story to inspire others to get help.

“We just continue to move forward and really continue to like these types of talks cause you never know who is listening who might be able to have a solution or might be able to move a certain piece that could help,” Kyle Luke said.

CRISIS CENTER OF TAMPA BAY

It sounds cliche, but help is just a phone call away. Since the pandemic, Clara Reynolds, the President, and CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, has worked non-stop to help as many people as possible.

“The stigma that still exists around behavioral health is real. And there are so many of our friends and neighbors and family members who are struggling silently. Struggling with these issues and don’t believe they should go and reach out for help,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said people who never suffered from behavioral health issues are experiencing it for the first time. She knows for every person they help, there could be ten more who don’t reach out. But Reynolds knows, the more conversations, like the one we are having, and the more people like Simpson, Alvarez, and the Luke family coming forward to talk, more and more people are willing to come forward.

“I am cautiously optimistic that this is really going to create a movement, a movement where we get rid of the stigma and the stereotypes and ridiculousness that somehow behavioral health is less important than our physical health,” Reynolds said. “I think that’s where that critical mass is right now, and I think now that we’ve experienced it, it’s not going to tuck itself back away underneath the carpet, underneath the bed behind a closet door, I think it’s going to stay in the forefront.”

If he didn’t get help, Simpson told me he would be dead or in jail right now. His message to anyone watching, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed about how you feel.

“Unfortunately, I feel like mental health is still ignored quite a bit in all areas of life, and I just want it to be the norm to where we are OK speaking to each other about our feelings,” Simpson said. “Hopefully, me speaking my truth helps someone see within themselves that hey maybe I need to seek help and move on–move forward .”

For emotional support and connection to community resources, call 211. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK. The COVID-19 support line is 1-844-MyFLHLP.