"Still taboo": Eating disorders are a silent epidemic in professional kitchens

"My eating disorder didn’t originate in the food industry, but the peak of my eating disorder was in the industry"

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published October 28, 2022 2:59PM (EDT)

Chef cooking in commercial kitchen (Getty Images/Ryan McVay)
Chef cooking in commercial kitchen (Getty Images/Ryan McVay)

Mireille Discher doesn't remember a time when she didn't have what she describes broadly as "problems with food." Discher was an overweight kid who cycled through crash diets in an effort to curb comments about her weight, establishing habits of restriction and subsequent rewards that would follow her into adulthood.

That didn't stop Discher from falling in love with chocolate, however, first as a self-taught enthusiast, next as an apprentice, then as the head chocolatier for an international brand in London. It was a rigorous job — one that required serious mental acuity during long, hot shifts of being on one's feet. It was an old-school environment where emotions had no place on the line.

"It was already kind of badly seen for you to take a break to go to the loo," Discher told me during a recent Zoom call. "So if you had asked to kind of take a break to sit down for five minutes and have a snack, it was like, 'What the heck are you doing?'"

Discher would work for hours surrounded by decadent creations — scorched hazelnuts lacquered in chocolate, praline quail eggs, red miso caramels —without stopping to eat or drink herself. When she finally did, she would binge.

"I suppose I have always enjoyed food in a broad aspect," Discher said. "I enjoy cooking at home. I enjoy cooking for people, but when you start working with it for like 12 to 16 hours a day — that's when I kind of started having real trouble with it. My eating disorder didn't originate in the food industry, but the peak of my eating disorder was in the industry."

And Discher isn't alone.

"My eating disorder didn't originate in the food industry, but the peak of my eating disorder was in the industry."

According to a 2021 report by the mental health nonprofit Not 9 to 5, 63% of 673 restaurant and hospitality industry professionals indicated in a survey that they had "experienc[ed] symptoms of disordered eating."

It's a statistic that Not 9 to 5 co-founder and executive director Hassel Aviles believes would hold true using an even larger sample size. It's also shockingly high compared to research from The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, which shows that 9% of the general U.S. population will have an eating disorder in their lifetime.

Despite their prevalence within the industry, eating disorders constitute a largely silent epidemic among culinary professionals, especially female and non-binary chefs.

"I think eating disorders are already inherently lonely because there is very little knowledge from the general public regarding what they actually look like," she said. "But there is even less talk about it in the industry. It's still taboo to talk about openly."


According to Aviles from Not 9 to 5, that culture of silence surrounding one's feelings or struggles is baked into the very system used as a framework of organization in professional kitchens, known as the brigades de cuisine, or brigade system.

"It's an oppressive system that exists within hospitality — and it's existed for way too long — but it still penetrates our industry to this day," Aviles said. "It is oppressive because it asks people to repress their humanity in the name of efficiency."

As the name suggests, the brigade system is militaristic by design. It's a dynamic hierarchy in which each member has a very specific role, from the plongeur (dishwasher) to the chef de cuisine (chief of the kitchen). Like the military, its adherents emphasize personal discipline as the key to achieving a collective goal; often, there's the mentality, which is reminiscent of boot camp, that staff need to be broken down in order to be built back better. 

That is the element of the brigade system that tends to captivate the most attention from those outside the industry, especially in Hollywood depictions of kitchen life like FX's "The Bear," the Bradley-Cooper fronted "Burnt" or even Disney's "Ratatouille." Through these depictions, as well as nonfiction projects such as Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential," Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares" and the 1990 book "White Heat" — in which chef Marco Pierre White infamously detailed his habit of putting cooks inside trash cans to punish them, among other forms of intimidation — the hot-headed but brilliant chef archetype was cemented in pop culture as a kind of culinary bad boy.

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As such, abusive work environments have been simultaneously glamorized and diminished over the course of many generations. (In my almost-decade of reporting on professional kitchens, the jokes I've heard about "crying in the walk-in" are innumerable.)

"It doesn't really matter what you're experiencing, or what you're feeling or what your needs are," Aviles said. "In the brigade system, it's all done in the name of getting the 'the job done' or pumping out whatever productivity is being demanded of you."

Thus, Discher's experience of working in a kitchen where breaks are discouraged as a display of weakness isn't that uncommon. A Chicago-based chef with whom I spoke, who asked to go solely by Lyn for privacy, recalled being demeaned at their first restaurant job. Because they were training for the Chicago Marathon, Lyn brought snacks to eat throughout their shift.

"The chef I was working under basically laughed and said, 'No way,'" they said. "He confiscated my food until the end of my shift to 'teach discipline,' and I just remember getting increasingly more and more shaky. I needed those extra calories, but he didn't want guests to see through the kitchen window that I was eating."


This industry-wide emphasis on perfection and aesthetic discipline can extend into expectations and judgments surrounding how chefs should look, especially in a cultural moment where top chefs straddle the line between culinary professional and TV or social media star.

Lyn, who has struggled with bulimia nervosa since they were 15 years old, said their weight has fluctuated throughout their career.

This industry-wide emphasis on perfection and aesthetic discipline can extend into expectations and judgments surrounding how chefs should look, especially in a cultural moment where top chefs straddle the line between culinary professional and TV or social media star.

"It's ironic because I was my thinnest when I was my unhealthiest," they said. "When I ended up putting some weight back on while in recovery, one guy I worked with joked that I must be taking second helpings during family meal. It was humiliating."

Discher has experienced similar exchanges.

"I have even had members of my own team make jokes about being fat or gaining weight," she said. "People will have the jokes between them, then look around and will be like, 'Oh shit, we should not have [said that].'"

In a follow-up email, Discher added: "Chefs are supposed to be healthy and have a good relationship with food to be good at the craft. If you are overweight, you are looked down as the one that does not have control or is lazy."

These judgments extend outside the professional kitchen and into the food industry at large. Stacy Brooks, a Minnesota-based food writer, has struggled with disordered eating since she was 13. She is now 35.

"Only a handful of people I'm very close to know that I struggle with disordered eating, so it's very isolating," Brooks wrote via email. "I feel like I can't be open about my disordered eating because I would lose credibility, especially when it comes to writing restaurant reviews or reviewing recipes. I cover the local restaurant scene but rarely eat out unless it's for a specific assignment; there are a whole slew of foods I rarely eat because I'm restrictive about calories; and I tend to cook the same handful of fairly simple recipes over and over again because I know that they fit the parameters of what I allow myself to eat."


It could seem like the solution to combatting disordered eating in the kitchen is as simple as "breaking the silence" surrounding it, but there are systems that would need to be interrogated or dismantled beforehand. The first is the aforementioned brigade system.

During our conversation, Aviles clarified that she doesn't expect kitchens all across the globe to drop the brigade system overnight. However, she's hoping conversations about it will happen due simply to the fact that, as it operates, the system is a major contributor to burnout and mental health challenges within the industry. 

"I'm not here to tell you to flip your kitchen tomorrow, but what I am suggesting is getting curious," she said. "Explore what psychological safety is and, further, figure out how to incorporate it into your own kitchen because every kitchen is different. There's no perfect formula you can apply everywhere. It requires a lot of learning and unlearning and directly connects to education and training, which aren't often provided in this industry."

Secondly, societal sexism and misogyny contribute to silence surrounding eating disorders within the industry.

"I think it's important to highlight which people have power at the top of any hierarchy, and definitely four or five years ago, they were mostly men," Aviles said. "I think it [the silence] is partially a gender thing. I think oftentimes we think of disordered eating or eating disorders as women's issues."

While men do suffer from disordered eating, women are up to 500% more likely to develop an eating disorder in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. As the number of women chefs does increase — they make up 24% of the industry, per the U.S. Census Bureau — it may take some of them speaking more openly about their personal struggles to draw attention to the systemic issues that contribute to it, as well as to advocate for industry-specific modes of prevention and treatment. 

This shift is already well underway in the realm of substance abuse in the kitchen, as a number of male chefs, from David McMillan to Andrew Zimmern, have spoken publicly about dealing with addiction.

But Stacy Brooks believes that until the general American public better understands eating disorders and how they manifest, food professionals will continue to suffer — both in and out of the kitchen.

"I think that until there is a broader cultural shift there won't be meaningful change within the industry," she said.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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