According to the data from Chef’s with Issues: Mental Health Survey, “84.2% of chefs suffer from depression, 73.2% suffer from anxiety, and 49.9% deal with substance abuse issues. Furthermore, 57% of the survey-takers felt uncomfortable openly addressing mental health issues at work.”
Little awareness is brought to this facet of the restaurant industry. The intense physical and emotional demands of the industry are some reasons chefs, including Anthony Bourdain, have committed suicide within the last few years. Although Bourdain’s suicide brought increased attention to the mental health issues circling the food world, it is chef and restaurant owner, Jessica Largey, who has taken matters into her hands. Not only is she trying to create a mentally and physically healthy work environment for her restaurant, but her own mental well-being is of first concern to her career.
When Largey was five, she cooked scrambled eggs for herself without any parent supervision. Before the age of 30, she was a multiple award winner, the 2015 James Beard Award being the most prestigious. Today, almost four years later, she is still known as one of the youngest chefs in the culinary world. As most would assume, her success in the kitchen and dedication to the mental health movement did not come so effortlessly.
Largey grew up in Fillmore, Ventura County, on a small agricultural town. Her environment, surrounded by farming, sustainability, and produce, prompted her early interest in food and cooking. Not only was she cooking eggs for herself but also heavily participating in family dinner rotations, frequently visiting her local butcher shop, and willingly cooking for friends during hangouts. Despite Largey’s appreciation for her hometown, she always felt out of place. Largey struggled with depression and anxiety, but it wasn’t until high school when she realized those feelings were uncommon among most of her peers.
Her mother suggested she apply to the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, which she did at 16, with two years left of high school. Remarkably, the initiation of her culinary career silenced her mental demons. Following culinary school, she began working at the two-star Michelin restaurant, Chef Michael Cimarusti’s Providence. Within a month, she was running her own kitchen station, and soon after, moved up as lead chef of the fish station.
“I’ve had incredible opportunities. I don’t want to say it’s luck because I do think I’ve worked really hard,” Largey reflects. “But, I realize how fortunate I’ve been to work in the restaurants I’ve worked in and have it all lined up so beautifully.” Throughout the next six years, she would work at many more iconic, Michelin star restaurants, such as the Fat Duck, LAMill, Bastide, and Manresa.
At 25, during her time at Manresa, Largey was promoted to chef de cuisine, a title she felt belonged to the more experienced chefs in the kitchen. It wasn’t long before her anxiety and depression crept back in. Her confidence flagged, further weakened by personal self-imposed expectations. Despite her success thus far, she didn’t have the tools to manage a kitchen let alone take care of herself. Without any managing experience or co-workers to look up to, Largey felt lost, unable to separate the difference between her identity as a chef and her identity as “Jessica.”
Largey’s partner was the first to point out her odd behavior, expressing worry about the unhealthy path she was headed down. This confrontation encouraged her to start therapy, quit her job at Manresa, and take a three-year sabbatical from the culinary scene. Her family and friends were very supportive, but it was ultimately her own decision to take this hiatus from the culinary world. “I needed this time for myself. It was non-negotiable. It was my only choice, and I was ready for it,” says Largey.
Her view on life and herself shifted as a result of therapy, and she has no regrets. Largey believes in the power of having someone outside your own world, hearing and validating you for the person you are. This healing process allowed Largey to find herself again and also learn how to find joy in her life through things such as hiking, meditation, travel, home-cooking, and eating! She slowly began to rediscover the “Jessica Largey” people found solace in seeing, talking to, and being around.
“It’s polarizing to work in restaurants, especially when [it comes down to] managing people in the right ways. And it’s so hard for women in the restaurant industry to speak up or say anything. We’re expected to act tougher and stronger. We can’t be weak. If someone in the industry would have been vocal about any sort of mental health struggles eight years ago, I would have felt a lot more understood. If we are not caring about the lives of the people making and serving the food, this new restaurant culture is hopeless,” Largey remarks with conviction.
By sharing her story, Largey discovered she has impacted others in ways that feed her soul, simultaneously destigmatizing mental health within Los Angeles’s high-end restaurant world. Largey aims to support anyone battling his or her own demons, even if it is only one person. This will keep her accountable and driven to continue in her own recovery.
Last year, Largey returned to the restaurant scene, more determined and energetic than ever. Certainty infuses her voice when she mentions her decision to co-find the Arts District’s newest restaurant, Simone.
At Simone, Largey has created a supportive and positive work environment where people can come to create, innovate, work hard, and have a healthy work-life balance. She has forged a place where her employees feel heard and valued. They are able to prioritize themselves and their needs, all while still being able to find their identity inside and outside of the kitchen. This is why her current staff members came to work for her in the first place. They were touched by her openness to vulnerability. They wanted to work for someone who understood and honoured the vulnerabilities of being human.
“I’m sick of the [restaurant] industry not doing that.” Largey adds, “I want to care for people. I want to do what I believe in and stand behind what I do. I want people to know that it is okay to struggle and be in a hard place. I struggle, but I am okay with that. I trust that I’ve gained the tools to cope, and I’m committed to prioritizing myself. I’m still learning, and I will always be learning. It’s all part of the process.”
This piece was originally written February 13, 2019 in The Second Power Grid, a zine focused on food culture in Los Angeles. Read more work from The Second Power Grid on Ampersand, an Arts & Culture digital magazine based out of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.