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Mental Health and Burgers

Written By Tyler Da Silva

Burgers and Mental Health, a combination you probably didn’t think would go hand in hand but one that is surprisingly getting the word out surrounding an amazing cause while also eating delicious food. Thanks to co-founders Ben Holman and James Cormier, the capital has now experienced its inaugural “Ottawa Burger Fest” in support of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ottawa Branch.

I got the incredible chance to sit down with Ben and chat about this new project while enjoying a mouth-watering burger at The Clarendon Tavern. It was super refreshing to have such an honest discussion as to why this is such an important issue and how this event goes beyond people simply buying a burger. 

As Ben and James, who are roommates, were sitting at home this past spring a very simple question came up between them; what can two guys do to support an important cause that will ultimately benefit this city? The answer came quicker than I’m sure either of them expected. With both guys working in the restaurant industry (Ben at the new Gitanes on Elgin and James at King Eddy on Clarence), they instantly knew they needed to find a way to bring more awareness to Mental Health issues in Ottawa, but especially those who are affected by these issues in the restaurant industry. 

So how do we approach mental health? As a whole, the conversation is taking off and becoming more acceptable on a larger social scale and people are coming out and showing that it’s ok to not be ok. 

But is it still taboo in our industry? Have we yet to implement a culture that accepts those that don’t want to partake in the post-service lifestyle? Are we truly making the change to allow people the time needed to take care of themselves? What steps are being taken to ensure that those who work in this industry don’t have to feel overwhelmed and overworked? And do we all share a responsibility to make sure everyone feels understood and heard when it comes to their mental health?

Mental health and addiction is a tough subject and one that should never be taken lightly. So consider this a small part of an ongoing discussion/dialogue to help understand and support those that are affected by these issues, and to get us all to the point of working in a healthy and balanced environment. 

Creating Ottawa Burger Fest was important to Ben and James, and now they’re 5 other partners because, even in their younger days, they’ve seen first hand what this industry can do to individuals. And if you continue to read on please note: I will be blunt when unpacking the issues that Ben and I talked about when addressing the harsh realities of our work culture, and the elements that impact one's mental health.  

Food and drink is a human necessity. It is a communal table we share with loved ones, new friends, or as individuals. I truly believe that the purpose of the restaurant industry is to take what we need as humans and elevate it to places that we ourselves could not imagine. Going out to dine is purely about getting to know another person on a plate or in a glass. It is our duty to service the guest beyond their expectations. Yet the truth is, this is, and always has been an industry of abuse

Where does that abuse come from? As with mental health and addiction, there are many avenues in which you could make an argument. Today though, let’s touch on a couple. 

The untold pressure we experience each service to make sure a stranger is completely satisfied is an extremely intense responsibility most nights. Seems wild even writing that fact down. In my career, I’ve cooked for thousands of people, yet I probably have cooked for about 150 that I actually know. The rest are all table numbers and mods. The culture in the kitchen is changing in small steps, there’s still a ton of work needed to be done to ensure long and sustainable careers, but I do see the change in our community. But to the guest, it seems we are still ones and zeros, as seen through online reviews and how we are perceived by the diner. I often ask myself if the average person who uses a certain tone or language when they visit a restaurant shares the same sentiment when grandma takes too long to cook the turkey on thanksgiving. Our standards are held just as high as our guests, however, we are still human and that pressure is a big factor in how strenuous it can be mentally to cook. 

To the front of house, God bless ya. Here’s another hard reality; guest abuse can easily lead to someone medicating with drugs/alcohol, which lends no favours to a person's mental health. As a worker who is dependant on tips, you can be sure that server or bartender isn’t  ‘out’ to get the guest, but dining out and having a positive experience is a two-way street. No, I don’t believe the guest is always right, and there are times when that mentality is used as an excuse to abuse those that are trying to serve a person or table to the best of their abilities. This is what I mean by taboo, but it’s the truth and needs to be talked about. How many nights are spent drinking, talking about service and using alcohol/drugs to take the pressure off of what we are able to accomplish in a night. 

Recently I was out to dinner and met someone who works as an addictions counsellor. She told me that of the 9 clients she was seeing, 3 of them were current or former restaurant workers. Those aren’t percentages I’m happy with at all, and I’m glad people like Ben are spearheading ways to help fund programs that support those who wish to better themselves. 

Mental health needs to become a constant discussion in our industry. We’ve got to be there for our crew and make sure that everyone feels welcome and unafraid to talk about what’s going on in their personal lives if they so choose. This is an industry of constant pressure, to be able to perform to our highest ability each and every night, and that can and does take a toll on us. 

Having this discussion with Ben about how to take small steps in bettering ourselves and our environment was super refreshing and I promise that here on Sauce/ on side it is something we will continue to talk about as we go forward. 

Ottawa Crisis Line: 613.722.6914
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