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Restaurant workers struggle to find work-life balance in a high pressure industry

Recent deaths of several high-profile chefs have thrown the unforgiving pace of the restaurant world into the spotlight.

Years ago, restauranteur Gary Strack told The Boston Globe he went to the roof of his restaurant, Central Kitchen in Central Square, and cut the fan belt on his exhaust system. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Restaurants and the people who run them are often praised for being creative, fast-paced, and a little temperamental, but a recent string of deaths of high-profile chefs has thrown the industry’s unrelenting work culture into the spotlight.

Boston restauranteur Gary Strack recently told The Boston Globe that after months of working seven days a week, he became so desperate for a break, he went to the roof of his restaurant, Central Kitchen in Central Square, and cut the fan belt on his exhaust system. He told his staff to go home citing a “kitchen problem.”

Strack’s anecdote may sound comical, but the owner of four Boston hotspots told the Globe the extreme measures he took show he didn’t have the ability to articulate how burned out he was — a common theme in restaurants, where mental stoicism is often regarded as the sign of a good chef.

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When Boston.com asked Jamie Bissonnette, the head chef and co-owner of South End restaurants Toro and Coppa, how he won a James Beard Award (the culinary world’s highest honor) a couple years ago, he didn’t say it was because he’s the most talented chef on the East Coast.

He just said he works really, really hard.

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“I don’t keep track of how many hours I work per week,” he said. “As a business owner, I feel like I’m always working.”

While many sectors are undergoing shifting values that emphasize work-life balance, much of the restaurant industry has been left behind. Employees should not expect any nap rooms or ping-pong tables.

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Yet some local chefs are fighting the status quo, pushing for more relaxed work environments that address the mental health needs of their workers through means not including a stiff drink.

For example, the Barbara Lynch Gruppo (which includes the Boston restaurants Sportello, No. 9 Park, B&G Oysters, and Menton) started offering mental health counseling in 2013.

With many area restaurants facing a kitchen staff shortage, more venues might consider offering unique perks to employees, like offering to help find affordable housing or giving young chefs more creative license.

Read the full Globe story here.

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