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Chef Greg Baker On Mental Health: 'It's OK To Not Be OK'

Greg Baker, a James Beard Award nominee, has struggled with depression and anxiety — like many others in the restaurant industry.

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NOTE: This episode of the Zest podcast contains a discussion about depression, anxiety and suicide. If you’re experiencing a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. You can also text HOME to 741741 for free, 24/7 crisis counseling.

Over his career, Greg Baker worked his way up from teenage dishwasher to a six-time James Beard Award nominated chef.

He loves how a plate of food can make someone happy.

But for Greg and countless others in the restaurant industry, the work often has the opposite effect.

“I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety as long as I can remember, back to preschool years,” Greg says. A career in the restaurant industry exasperated these issues.

Greg is perhaps best known as the chef behind The Refinery, a popular farm-to-table restaurant in Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood that he owned from 2010 to 2019 with his wife, Michelle Baker. She ran the business during the day. He cooked during the dinner shift, often not getting home until 11 p.m.

By that time, Michelle was asleep. The dogs were asleep. Greg routinely found himself “all keyed up [with] nowhere to go,” he says.

So he drank. Too much.

“One drink too many, and I would go to a really dark place, really quick,” Greg recalls.

Working weekends didn’t help.

“You work when other people are playing, so your connection to the outside world is fairly severed,” Greg says of the restaurant industry. He missed parties and family gatherings. “Now your social circle is your coworkers,” many of whom also had substance abuse issues, he says.

In addition to unconventional hours, Greg says systemic issues in the restaurant industry contribute to the mental toll.

“The old system is built on a military model where you take a new recruit and you break them down in boot camp until they have no sense of self left. And then you build them back in your model,” he says. “So the whole system was designed to break you.”

Eventually, Greg rebuilt himself with the help of a therapist. Instead of alcohol to deal with stress, he now turns to exercise and meditation. They’re not a cure-all, he says, but they help.

Since he retired from and closed The Refinery, Greg has found a second act as a consultant for chefs and restauranteurs. He’s also become a vocal advocate for mental health in the service industry. In 2019, Greg wrote an essay for Food and Wine titled What to Do with the Empty Hour, about the precarious stretch of time between when restaurant employees leave work and when they go to bed.

“After I wrote this, a lot of people reached out and related,” Greg says.

He also became certified in mental health first aid through the National Council for Behavioral Health. And in July 2021, he participated in Tampa Theatre’s panel discussion about mental health after a screening of the documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.

Baker points to the suicides of Bourdain and comedian Robin Williams as examples of people who seemed to have it all on the outside but struggled internally.

His advice for customers who want to be good allies to folks in the restaurant business? Just be nice.

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Dalia Colón is excited to return to WUSF as producer of the Zest podcast. From 2010 to 2014, Dalia covered health and features for WUSF. Before that, she was a staff reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and Cleveland Magazine.