No-Bullshit Conversations About Mental Health in The Industry

We talk to chef Rachel Miller about depression, environment, and awareness in the first installment of our new column.

March 2, 2018 ● 8 min read

By Lauren Friel | Photograph by Liana Van de Water, Photo illustration by ChefsFeed

Rachel Miller is the founder and chef of Nightshade, a Vietnamese-influenced pop-up restaurant, as well as the Executive Chef of Soall Bistro, both on Boston's North Shore. Before leaving Boston proper, Rachel ran some of its most lauded kitchens, taking on the role of executive sous chef at Bondir and chef de cuisine at TW Food, Coppa, and Clio, Ken Oringer's former flagship.

Miller is among dozens of brave chefs, bartenders, servers, and general managers who volunteered to discuss their mental health journeys with ChefsFeed in an effort to normalize discussion and foster self-care in our industry. (She also volunteered to go first, so give her a high-five for being generally rad if you meet her.)

Lauren Friel: For some people, mental health is a journey, long or short. What are some things you’ve struggled with along the way?

Rachel Miller: Underlying depression, all the time. There are a lot of things that stem off from that. I’ve been in therapy pretty much my whole life, until this past year, which has been a different experience for me, mentally.

LF: Being out of therapy?

RM: Yeah. I’ve been back-and-forth in it, from childhood to adulthood. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do—I was always happy to go. When I was a kid I was pissed, but as an adult, I’m like, “Thank god.”

But, the stuff that stems off from the depression—it’s mostly this crippling social anxiety, which makes it a lot more difficult to do my job. Even little things like going out to talk to a guest become the most nerve-wracking thing. There are a lot of exercises and mental preparation, but you don’t have time to do them at work. I never really know when I’m going to feel that way, so it’s hard to have a constant guard up.

That’s the most constant issue I’ve had my whole life. Surprise and social interactions just shut me down completely. I never know what to do with it or how to react, especially professionally. So I just try to stay out of as many things as possible.

LF: How do you mean?

RM: Like, I don’t typically volunteer to do things like this. Lately, in the last two months, I’ve been accepting invitations to things I know will make me uncomfortable, because I know I can’t act like this forever if I want my own restaurant. I need to get it together.

I need to learn how to be social, which isn’t something you do when you’re in a kitchen 80 hours a week—you, like, talk shit with the same four people. We’re like cave people. Depression is totally normal. I expect to feel that way at this point. It’s not a big deal. But when presented with a challenge socially, I’m just not ok. That’s the most constant issue and the hardest thing to deal with.

LF: How did you first know you were depressed? How did you identify it?

RM: I don’t think it was defined to me until I was in therapy, and I heard that word for the first time.

LF: What did that feel like? To be told you were suffering from depression?

RM: I don’t even know how old I was. I was just like, “Ok. What do I do with that?”

I’m piecing together now that that was also the period when I was figuring out that I was gay, and what that meant. So that was the most confusing era—like, ever. It was the same sort of feeling I had when someone first said to me, “Oh, you’re a lesbian.” And everyone has their preconceived notions about what that means. So those were two big buzzwords in my life, all of a sudden.

As I’ve gotten older, both of those things have made more sense. I can figure out how to separate them and how to deal with each of them. They do come hand-in-hand.

LF: Why do you think that is?

RM: At least for me, it just meant being more different. I always felt different from other girls. I’d try to fake it. But it just meant not fitting in, and just being really different. I don’t think my parents had an idea of what I’d be, but it was… news. The level of embarrassment that comes with it when you’re a kid was really crushing. I don’t think I really grew out of a lot of that. I think it’s fair to still be sort of haunted by those things.

LF: It’s a formative experience. It changes…

RM: Everything. The whole world.

LF: And the way you interact with people, the way people interact with you. The way you think about yourself.

RM: Being around people who might be afraid to interact with you. That’s the worst.

LF: Have you experienced that?

RM: Yeah. For multiple reasons, besides being gay and a teenager. When I was younger, I was a lot more extravagant—foot-tall mohawk, whole nine yards, which I’m sure added to some of that, growing up in Virginia and Mississippi.

But that’s how Nightshade developed. It became too difficult for me to manage the weight in my head being on someone else’s schedule. I couldn’t work like that anymore. It just made sense for me to just cook food to survive, and process. I needed a creative outlet. I mean, I can do these banquets and make some potato thing, but I just wasn’t expressing myself anymore. But that’s the most important part of my job. I have no other outlet.

[Nightshade] is the outlet. And it’s stressful as fuck. I knew it was gonna be stressful, but holy shit, it’s really stressful. But, at the end, I love it. When it’s happening, it’s fine. And I do love the stress. It’s a distraction, which is probably the bigger part for me. It just keeps me from hanging on to everything. I’ll get hooked on details for days, and it’ll destroy me.

LF: The anxiety brain.

RM: Exactly. Especially if I have to talk to a stranger or something. The women I work for, and my coworkers, they know. If they ever see me at a table, that’s their cue to come save me. Immediately.

LF: So, you use cooking as a distraction from some of your mental health stuff, right? Do you ever think that it’s always positive, or do you think that it sometimes affects you negatively?

RM: In the long term, I think it affects me negatively because I’m not dealing with anything I should be dealing with. My employers right now will be like, “Where’s your pulse? Feel your pulse. You need to chill.” It’ll be my day off, and I’ll be sending them menus, and ideas, and plans. It’s good, for employers, because they get way more than they pay for, and it has made me successful for my age, which I’m really proud of.

That’s where I level out. Of course, cooking is kind of masochistic. I do go to these extremes, where I don’t take care of myself. I’m kind of coming out of that right now, actually. Like, I haven’t run in months. I can’t just lay here. It’s not making me feel better.

LF: What about cooking is masochistic for you?

RM: The expectation I have for myself. Just the way I was brought up in it. Not that my previous employers were evil or anything, but they were just really dedicated to their work, and this is my version of being dedicated.

But that’s sort of a theme with some of the other cooks that I know. You can’t go see Grandma. There’s no one to take your shift. There’s no one to cover you. You can’t just not show up.

LF: I feel like everyone says cooking is masochistic, and everyone has their own version of what that means to them.

RM: Yeah, and the older I get, the harder that’s becoming. Or just being so exhausted. But that’s ok. Because I know it’s gonna happen. It’s not, like, shocking, it just is what it is.

Photo by Chris Tenore

LF: Are you doing anything for yourself right now that you would consider self-care?

RM: [laughs]

LF: Okay, if you’re not, what have you done in the past that has worked for you? 

RM: Yoga. I just like that it forces me to be quiet and still. I’m so wound up. I’m tired, but I could always keep going. Yoga was something that I loved. And running. Like I mentioned, I’ve been in a rut for three months. It’s the winter rut that I expect. It’s like clockwork. When winter’s coming, I know I’m just gonna feel like shit for a while.

But, physical activity, definitely. Not exercising and trying to work those hours is not nice, and it makes things more difficult, emotionally. Physical activity just makes me more in touch with myself. I am known to take those things to the extreme, though, and then I end up hurting myself. Like, I was running 10 miles a day at one point. Five miles before work and five miles after. After a 16-hour day, that’s too much. Eventually, I just dropped on the line one night. I was feeling funny for a few days, but I just kept pushing. I had this idea that if I got my body together I’d feel better.

I try not to do that, but I’ll catch myself. I just ignore my body. That ties into work, too, though. I can’t care that my back hurts. I have this amazing ability to trick myself. I could tell myself the sky’s purple, and I’ll look out the window, and the fucking sky is purple. I guess that could count as self-care, in a weird way.

LF: Compartmentalizing is coping, sort of.

RM: Reading things that aren’t cookbooks is sort of a relief, too. I can read a book and not have to worry about learning or remembering what’s in it. It’s just someone else’s life or whatever. It makes me feel more human. I try not to do that.

LF: What do you mean you try not to do that? You mean you try not to feel human?

RM: I just try not to acknowledge my emotions. I just don’t have time. Like, my prep list is a mile and a half long, I have events every single Sunday between now and April. I’m not gonna deal with that right now.

LF: Does that bother you, or is it a tradeoff? Do you feel like you’re trading your mental health for the pop-up?

RM: All of the above, depending on the day. I definitely justify not taking care of things I should for professional reasons, which has always bitten me in the ass. And I know that it will. But the instant gratification of getting a job done is, like… I can succeed at this. I can do the job. I can’t do all the mental shit.

This is gonna be a process forever, and it’s just what I accept. It’s like, “Well, this is forever, so what’s another month?” When something happens, people who know me are like, “Just sweep that right under that rug, and we’ll talk about it in three months when you decide to cry randomly in the middle of the day.” And that definitely happens.

LF: And that’s ok. You deal with it when it won’t be allowed to be shoved under the rug anymore.

RM: Yeah, I’ve always spent a lot of time trying to focus on understanding that I’m not going to be able to do a lot about it. I spend a lot of time trying to navigate it. I know if I have a popup and a competition on the same day, I’m gonna feel like shit. I’m probably going to have a mini-meltdown 48 hours before. So, what am I going to do to prepare myself?

LF: That’s a self-styled mindfulness practice, in a sense.

RM: [laughs] Just plan on things sucking.

LF: There’s something to be said about that, though. A lot of people never reach that point or understand why they’re freaking out. It sounds like you’ve figured something out, or at least you know how to ride the wave.

RM: I feel lucky to have a great support system, too. Ultimately, that’s what allows me to even have time for these thought processes—I have a strong team at work, so I don’t have to worry there. We’re all pretty open together, and we’re all women, which is great.

LF: Do you think it’s easier for you, having a team of all women?

RM: Definitely. They just fucking get it. They can look at me, and they just know. We can read each other on an emotional level. We’re just in tune. I don’t think I could text any of my previous employers and be, like, “I need a mental health day.” But we take care of each other. I’m comfortable asking for that.

There aren’t egos, and tantrums, and pressure. Shit gets stressful, but that stuff doesn’t happen. As long as shit gets done, it’s ok. And it’s easier that way.

LF: Would you go back to more high-profile restaurants, in Boston or elsewhere? Or is this better for you?

RM: From a mental health perspective, this is way better. But I’d like to create that for myself here. I’m in a place where I’m not going to give someone 80 hours unless there’s creativity involved. If there’s creativity involved, it isn’t work. Right now, I don’t feel like I’m doing work. I just feel like I’m living life.