How One GM Keeps His Head Clear In a Demanding, Indulgent Industry
Norman's Ezra Pollard on structuring your life around what works.
March 19, 2018 ● 10 min read
By Lauren Friel | Photograph by Marina Xu; Photo illustration by ChefsFeed
Ezra Pollard is the newly minted GM at Scandinavian-swaying Norman in Brooklyn.
We caught up with him in the midst of all the transition to talk about attention-deficit disorder, seasonal depression, and the greater implications of shitty Chinese takeout. Pollard 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.
Ezra Pollard: I think it all starts for me around 11 or 12 years old. There was just this total shift in my awareness of the world. School became tricky for me—sitting in one place, listening to somebody else talk. Things a lot of people have problems with.
But, in sixth grade, I basically went to bed and didn’t get up for 6 months. I just shut down. Couldn’t do it.
Lauren Friel: How did your family respond to that?
EP: For a long time, it was just trying to figure out what the medical thing was that was wrong. Like, is this mono? Is this something else? I was seeing different specialists and being treated for all this stuff. And then it became a mix of therapy—which I hated—and antidepressants. It pulled me out of that so I could go back to school.
In high school, I was regularly going to therapy and on medication for depression and ADD. That’s kind of the dark time for me. I didn’t really appreciate the way that any of that medication made me feel. The type of therapy that I was in, and my inability to be open or positive about it, made that a bad experience.
LF: Can you describe that a little more?
EP: It’s kind of textbook angst. I was a teenager being sent to somebody who I didn’t think understood what was going on with me, who I didn’t want to talk to in the first place. But I was also like, “I don’t know you. You’re not telling me anything about you. Why would I trust your opinion when this isn’t a two-way dialogue?” Which I understand is not how therapy works, but at the time I couldn’t get over it.
LF: Maybe it should be, especially for kids. You’re so vulnerable, and there isn’t any foundation there beyond the perceived professional credentials of this person.
EP: Right. And, [for] 12-year-old me, idolizing Rage Against the Machine and rock ‘n roll and whatever, a degree and a bowtie are not things that are reassuring to me in terms of capability. There was no inherent respect for anything institutional.
LF: How did that shift into adulthood?
EP: Well, by the middle of high school, I was a little bit older, [with] a little more confidence and the room to do things that made me happy.
I started working in a restaurant when I was 16. I could leave school, which was not my favorite, and go to this other place where I was interacting with adults, and moving fast, and doing a job. My parents weren’t worried because I was at work, and it allowed me to be more independent, financially.
I recognize [ADD] is a real thing, but telling people they have a problem because they can’t sit down for many hours at a time? The inability to be still for very long and the need to focus on many things at one time–that’s kind of a base skill for restaurant work. It’s cool to me that some people can do that, but it seems really unnatural to me.
LF: Like your perceived deficiency in the rest of the day-walking world becomes…
EP: A foundational tool.
LF: And something that people who haven’t worked in the industry often struggle with if they try to jump in.
EP: Right. It’s not like it’s just running around, of course. There are a lot of emails, and there are meetings, and there’s time management. But, at the same time, there’s a lot of movement, and a lot of physical work, and a lot of interaction.
I think for a lot of us who struggle with this stuff, you start to notice patterns in yourself. Like now, I think seasonal depression is a huge problem for me.
LF: Especially living on the East coast, I imagine.
EP: Right, which is the only place I’ve ever lived, essentially. I think I gave into that for a lot of years.
LF: What do you mean?
EP: Just being like, ok, November through March are just going to be a slump. Less productive, not feeling great about things, being less healthy.
LF: That’s almost half the year.
EP: Yeah, right? And it’s not extreme all the time, but there’s that middle section where I can pull myself out of bed, and go to work, and come home, and I can pull myself out of bed for work the next day, but that’s sort of it. I really had to learn about paying more attention to physical health. Running, working out, swimming, proactively spending time outdoors. These things so dramatically affect my chemistry and the way that I feel. Endorphins. All the good chemical brain stuff. It’s also about feeling productive. You’ve done something that moves you toward a goal.
I don’t really do this anymore, but there was a time when I kept a running list of all the things I liked that I would refer to when things seemed kind of fucked. I could be like, “Wait a minute. Look this list! Arugula, and soup, and sunshine, and friends.” Then, I’d figure out which of the things on the list were accessible to me, and I’d try to get near them. Music is huge, too.
LF: What’s the last track on your Spotify playlist right now?
EP: There’s a song off the latest Migos album, called “Made Men,” that has a pretty relaxing, vibey production. I’m not always a Migos fanboy, but this is a good one.
LF: Do you have “on” days and “off” days?
EP: The ADD thing isn’t a problem for me at this stage in my life. With this kind of work, I don’t really feel affected by it. The depression, though, absolutely. It’s about checking in with myself on a day-to-day basis and asking, “Are the feelings that I’m feeling the result of something that’s going on in my life? Can I affect or change that? Or is this simply chemical?”
Is it as simple as getting up even though you don’t want to, running for twenty minutes, stretching, and seeing if your perspective has changed? Just forcing myself to have that conversation every day is important. And also knowing that I have amazing people in my life who help to point that out, whether it’s my girlfriend or my parents. Just having them around to say, “Hey, I hear what you’re saying about this whole thing, but why don’t you go swim and then see what it looks like afterward?”
LF: How did you learn to do the checking-in thing?
EP: I’m not sure. I think it kind of evolved naturally. Not in a void—I’m sure I was influenced by other mindful people. But it wasn’t something I started doing overnight. It’s just the evolution of taking more and more time to pay attention to myself and how I’m feeling.
LF: Do you find that it always works?
EP: Almost ten out of ten times, if I get up and do the thing, I can fix it. Like, go on a bike ride, eat a sandwich. Do a little nice thing for yourself, and do something that helps you get active. That almost always solves it.
But the trick is that I can’t always get myself to do the thing. There are also days when I’m feeling that way, and on some level I acknowledge what it is, but I’m like, “You know what? I don’t have the time, or I just don’t care.” And I’ll just sit around and not do much, or just go right to work.
LF: So, fix it, or ignore it, or indulge it? Like, fix it, or go to work, or sit on the couch and eat chips.
EP: Yeah, Seamless. Seamless is like the ultimate “I give up” for me.
LF: What’s your go-to Seamless-I-Give-Up order?
EP: It depends on how much I’ve given up. There’s a lot of really bad Chinese food you can order on Seamless in New York City. And that’s like, “I feel bad. I know what I could do to feel worse.” It really is like a self-destructive behavior. I could walk two minutes from my house and get a falafel wrap for $3.50. That’s positive food. If I’m instead paying $20 to have somebody bring super greasy Chinese food into my apartment, there’s something going on there.
LF: Is that when your girlfriend’s like, “Hey babe, anything you want to talk about?”
EP: [Laughs] There’s definitely a level of that, yeah.
LF: Do you think restaurants became a safe landing zone for you?
EP: Yeah. I went to school for advertising, and I got out of school and immediately got the advertising job. Big agency. I did it for a year, and that was, just, full-scale depression.
EP: I was just working against the way my brain likes to work so much, and it was so indoors. If I was going to work at 9 a.m. and staying at work until 8 p.m., I never saw the sun. I was still working a restaurant job on Saturdays, because I wasn’t making enough money, and I couldn’t do anything on Sundays because I was just dead. That was really hard to crawl out of.
Finally, some of my really close friends were like, “Dude. Get out of there.” I ended up applying for a serving job at Sycamore, and it was so good.
LF: What was so good about it?
EP: At the agency, I wasn’t autonomous. There was a ton of bureaucracy and a lot of archaic systems. I couldn’t use my own common sense. People weren’t that weird, or funny, or interesting. I was sitting down indoors all day, like I said. Being back in a restaurant, I was working around food, and wine, and beer. I was with these people I could instantly relate to. Working with people in advertising was really hard for me, but I can inherently relate to restaurant people.
LF: A lot of people say that. Why do you think it is that restaurant people tend to get along best with other restaurant people?
EP: Without romanticizing or exaggerating it, there is a little bit of an alternative lifestyle to the restaurant thing. It’s not really “the track.” There are so many people in restaurants who are like, “I saw the thing you’re supposed to do, and it didn’t really seem like the thing I wanted to do. And I love food and beverage.” In advertising, you don’t get a lot of people who are like, “I’m here because I fucking love advertising.”
LF: Are you able to talk about mental health issues with other restaurant people?
EP: I’m a pretty open guy, and sometimes I feel like if I talk about these things enough, they’ll go away. Being afraid to talk about something that’s in my head gives the thing more power.
Also, it’s New York City. Everybody has anxiety and depression issues. I never really dealt with anxiety before I moved here. I had a moment on my walk to work one day when my heart rate was at 140 BPM, and I was really worried that something was physically wrong. I went to urgent care, and they told me I was having an anxiety attack. I was like, “What? That’s not me.” The second one I had happened in an IKEA, which is probably the number one place in New York City where people have anxiety attacks.
Since moving to New York, it’s happened to me a few times. There’s something really special about this city that brings that out. I’ve lived in bigger cities; I lived in Tokyo for a year. It’s not just the size or the number of people. I haven’t really put my finger on what it is. There’s something about the balance of social expectations and work expectations. Everybody’s very on, all the time. It’s hard to do all of that and still find time for yourself, and time to be healthy. Now, when I start to recognize that it’s happening, I know I need to not go out and meet up with people, and take a couple of days off from drinking.
It’s hard to talk about mental health and restaurants without mentioning alcohol. It’s a part of the equation for a lot of people. If you’re working long weeks, and you get out of work at 1 am, and you haven’t had the chance to hang out with anybody all day, it’s a very logical and therapeutic thing to go hang out at a bar and catch up with some people, and have a couple beers. But, it’s pretty easy for that to slow roll into something more.
Beverage is a big part of what we do. So, it’s just another thing that becomes part of the daily check-in.
LF: Have you had moments when you realized hanging out at the bar was affecting your ability to take care of yourself in the way that you want to?
EP: Yeah, absolutely.
LF: What do you do when you notice that’s happening?
EP: Take a couple days off. Reel it in. I’ve done sober January, and I think for a lot of people that’s just a healthy way to start the New Year. For a lot of other people, it’s making sure the brakes still work. Especially in restaurants, it’s easy to go for a couple months having a couple of drinks every night. So, reminding yourself that you can go five days, socially and physically, without having a beer or a cocktail after work can have its benefits.
LF: Everyone has different opinions about the lifestyle in the industry—what’s sustainable and what’s not. Do you ever worry about addiction?
EP: Hard to say. It’s definitely something I pay really close attention to, and something I understand could be slippery. I have a pretty tight support group. My friends and I, we really keep each other in check. There’s a dialogue around this, and people tend to be pretty self-aware.
LF: When I put this call out for people to talk to me about mental health, it was mostly women who responded. What’s it like being a guy who’s open about this stuff?
EP: On one level, I’d say I’m in so much Boston-style denial that I completely dissociate the things we’ve been talking about from being actual feelings. I’m like, “No, no, no. We’re talking about my brain chemistry. These aren’t feelings.”
I don’t feel very emotionally vulnerable talking about these things because they are really just observations about how my self works. Like, if I had a bad ankle, and I needed to do things to make sure it didn’t hurt me throughout the day. It’s just trying to do that for my brain. Not to say that I have a bad brain.
LF: It just needs a little extra assistance every once in a while.
It’s a little ironic, I just want to add, because I’ve been talking to you and telling you all these things I do to take care of myself, and meanwhile I’m not doing any of them this week. I haven’t been to the gym in at least six days. The reality is that there are a lot of 60-hour weeks, and a fair amount of 80-hour weeks. Sometimes there just isn’t time to make stuff like this happen.
LF: And you have to forgive yourself for that.