#wearenot9to5 is a series of stories about mental health & addiction from people in the hospitality, food & beverage service industry. We share these posts to normalize the challenges and decrease the stigma and shame.
“How food and cooking have shaped my relationship with my mental health”
Growing up, dealing with weight issues was tough for me. I was the big kid who couldn’t run, wasn’t confident enough to talk to girls, didn’t feel comfortable around certain friends and family because of their comments, ate in secret and for most of my youth, I hated the way I looked. It made me super anxious being in public, and while I didn’t recognize it at the time, these things took a toll on my mental health. And because I couldn’t recognize it, I couldn’t talk about it. I wasn’t particularly exposed to spaces where feelings were openly and honestly discussed, especially as a guy.
Now though, I can. We talk a lot more about mental health issues and I love it. At the same time, I’ve struggled with finding a place to have conversations on what I’ve had difficulty with. Being an African man, finding other guys like me who have struggled with eating disorders and body image issues hasn’t been easy. I don’t doubt that we’re out there. It might just be hard to talk about it; trust me I know.
Food has always been a big part of my family. It may in fact be synonymous with our last name. I sometimes think about how my cousins and I would gather on the floor at my dad’s parents’ house. We’d share a loaf of sweet yellow bread, our individual plates of oily peppery stew, and bite sized pieces of meat. At my mum’s parents house, we had perfectly ripened fried plantain (dodo) and fried eggs - an unmatched pair. We’d layer our eggs between our plantain and make little sandwiches. Most times we’d (at least I did) add ketchup because we were kids.
With my dad, on the other hand, I think sometimes he cooks because he needs to. It’s one of the many ways he speaks to and shares himself with us. He’s not a simple cook. He’s a person of process. His prep game is mad strong. Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria we’d go to his meat guy at Costain. Costain is hard to describe. Is it a meat market? Is it a butcher’s store? Is it just land underneath a bridge where you could choose your ram, cow, chicken, turkey, guinea fowl whatever you wanted, and have it carved up for you in no time? The details are trivial. I was more blown away by how he picked his ram of the day from, watched his guy slaughter and carve it up and then head home to help him prep. It’d be a whole day’s work that culminated in a pot of pepper soup thick with offals. Each spoon was half fatty goat meat, half spicy broth, the flavours elevated by hints of efinrin (African Basil) we grew in our garden. Pair that with some Goodies pita bread and you’re in heaven. When he comes to visit here in Canada, he spends hours fishing. He’s out at sunrise and back by midday with cooler full of cleaned fish ready to fry, grill, stew, you name it. Half of our conversations, our interactions are about food. He’s taught me a lot, but hands down my jollof is better than his, and I will teach him this one day.
“Being an African man, finding other guys like me who have struggled with eating disorders and body image issues hasn’t been easy”
Bottom line? We all love food. We all nurtured an appreciation for food and what it meant to us as a family, but the challenging part of all this was that while I grew up around all this love for food, I didn’t feel safe expressing my love for it. I heard the term “orobo” (fat person) or the phrase “ah you’re eating again?” One too many times. And now looking back, I gotta say the amount of body shaming kids get is unnecessary. Cut that shit out. Speaking from experience, it can create an unhealthy relationship with both themselves and food. Both things are necessary for survival.
I eventually lost a ton of weight when I was 12 and with that, finally came all the acceptance I craved from people around me. But what they don’t tell you is that deep down the internalized shame still lives on. I grew up with a very fraught relationship with food. I loved it, I loved cooking, being around it, wanted to but couldn’t enjoy it. It was a huge part of my identity and I couldn’t embrace it.
I think what stands out to me now when I think back is the boundaries that were put around what I could eat. I remember wanting to eat a Snickers bar many years ago and being told that it had a certain amount of calories and so if I ate it, it’s a meal. Done. No more food until it was time to eat again - a schedule, which I couldn’t control. I wasn’t even 10 yet and I was counting calories and watching my waistline. To this day, I struggle with buying clothes that actually fit. I’ve been stuck in this idea of what my plate should look like; vegetables and protein, and what my waist should always look like - size 32. The most fucked up part about this is that to be human, to be normal means that you don’t ever stay the same. You grow, you make different choices about food, about clothing, about what you like and what you don’t.
For me, when I talk about disordered eating, it looks like cutting meals, taking whole portions of food and throwing half out before I eat, working out right after I’ve eaten something “fatty.” Ha. I remember I used to look for quiet places at gatherings, at home, wherever I was, and do push ups till I max out just so I could eat. Like I had to earn it. It’s weird. Other times it can look like not eating throughout the day and trying to sneak in meals at night when everyone else is asleep. I didn’t talk about this for years and even though I’m seemingly healthy now, it’s still hard to be this vulnerable. I don’t think I fit the stereotype of someone with these issues, so having to validate these things to people is exhausting. 10/10 do not recommend. That said, I just want to eat when I want to and not care about what anyone would say. It’s taken time but I think I’m finally here. With therapy, a lot of unlearning, and the support of my friends, I’ve felt less alone. More capable of being myself.
I work part-time at a restaurant right now. The other half of my time is spent working with people with young adults who have experiences with mental health challenges. For me to be good at both my jobs, I’ve had to acknowledge my limits in both areas, and keep finding spaces to grow.
Now once a month or so, I’ll save enough money to buy ingredients I haven’t cooked with before. Planning the meal days, sometimes weeks ahead, I’d wake up on a Saturday morning and head over to Kensington market in Toronto. I prep and cook all day and maybe invite a friend over to share this with me. Over the past few months, this has saved me. My mental health was in the gutter for a while. I was in therapy, but I needed this too. Cooking at work and cooking at home was a huge help. I spoke to my therapist about this recently. I think I actually love cooking and working at a restaurant because it’s a healthy way for me to interact with food.
I think the most important lesson here, and the bridge between cooking and mental health for me is how much goes into my “final product”. In cooking, my food is better when I prep ahead. When I’m mindful of how each component will play into the dish, I can set my mise en place and build the meal accordingly. The outcome is not always perfect, and that’s okay. As long as I’ve got my mise, I can always try again. Working on my mental health is similar. My mise en place or in this case “wellness plan” could look like weeks of self-reflection, countless conscious attempts to be different, rest, healthy boundaries, self-compassion, and support. Even if the outcome of all of this falls short, at least my set up is there; I’m ready to try again.
At work, somewhere in the middle of all the madness, the chef is yelling “1 minute to the plate!” and I’m pulling up baskets of boiling pasta, throwing them into 7 different pans. My co-worker and I toss and taste, season if necessary and then it’s on the plate. Somewhere in the middle of this all, I’ll have an out-of body experience. I see myself improving. My body is moving ten times faster than I can think. I see the evidence of the hundreds of times I’ve done this before and now, each dish is perfect 8/10 times. Like now, maybe I have 8/10 good days. But those last two days, like those last two plates may just be shit. I may hate how I look, judge myself for eating something, still deal with anxious thoughts around food. What I cooked may be sent back to be remade, or the chef may taste it and ask me to remake it on the fly. But I always go again.
I don’t know that I want to be a full time chef, but I don’t know that I can ever not be around food.
The discipline, the madness, the process, the consistency, the failures, the growth. All the things you need to embrace in therapy, I keep finding when I cook.