A growing awareness of the social and economic pressures faced by those who work in the hospitality industry is reflected at the annual Food & Wine Classic, which takes place this weekend in Aspen.
The goal of the weekend remains as it always has been — to host a great event and surprise and delight guests, according to Hunter Lewis, editor and chief of Food & Wine magazine, which puts on the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.
However, the broader industry has faced its own moments of reckoning in recent years, including the June 2018 suicide of beloved chef and television host Anthony Bourdain, which raised awareness about addiction and depression, and a wave of #metoo revelations about bad actors in the business creating unsafe environments for their employees.
That prompted Lewis to launch F&W Pro, a new platform that seeks to educate and empower industry professionals to take good care of themselves and share strategies to make the food and beverage industry a better place to work.
“You can scale good leadership” and help people have long-term, sustainable careers, he said, nothing that people in the hospitality business are notorious for taking better care of others than they do themselves. Such initiatives are a focus of the weekly newsletter Lewis writes for F&W Pro.
“What we are finding is that when you make sure your kitchen culture is rock solid, your restaurant culture is rock solid, you are going to keep your folks a lot happier and employed longer in an industry that has had a relatively high turnover,” he said.
The push is a reflection of the broader national anxiety that has led the industry to take a look in the mirror, Lewis said.
“We are in a post-rock-star-chef culture now where it’s time to think more broadly and on a bit of a higher plane than we were at, with food media and food culture, a few years ago,” he said.
A pillar of the F&W Pro effort is the podcast, hosted by Food & Wine senior editor and author Kat Kinsman, called “The Communal Table,” where she has candid conversations with industry leaders about “how they manage their body, business and brain for the long haul,” according to the podcast’s webpage. Kinsman, the author of the book “Hi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves,” will be in town this weekend, interviewing subjects for the podcast. As she does in many cities where she travels, Kinsman may also host off-the-record conversations in Aspen with industry pros to talk through difficult issues, as she did last year in the wake of Bourdain’s suicide.
Need for a nonprofit
Part of the culture shift involves recognizing that the food and beverage industry often lags behind in providing health care, wellness and paid leave benefits to its employees.
While platforms like F&W Pro seek to spread those benefits out to more of the population, the fact remains that many of the workers cooking and serving the food during a night on the town lack the safety net that professionals in other industries enjoy.
For this reason, the Nashville-based nonprofit Children of Restaurant Employees was founded in 2004 as a way to help restaurant workers and their families when they encountered times of crisis. Its founders, who worked on the distribution and consulting side of the hospitality business, asked, “Why isn’t there a nonprofit in this industry that gives back to our own?” said CORE executive director Lauren LaViola.
The organization’s founders realized that the most vulnerable population within the industry were those who had children at home, LaViola said.
When families connected to the food and beverage industry experience life-changing circumstances, such as the death of a parent or a child or a medical diagnosis, or are affected by a natural disaster or house fire, they can apply for support from CORE. The organization has supported 650 families and 1,200 children since its founding, most often providing grants in the $3,000 range. These grants are intended to help families get through difficult times, covering everything from mortgage or rent to therapy costs for kids dealing with the loss of a parent.
CORE is the beneficiary of two events connected to this year’s version of Food & Wine: the Blush Bash party tonight on the roof of the Dancing Bear and an event Friday morning at Kemo Sabe. This is the second year CORE has been involved with a Food & Wine Classic event.
LaViola was CORE’s first full-time paid staff member when she started eight years ago. In that time, she has seen it grow considerably. The caseload has increased from perhaps five per year to 250 last year, which also saw the organization break $1 million in annual donations for the first time, she said.
“At first it can be a little overwhelming because there is so much to be done,” LaViola said, noting how CORE works with other social-service nonprofits to connect clients with help for issues from homelessness to addiction.
“I always joke in the office that we are a year behind — two steps forward, one step back.” But the work is rewarding, she said, and the need is everlasting.