This column is part of a series called “Restaurant Voices,” which features firsthand experiences and lessons from people working within the restaurant industry. Each column in the series describes a specific turning point or moment for restaurateurs that changed or defined their careers. This column is by Jon Hochstat, a Massachusetts-based consultant with years of international industry experience who was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012.
It’s hard to explain losing control of your mind. It was as if one trauma led to another. After almost being shot dead in Guatemala, I was afraid to get on the subway in New York because I thought I might jump in front of the train.
My list of traumas that I show doctors is a full page long. It started with the fact that I had a very verbally abusive father who had two kids and directed all of his anger at one. And sometimes I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When I was working in the Caribbean, I was sitting at a bar one night with only one exit and a local came in and attacked another local with a machete. I was held at gunpoint during a home robbery in Cape Town, South Africa. I was almost killed in a drive-by shooting in Guatemala. Then, I got hit by a car while walking across the street in New York City. I spent nine weeks in hospitals with a broken shoulder and a tibia plateau fracture. I had to relearn how to walk.
These traumas led up to my clinical diagnosis of PTSD in 2012, when I had a nervous breakdown while I was living in Costa Rica and helping a friend open a world-class restaurant. The restaurant wasn’t even open, but between the 25 years of me not managing my stress, and the stress of what I was going through then, my body just had enough.
I was held at gunpoint during a home robbery in Cape Town, South Africa. I was almost killed in a drive-by shooting in Guatemala. Then I got hit by a car while walking across the street in New York City.
If you have issues with stress, the hospitality business is not the place to be, but I’ve been in the industry my whole life. I graduated from culinary school in 1986 at the age of 22, and three days later I was in the Caribbean opening a hotel for Laurance Rockefeller. I just kept moving up.
I worked for Legal Sea Foods in Boston, spent over two years opening restaurants in D.C., and then started international work. I went to France to work on the opening management team for Disneyland Paris, and traveled to Cape Town to participate in a renovation and reopening of the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. I came back to the states to work as a food and beverage manager at Disney World before heading to Guatemala to do consulting work and run a fine dining restaurant. I relocated to New York for 10 years, working for a consulting company and then for Junior’s Cheesecake in Grand Central Terminal.
After that I was hired as a business manager for a cocktail bar in New York City called PDT, Please Don’t Tell. It’s been awarded best bar in the world, the best cocktail bar in America. But there’s a lot of pressure keeping high-profile locations running with cash flows that fluctuate daily. After three years of stress affecting my body and my mind, I returned from a vacation and just said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
I left the country in August 2011. One year later I had my nervous breakdown.
The only way to describe the feeling is that if every day you come home from work, throw your problems in the closet and slam the closet door, eventually, that door’s going to go flying off its hinges. But life doesn’t tell you when.
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Restaurants are not for the weak.
Still, I took a lot of high-risk jobs. There’s a lot of bullying that goes on in this industry, and you have to have thick skin and the ability to brush a lot of things off. In Cape Town, the executive chef of the hotel I was helping to renovate hated me, just flat-out hated me. Every day he would send one of his cooks to threaten me. In my first management job, I made a cook’s mother, who also worked at the restaurant, stay late, and I got threatened with a gun in the kitchen.
Restaurants are not for the weak. Everyone has their own coping mechanisms. Some people go out with a group of people, some people just go home and open a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. I’ve lost friends to drugs and alcohol. Some people like to numb the pain. I don’t drink, but I’m a medical marijuana patient. That works for me.
After many years, I had to realize that in order to continue, I had to take ownership of myself and my life.
When I lived in Costa Rica, I moved to a beach town. I literally had no TV, no cable, no internet for the whole time I was there. My therapy would be walking around the beach in the mornings and watching the sunset in the evenings.
After many years, I had to realize that in order to continue, I had to take ownership of myself and my life. I realized that I was able to dictate my own narratives and, pardon my language, not take shit from anybody. The one thing that makes me stronger is that I don’t catch onto other people’s stress. Not in an obnoxious way, but I don’t want it. Because, otherwise, this industry will grind you down. There’s no other way to say it.
Now I do consulting work. I tell people that they can take look at the help I’m giving them as either a toolbox or a box of tools. What’s the difference? A toolbox just sits open on the floor and gathers dust. A box of tools is always open, and it’s always being used.
Everybody knows somebody who has gone through trauma, whether it’s a family member or a coworker. I hope I can help start a conversation. If anyone wants to get talking, feel free to get in touch.
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