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If You Can't Take the Heat

A chef's recent suicide reminds us of the perils of the cooking profession.

8:00 AM, Oct 2, 2010 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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It's hard to deny the allure of the celebrity chef. You get paid millions of dollars to cook. You're on television. You visit your restaurants in Las Vegas and Miami. People buy your pots and pans and those weighty cookbooks. They adore you.

If You Can't Take the Heat

Of course the odds of this happening to you just because you like to cook and maybe even went to a culinary school are slim. When foodwriter Michael Ruhlman went to the Culinary Institute of America in 1996, he was one of 29,000 students across the country enrolling in a cooking program. Twelve years later, the number of students in culinary school shot up to 62,000.

"The downside of this phenomenon," writes Ruhlman in The Making of a Chef, "is that aspiring cooks may be led to believe that the doors of culinary school open onto the land of milk and honey upon graduation. This is akin to thinking everyone who is a committed football or basketball player in high school has a pretty good shot at the NFL or NBA. The fact is, only a handful of the hundreds of thousands of people who enter a culinary program during the next five years will become rich and famous for their cooking or their businesses."

The rest can certainly make a decent living. Some may struggle to get by. And others may not make it. Count Joseph Cerniglia among the latter. Some time last week, the restaurateur killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Cerniglia's claim to fame was an appearance on Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, in which Britain's bad-boy chef berates owners of failing businesses—Cerniglia ran Campania, an Italian restaurant in Fair Lawn, New Jersey—in the hopes that tough love will save their eateries. Ramsay was particularly harsh to Cerniglia, telling him that his business was in such dire straits it was about to "swim down the Hudson."

Cerniglia did turn things around and ultimately knew Ramsay had meant well. But it's unclear in what shape were the restaurant's finances at the time of the owner's death. It's also been reported that Cerniglia was having an affair with his pastry chef.

Cerniglia is actually the second chef to kill himself who also happened to appear on a Gordon Ramsay show. (In 2007, Rachel Brown, who competed on Hell's Kitchen a year earlier, shot herself to death.) Sadly, this is not uncommon to the profession. In 1671, François Vatel, the chef to Louis XIV, fell on his sword after learning the fish to be served to the king had not yet arrived. (It supposedly arrived shortly after he stabbed himself.) In 2003, Bernard Loiseau shot himself during a bout of depression and anxiety over the threat that his beloved La Côte d'Or restaurant might lose a Michelin star. (It didn't.)

The profession is not for the faint of heart. And it is worth going back to Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential to heed his warning, in a chapter titled "Owner's Syndrome and Other Medical Anomalies."

To want to own a restaurant can be a strange and terrible affliction. What causes such a destructive urge in so many otherwise sensible people? Why would anyone who has worked hard, saved money and often been successful in other fields want to pump his hard-earned cash down a hole that statistically, at least, will almost purely prove dry? Why venture into an industry with enormous fixed expenses (rent, electricity, gas, water, linen, maintenance, insurance, license fees, trash removal, etc.), with a notoriously transient and unstable workforce and highly perishable inventory of assets? The chances of ever seeing a return on your investment are about one in five. What insidious spongiform bacterium so riddles the brains of men and women that they stand there on the tracks, watching the lights of the oncoming locomotive, knowing full well it will eventually run them over? After all these years in the business, I still don't know.

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