At Work When You Have a Career in the Food Industry and an Eating Disorder
“So many of us professional food people struggle with eating and body issues. We’re drawn in.”
The cheese is perfect. It oozes out of its snow-white skin, leaving a puddle on the cutting board. It tastes of sweet milk and buttered mushrooms and joy.
It’s 2006, the summer after my freshman year of college. I’m an intern at the Artisanal Cheese Center. I have spent all day in the cheese caves, glorified refrigerators with fancy technology to control humidity packed with rows and rows of wooden shelves for blues, bloomies, and washed rinds, which I spritz with a spray bottle of Burgundy. I wear two sweaters in July. I turn and flip the wheels for hours, rub their ruddy bellies with a damp rag. After work I wash my hands twice. Still, they smell ripe.
I haven’t yet received my anorexia diagnosis—that will come a few months later. I count calories in the notebooks I used to fill with ramblings and bad poems. I try to save whatever sad allotment of food I allow myself for cheese. I am falling in love with the little buttons of fresh chevre, the craggy-rinded tommes, the gigantic Alpine wheels that we take cylindrical tastes from with a sonde (a cheese plug) to gauge their ripeness and deliciousness. Every day, I learn something new.
In the afternoon, my boss summons me out of the caves and into the office. A French cheesemaker with a tiny goatee is visiting from Alsace. He unpacks a lineup of cheeses from a rolling suitcase, pours bubbly into plastic cups and cuts us hunks from his beauties. Half my brain is trying to follow his heavily accented lecture on cow breeds and importing regulations. The other half—later I will recognize this as my eating-disordered brain, cruel, small-minded, tiresome, and relentless—says, If you eat this cheese, you cannot eat dinner. If you eat this cheese and dinner, you pig, you cannot eat anything tomorrow.
Later, the cheesemaker leaves his perfect cheeses in the little office kitchen. Everyone goes back to work. But my stomach is grumbling and I can’t stop thinking about that double crème with the subtle earthy funk. I take off my apron. I don’t wash my hands. I sneak back to the little kitchen and slice off a sliver. Just a sliver. It tastes too good, obscenely good. My body vibrates with wanting. Another sliver. And another. Soon the whole wheel is gone, and then the next one, leaving only a gloppy smudge on the cutting board and a sinking feeling in my stomach: dairy and shame.
I used to think my fucked-up-ness was somehow unique. It’s not. When I could escape my self-obsession long enough to observe those around me in my burgeoning food career, I noticed that my cheese mentor at the trendy restaurant where I worked after Artisanal was on a perpetual diet where she eschewed nightshades and carbs and downed shots of apple cider vinegar. At the next restaurant, my manager took the whole nine-hour shift to eat one plastic cup of Greek yogurt, licking a scant spoonful in quiet moments, a faraway look in her eyes. I caught the hostess throwing up in the bathroom in the thick of a busy service.
Nobody ever talked about any of this, least of all me.
My anorexia diagnosis morphed into the frustratingly vague EDNOS, eating disorder not otherwise specified (thanks, DSM), which in turn became just an undiagnosed, embarrassing secret that I did weird things with food—restricting, binging, and other permutations of misery centered around using food as a drug and hating my body. It was a crusade I fought 24/7. I lost the whole time.
Things started to change for me six years ago, when I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. After one last epic binge—an all-night affair with a giant plate of cookies and every last morsel in my kitchen, down to the bottom of a jar of almond butter—I mustered the courage to go to a recovery meeting in a dingy room atop a bodega by Union Square. I heard people share about doing what I did with food, feeling what I felt.
“I used to throw away brownies and then pour coffee grounds on top so I wouldn’t eat them. Then I’d fish them out and wipe off the coffee and eat them anyway.”
“I used to wake up in the morning and think—what did I eat yesterday? My worth was based on the answer to the question.”
“I used to think my purpose in life was to lose weight.”
I heard: All this can change. I knew I had found my people.
My image of a person with an eating disorder was of an emaciated blonde girl from a cheesy after-school special. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “Eating disorders have historically been associated with young, white women of privilege. However, this is a myth—eating disorders do not discriminate.” I met plenty of young white women of privilege in the recovery meetings I attended more and more often, but I also met old women and women of color and men. I met people of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds and attitudes, badass people who shattered my idea of what people with eating disorders looked like.
I also met chefs, food writers, mixologists, and restaurant managers—like chef Jennifer Ophir, who left her career in retail design at the age of thirty-four to follow her culinary dreams. At the time, she didn’t know she had an eating disorder. “I had a deep connection to food because I have a food addiction,” Ophir says, “but I didn’t know it then.” Much like alcoholics cannot stop drinking after they start, food addicts experience uncontrollable cravings after they partake in certain foods (sugar and flour seem to be common culprits) or food behaviors (for me: sneaking food and lying about food).
Ophir graduated from culinary school, cooked on the line in a Michelin-starred restaurant, taught aspiring chefs, and led food tours. Now she works as a private chef and food stylist. Her eating struggles flourished in tandem with her career. “It’s such a crazy, unconventional life,” Ophir explains. “Being reckless is part of the energy of chefs. It could mean leaving cooking school, seeing some dessert that the pastry class made, and without a second thought eating a whole Tarte Tatin at 11:30 on a Tuesday night. This was not frowned upon. It felt natural and gratifying.”
Until it didn’t. “I was totally in despair,” Ophir said. She went to rehab for food addiction and began the long, slow process of changing her relationship with food. “I started to realize the food for work was not my food. I could still be creative and appreciate the fine art of cooking and plating and serving—yet I don’t need to engulf all of that.”
Glory Simon had already been attending eating disorder recovery meetings for several years in Los Angeles when she moved to New York to enroll in the Natural Gourmet Institute. She loves her career as a personal chef and caterer. It’s a way to transform her struggles with food into “something useful and beneficial,” to separate “unhealthy food obsession from genuine culinary interest.” She knows her career success is contingent on her recovery: “If I was still binging and throwing up in bathrooms, I wouldn’t be able to do any of this,” says Simon.
Her recovery, she says, makes her a more creative chef. Simon works with plenty of clients with specific dietary “restrictions, special needs, and issues.” Other chefs may dismiss vegans and others, but Simon’s own experience gives her empathy: “Because of what I’ve been through, I have a lot of understanding and compassion for them.”
One year ago, I cringed as I hit Send on the first essay I wrote and published about my eating disorder. What would my coworkers—cheesemongers and food buyers and restaurant editors—think? Would I diminish my legitimacy as a food writer? As a feminist?
By then I had heard plenty of people talk about their own food demons, and heard others talk about the frenzied and sometimes dysfunctional culture found behind the scenes at restaurants (and cheese counters, markets, cooking shows, and food blogs), but I had never heard much about the two combined. It made perfect sense to me—just as alcoholics may gravitate to jobs behind the bar , so many of us professional food people struggle with eating and body issues. We’re drawn in. What better way to channel an unhealthy obsession with food than to turn food into a career?
Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN, agrees. She left her career as a journalist—Harrison wrote about food for the late, great Gourmet— to attend graduate school for nutrition. “I definitely had it in the back of my mind that I hoped I’d lose weight,” she says. Instead, Harrison discovered Intuitive Eating and Health at Any Size , which now inform her coaching practice and her podcast, Food Psych. (I’m a fan and have been a guest.)
When I ask Harrison if she sees a connection between careers in food and eating disorders, she says “absolutely.” She attributes it to a “desire for mastery” over our demons. Plenty of nutritionists pursue their work from a disordered place, too. The National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the National Institutes of Health, found a preponderance of disordered eating amongst nutrition students and dietetic professionals. It makes a twisted sort of sense—people who embark on jobs in nutrition are often inspired by their own struggles and experience. They’re looking for a solution to what plagues them. Plus, Harrison notes that eating disorders often materialize around college age, the time when young people begin to choose their career paths.
I needn’t have worried about my essay. The response was a chorus of “me, too.” People I never suspected began confessing their own stories—my friend the Instagram-famous baker who starved herself until she landed in the hospital, the “wellness” blogger who couldn’t stop getting up in the middle of the night to binge on gluten-free goodies, the binge-eating server. At first it was reassuring—again, that reminder that I am not some kind of freak, that we are in this together. But then it became depressing. It seems like everyone I talk to has experience struggling with food behavior, body image, usually both. Is nobody spared?
Last week I read Roxane Gay’s Hunger in one sitting. It was yet another voice reminding me that I’m so not alone. After being gang-raped by a boy she loved and his friends at age twelve, Gay eats and eats to turn her body into a “fortress,” a “cage.” She eats until she weighs 577 pounds. “My father believes hunger is in the mind,” Gay writes. “I know differently. I know that hunger is in the mind and the body and the heart and the soul.” Her beautiful memoir is another powerful thing that is smashing my stereotypes about eating disorders and slowly, slowly dissolving my shame.
Body positivity is a matter of social justice. “We live in an extremely fat-phobic culture,” Harrison explains. “Our medical system stigmatizes people in larger bodies and our culture puts pressure on all people to shrink our bodies.” Eating disorders are a symptom of a patriarchal, misogynist culture—the idea that women’s bodies exist to please. But those of us who suffer from them are not necessarily bad feminists. We are humans. We are doing the best we can. When we reach out to each other, we can do a whole lot better. Understanding this is not a cure, but it is a start for food people and all people.
I’m with Ophir: “It’s a constant struggle—but that doesn’t mean that I’m miserable. It’s a challenge that I’m open to. I love my work and I love food—and I love finding a way to make it all work.” These days, I teach cheese classes and tastings. I love stinky cheese, and crumbly cheese, and all wonderful cheese. I know more than I used to, but I still have plenty to learn. Sometimes I still eat too much, or not enough, but I try my best to cultivate self-compassion and kindness. I haven’t binged in nearly six years. Every single day, I am grateful.
Today, we’re trying a lineup of new sheep’s milk beauties for work. One is coated with herbs and another is washed with an abbey—it’s meaty and full of funk. We open a Belgian beer and whittle off slices of cheese and discuss. Someone has crafted these wheels with their hands; someone else has carefully aged them on wooden boards in a cold, damp room. Now they’re here, and we appreciate them, savor them. Then I go back to my desk, and I write. I experience something new: freedom. And peace.