Can a new Minneapolis movement make for less-stressed chefs?

Nalini Mehta (left), a James Beard Women in Culinary Leadership scholarship winner, during an Ayurveda cooking class

Nalini Mehta (left), a James Beard Women in Culinary Leadership scholarship winner, during an Ayurveda cooking class Nalini Mehta

Kim Bartmann has been fired from two cooking jobs in her life. 

The first time, it was because she burned her hand. The second, because she attended her best friend's funeral.

"At one point in my life, I vowed I would never work in a restaurant again, because of the way I was treated in kitchens,” the restaurateur tells us.

That promise obviously hasn't stuck. Today, Bartmann is behind a mini empire in Minneapolis dining -- her ever-growing roster of restaurants includes Barbette, Tiny Diner, and, as of just this week, Book Club.

But something that has stuck around is the always stressful, often toxic environment of working in the kitchen. So when Bartmann -- a mentor in the James Beard Women in Culinary Leadership Program -- saw a grant proposal for an initiative addressing that problem from one New York-based chef named Nalini Mehta, she was intrigued. 

Mehta was once a culinary instructor at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Health and the Whole Foods Culinary Center. She's spent the last decade teaching Ayurveda cooking classes, in which what you make, how you make it, and how you feel while making it are equally important. Ayurveda is big on eating with a sense of wellness -- not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.

"The majority of us eat out -- how is it acceptable that those who cook for us are not feeling well?" Mehta asks. "There are tons of articles on how chefs are leaving, how their lives are so messed up, they're ditching the industry, their restaurants are closing down. But there's really nobody addressing this."

That really resonated with Bartmann.

"Obviously, it would be easier for me to have a mentee who just wants to be a chef or wants to run a restaurant, because those people are in super short supply," she notes. "But there’s a lot of reasons why they’re in short supply, and one of them is that it’s a really hard job. It has to become a saner job to begin with.”

The Happy Chef program launched at Bartmann's restaurant The Bird in Loring Park (they're calling it "Happy Bird"), where Mehta introduced Monday meditation and discussion forums that are free and open to all industry folks. She's on the ground at the restaurant during service, addressing stress in the present moment by doing stretching, breath work, and massage exercises with staffers who might be approaching their limit -- even in the midst of a chaotic night of service. “When they do it, immediately they can feel better," she says. "On the job, they can find solutions.” And she's also hosting a series of Ayurveda pop-up dinners, the proceeds from which go to support Happy Chef.

The duo hopes that this movement will catch on beyond Bartmann Group eateries, and it looks like it might. Already a few other restaurateurs have expressed interest; Anne Spaeth of the newly opened Lynnhall has proposed introducing “Happy Lynnie,” and the team at PinkU, the Japanese street food eatery in Northeast, might adopt something similar as well.

Mehta sees it as part of her mentor's ongoing push to be more sustainable -- not just in sourcing its ingredients, but in supporting its chefs. "Kim's overarching belief in sustainability -- that really connected me with her," Mehta notes. "And it’s really been that support that’s propelling me forward."

"It’s an ongoing effort," Bartmann adds. Even if she does run a fleet of restaurants: "We're not going to single-handedly change how the restaurant industry works. Anyone who thinks they will is going to fail immediately. But there are ways to make it better. And we’re trying to make it better.”