In this Said & Dunn two-part series, we honor the life of Anthony Bourdain by raising awareness about the hidden lives of workers in the restaurant industry.
In our first installment, we highlighted the unfortunate truth of suicide, substance misuse, and mental illness in the restaurant industry, and interviewed LyAnna Sanabria, lead bartender at Chaval in Portland, Maine, about her personal struggles with addiction.
Here in this second installment, we sit down with Jen Trebino Wyllie, a 20-year native to the world of restaurants and hospitality. Jen shares her interactions with Bourdain, her experiences in the industry, and her choice to focus on her happiness.
How did you get into the restaurant industry?
I started cooking when I was two years old and could barely stand on a step stool. My dad is Italian, and my mom Is Irish, English, Welsh, and Scottish. I grew up making ravioli and pasta and really anything I could. I loved food. I would watch Sesame Street and Julia Child. I’ve always kind of been an old soul and loved entertaining.We would eat as a big extended family multiple times a week. Feeding 20-30 people was something that was very normal to our family so I always knew from a very young age that I would go into this industry. When I was in third grade I did my first “stage” at a restaurant. A stage is almost like an apprenticeship where you go in and shadow. I went to Ciro’s Pizza in Chelmsford, MA and interviewed the chef for a day and learned how to make my favorite calzone. I remember telling him about the restaurant I wanted to have when I grew-up. It was just something I knew was going to happen.
How long have you been in the industry?
This is my 20th year. I started when I was 14 with my first job in Concord, Massachusetts at a family run candy business. I continued working both in the back of the house and front of the house through college and moved to Washington State after I graduated. I started working for the Batali family at Salumi Cured Meats. I got divorced in 2013 and moved back to Massachusetts and eventually to Portland, Maine. I missed many things about Washington State and in 2017, I moved to Maine with my husband. I am currently Director of Marketing + Events at Austin Street Brewery.
Tell us more about your transition to Portland.
My husband is a chef and in Massachusetts. He was lucky enough to have a Monday through Friday schedule, so we had weekends off together. Literally as soon as he would come home, we would hit the road. We’d pack tents in the car, and we would camp or find a B&B overnight. We loved being away from the city and were motivated and relaxed by the woods and lack of humans. We’d be out of state, out of mind. We started coming to Maine often and we would rather drive 2 hours to Portland to eat rather than 15 min into Boston. We loved the food and sense of community.
My husband and I started talking about moving to Maine years ago. First we talked about it as a 5-7 year plan in the future, and then after trying to buy a house in Boston for over a year, we decided there was no time like the present. Rian would work 12, 14-hour days sometimes, and we didn’t want him to have a 2-3 hour commute on top of the long day. We wanted to focus on our quality of life. If we ever have kids, we want to raise them in a place we were happy in. We realized what you could have and how you could live here [in Portland] so we thought, let’s just do it. We moved away from family which sucked. We’re both from Massachusetts and all of our family and friends are there, so it wasn’t an easy decision or something we took lightly, but it was something we felt very strongly about. We both wanted to put ourselves and each other first and make sure we were happy and living in an area that we loved.
What is it like to work in the restaurant industry?
Hospitality attracts so many different types of people. I am a stereotypical “type A” person. I’ve always loved to have parties and have a good time, but I’ve never been a stay out late person. I say hospitality because people forget that’s why we’re here. That’s part of our job to be hospitable. I say hospitality over and over, so it stays in people’s minds, yes, we are here to serve people and be nice to people and care for people. It’s not just delivering a dish, it’s so much more than that.
Do you think people know that?
I don’t think so. I came in to the industry purposefully. I didn’t just end up in this industry. But, I think a lot of people end up in this industry because of circumstances. For example, they’re a writer and it’s not going well, and they need extra income. This industry is different because you can have so many part-time people. I struggled with that for a long time. My ex-husband always used to say to me, “You need to find a career”. This WAS my career, but to him it wasn’t a real job. My paycheck didn’t reflect that it was a real job either. It wasn’t until I got divorced and moved back and started dating my husband that it was kind of a validation for me. He was a chef and we had a purpose. Rian [my husband] went to art school and dropped out. He worked for his Aunt’s restaurant and got jobs in kitchens. He started working for a restaurant in Allston, MA and then became the Executive Chef. A few years later, they opened another restaurant and he became a partner and continued to open restaurants. Even then, sometimes Rian would say, “I’m not a real chef because I didn’t go to school for it.”
Kind of like imposter syndrome? We talk in our lab group a lot about imposter syndrome – or that feeling like you don’t deserve to be where you are.
Exactly! I always told him, “I beg to differ because you actually are! You’ve opened five restaurants!”
How do you think that affects people’s mental health?
Anything that you do as a person, but don’t take seriously, is hard. And I don’t think you necessarily put your best self forward either. A lot of people are drawn to this industry because there’s a lot of flexibility, but people are always juggling a ton. In that case people’s attention spans are different. They care about things a little less. It makes it hard because this is a collective effort that runs only when all entities are firing at once. Thinking of it as a whole team effort is really important and the successful restaurant groups I have worked for have understood that. A team environment goes a very long way.
What did Anthony Bourdain’s passing mean to you and your peers?
It was so jarring and unexpected. It felt like the wind got kicked out of me super intensely. My grandparents have all passed away, my aunt, and my uncle has passed away and I’ve dealt with a lot of death in the past 10 years. I knew that people come and go, and this is what happens. But for some reason, this just unexpectedly rocked my world.
I had met Anthony a few times in Seattle, when I was working there. He and the Batali family use to be close. Since the first chapter of his book Kitchen Confidential, you could tell that Bourdain got it. To read and hear that someone else understands where you’re coming from and explains what you’re feeling in such a wonderful way is powerful. And when I met him in person, he was everything I saw on TV, everything I read in the book. He was a genuinely lovely person, and it was jarring because I admired him for pretty much most of my life. I looked up to him. He was someone I watched religiously, literally. He was someone I never got sick of. He was someone that, kind of like a Mr. Rogers, you’d hear his voice and relax. Or you’d be in a bad mood and forget where you are and what your problems were and get lost in what he was doing.
Had he talked about his struggles before?
Yes, but to me I had always read it as substance misuse struggles. It never occurred to me that there was a mental health component of it. And I think the longer I’m in the industry and the more sober people I know, the more I begin to understand the connection between substance use issues and mental illness. I can’t think of one person I know who’s sober, where I don’t think they should be getting more help than just not drinking or using drugs. It’s something that isn’t talked about.
For me, it broke my heart that something serious was going on for so long and that we didn’t know. I say “we” as in the public because we cared about him. It’s what he was able to do for so many people. To highlight areas within the US that people would never go or know about just to showcase what our country was and what other countries were like. I really loved how he travelled. He was never judgmental or defensive. He always went in with a low head, took everything as it came, and cared about being authentic to whoever he was visiting and the country he was representing. I think that was a great teachable moment for everyone whether you travel or don’t. We travel for new experiences and to be one with wherever we’re visiting. I don’t think a lot of Americans in general do that. The fact that he was teaching this by doing it was awesome. I hope it gave more people the bug and made people want to travel. Look what can happen, the people you can meet, the food you eat, and the things you see -- it is just incredible.
You said Anthony “got it”. What was it about Anthony Bourdain and Kitchen Confidential that spoke to you?
It was the fast pace of the restaurant life. You have all of these consistent variables that don’t change each night: the menu, the staff, the building. But for some reason each service is so completely different because of the customers that come in. It’s kind of like this controlled chaos. You have to be so quick on your feet at every instance, but to do it cohesively as a whole. It’s all about staying ahead of the game and anticipating changes.
And there’s people who come in wanting certain types of experiences, which makes the job so much more stressful.
Exactly. And that’s the main difference from the back to the front of the house. The back of the house has what they’re doing to concentrate on, but the front of the house – the people who are actually dealing with the people – that’s the emotionally exhausting part. In Seattle, someone asked if they could combine three sandwiches together to make one sandwich. I said unfortunately, we don’t do that, but you’re welcome to buy each of those sandwiches and do whatever you want with them. And he said, “Who do you think you are? You’re a fucking sandwich maker, not a doctor, I told you to make my sandwich.” Sometimes customers talk to you in the most degrading way, just assuming that you must be uneducated and that’s the part that gets emotionally draining. And when you’re already second guessing what you are doing, Am I making enough money? Is this a career? And your customers are not nice to you. It wears on you very much.
What do you wish people or customers knew coming in? If you could say anything to folks to help them get a better feel for what it’s like to be in the industry what would you say?
Everyone in high school should work a service job and learn how to talk to people. There’s not a lot of respect going around. In restaurants, the customers always come in with baggage (sometimes good, sometimes bad). I think people need to talk to each other with respect first and foremost. It doesn’t matter what your job is; having pride in what you do is the most important thing. There’s an awesome blog called I’m Your Server, Not Your Servant. Just that line alone is something people should think about. People need to be nice. Period.
Do you have any advice for people currently struggling in the industry?
I would say that it’s always okay to ask for help and it’s so much better to have conversations. I love my coworkers at Austin Street because it’s always a conversation about how people are feeling. It’s a really cohesive, comfortable environment where people can share where they are both emotionally and physically. We’re good about knowing when to step in to cheer someone up or when to give them space. It’s about having a conversation and realizing that at any moment when you think you’re alone, you’re not. There are so many other people who are in the same boat.
It’s also really important to stand up for yourself and put yourself first. I didn’t realize until I moved to Maine how much anxiety I had on a daily basis in Boston. I didn’t realize what normal was until I moved up here. A lot of people who moved up from Mass say the same thing. Acknowledging that certain things are not for everyone is fine. You can live where you want to live, be with who you want to be with, and have the family and job you want to have.
So, what’s next for you?
I’m finally in a place where I have a husband who I love unconditionally and he would move mountains for me in return. I love our new home, our city, our community, my job, a lot. I happen to have the trifecta at the moment and I’ve never had that before. I never thought it would happen, but it’s a really cool time for me to just blossom. I feel settled in a way I never thought I could be and I’m so excited for the future. My husband is opening a restaurant and that will be the next project for us. I’m thrilled to be apart of it. It feels really good to be in this spot finally because happiness is important.
If you enjoyed this post, check out our first installment where we interview LyAnna Sanabria, lead bartender at Chaval in Portland, Maine, about her personal struggles with addiction and her experience in the industry.