Rashad Armstead lay down on a mattress in the middle of his East Oakland loft as the anxiety took over his body. He’d just learned that the restaurant he had been planning for months wasn’t going to open. He was two months behind on rent. The phone bill, credit card bill, PG&E bill — everything was due. And he was broke.
Tears streamed down his face. Sweat poured out of his body. His chest tightened. It felt like pounds of bricks were weighing him down. He stayed on that mattress for the better part of two weeks.
“It was like a jail for me,” the 31-year-old chef said. “My emotions were everywhere. I couldn’t even think.”
Armstead didn’t admit it at the time, but he was depressed, dealing with panic and anxiety attacks that had plagued him for more than two years. In anguish, he barely ate and lost more than 20 pounds. It wasn’t until he got off that mattress in April that he started to truly examine his state of mind.
Within weeks, he made a stunning turnaround. He opened his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Grammie’s Down-Home Chicken & Seafood in Oakland, where customers can take home paper bags full of cornmeal-fried catfish and creamy macaroni and cheese blanketed under a thick layer of crispy cheddar. After several heartbreaking attempts to open a barbecue restaurant, he’s finally found a home for Crave BBQ at The Shops at Hilltop in Richmond, slated to open in spring 2020. He appeared on national television. He dreams of running dozens more restaurants and training a new generation of young black cooks across the country.
But first, he’s opening up about his own mental health in the hope of helping other black chefs, who he says deal with extra societal pressures, generational trauma and a lack of resources on top of the normal stresses of chef life.
Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle
Within the past year, chefs across the country have begun talking about mental health issues in restaurants. Industry jobs have notoriously brutal hours and demanding conditions, with chefs often working 70 to 80 hours a week.
However, these conversations have been dominated by white chefs — redemption stories where the chef suddenly discovers mental health, sobers up and finds all is right with the world. Armstead is glad the topic is getting addressed, but for him, it isn’t so simple. All is not right with the world.
He cites a specific, uneasy isolation in being a black chef. Over the course of 14 years bouncing between kitchens, he’s only worked alongside one other black cook. He also points to everyday instances of discrimination and the police killings of men like Philando Castile as significant drivers of anxiety for the black community at large.
Whenever he sees a police car, he can’t shake the thought of whether he could be next. Now, still struggling with personal finances, he’s battling homelessness and also trying to secure funding for his second restaurant.
“I’m out here trying to accomplish something, but the measuring cup that is being used is different,” he said. “How can you expect me to not give up? How can you expect me to not be broken?”
A lot of people tell Armstead’s parents, Roy and Cece Armstead, that Armstead should be a preacher.
It’s easy to see why. He has a way of gripping people when he tells a story, of spinning even the darkest tale into one of hope, of projecting to a big crowd the sense that he’s having an intimate conversation between two.
If you go
Grammie’s Down-Home Chicken & Seafood: 3817 Market St., Oakland. (510) 547-1249. Open Tuesday-Friday from 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m, Saturday 12-9 p.m., Sun 1-7 p.m.
In the back of the Grammie’s kitchen, wearing a baggy chef’s coat, camouflage jeans and a red beanie covering his dreads, Armstead runs through prep for dinner service with his younger brother, Roman: He needs to defrost another bag of catfish. Don’t forget the tartar sauce. They’re out of shrimp, already?
Armstead takes a big swig from a gallon jug of water, his face framed by a patchy goatee and gauge earrings. He’s skinnier than he ought to be but he still projects an easygoing confidence.
“As a kid, he always took control,” his mother, Cece, said. “Even with his nieces and nephews, he was always the preacher, always the teacher.”
During his youngest years in Mountain View, Armstead stuck by his mother at the stove, always interested in cooking. He had a tougher time when his family moved to Modesto, a predominantly white city where drugs and racism were rampant. Cece worried about her son’s safety walking back from school. He’d come home upset after seeing the N-word scrawled in a bathroom stall. At age 17, he dropped out.
“All the racism and discrimination — it’s PTSD for the whole black community,” Armstead said.
A six-month culinary program in Modesto set him on a new path. He held stints cooking in restaurants, a jail, homes for the elderly and UC Berkeley sorority houses.
Yet, even while cooking for 250 students per day, Armstead lived with his parents in Modesto to save money. He slept on the couch and woke up at 4 a.m. to take the bus and BART to Berkeley. He dragged himself home around 9 p.m. and repeated the cycle.
Eventually, his catering for sorority houses evolved into a full-blown catering business. He moved into a house in Oakland with his girlfriend. His girlfriend became his wife, and the pressure to provide mounted. In 2015, he added weekend barbecue pop-ups — what would later become Crave BBQ — to his schedule, serving saucy rib plates for $10 at the Berkeley Flea Market on Ashby.
“I just numbed myself to get through it,” he said. “Now I know how bad of an idea that was.”
A gallstones diagnosis in 2017 finally led him to think more about his well-being. He read through WebMD’s pages on depression and anxiety, and the descriptions sounded familiar.
“In the black community, we don’t really value mental health. When you’re coming from poverty, therapy is taboo. Being a Christian, they say ‘Take it to God. Go to church,’” he said. “We’re taught how to not speak about our pain.”
Ultimately, Armstead saw a therapist just four times. Even though he found it valuable, work took over his life — he was trying to turn his Crave BBQ pop-up into a brick-and-mortar. He moved into a location in West Oakland, but an investor disappeared before he could open. He found another location and raised $10,000 for construction, but it wasn’t enough. He moved out again.
These challenges slowly poisoned Armstead’s life at home. His wife filed for divorce.
“My spirit was broken,” he said.
Things started looking brighter when Food Network invited him to compete on its top competition show, “Chopped.” During filming, Rashad blew away celebrity judges like Marcus Samuelsson with his fried soft-shell crab with banana ketchup. When the judges revealed he’d won, Rashad bowed his head and cried.
Back in Oakland, he felt refreshed, as if he’d found a part of himself that he thought he’d lost. An opportunity to open Crave BBQ in West Oakland’s historic California Hotel, part of a redevelopment project by the nonprofit East Bay Asian Local Development Corp.(EBALDC), seemed to fall in his lap.
But once again, he ultimately couldn’t convince enough investors to help make the restaurant a reality.
That’s when he ended up on his mattress in April, contemplating giving up for good.
“New leases and restaurants are stressful events. It can be hard to tell if stress is good stress or overwhelming,” said Carolyn Johnson, EBALDC’s director of commercial real estate, about working with Armstead. “His barbecue is amazing. We’re all totally rooting for him.”
Rather than dwell on Crave BBQ, Armstead drafted a new business plan for an idea that had been sitting in the back of his mind for a long time: a soul food spot called Grammie’s, inspired by his great-grandmother Sarah Rawls, who operated a few Bay Area soul food restaurants in the 1980s and starred in a short-lived cooking show.
However, Rawls passed on more than just recipes. Her Native American mother never mentally recovered after Irish settlers raped her. She kicked Rawls out of the house when Rawls was just 14, and Rawls went on to become a survivor of sexual assault as well. Some of her kids dealt with heroin addiction. More recently, Armstead’s extended family has wrestled with multiple murders.
“All of our family’s traumas are passed on,” he said. “And that goes back to slavery.”
Those challenges seep into Armstead’s life in different ways. And then there’s the constant societal pressures: from the black community to protect and provide for family; from everyone else to dress a certain way, to talk a certain way, to do everything possible to not risk seeming aggressive.
For most of his life, Armstead managed to rise above his circumstances, steering clear of drugs, the streets and jail time. That’s part of why acknowledging his mental health issues took so much time.
“As he started going through the same challenges as some of the family around us, he realized, ‘I’m not doing much better,’” his father, Roy, said. “That haunts you.”
Armstead said he fought to get out of bed every morning, to remember not only his roots but his potential. He thought about his younger brothers and how badly he wanted to set a good example for them, how desperately he wanted to support his community when the black population in Oakland continues to drop. He remembered his passion.
“That’s why I didn’t give up,” he said. “I had to open my eyes to who I am and not be scared.”
While writing out his business plan for Grammie’s, Armstead thought back to a small taqueria called Las Palmas he’d noticed next to a barbed wire fence in Oakland. It didn’t look like much, but he thought it might be the right place to restart his life.
A casual thought turned into serious conversations. In May, Armstead drained his parents’ bank account for rent, got the keys and taped up a black-and-white paper sign for Grammie’s.
“It takes failure sometimes for you to get back aligned, to get back to a centered place,” he said.
Armstead has big dreams for Grammie’s. Right now, it looks pretty much the same as Las Palmas did, with a long, bulletproof ordering window and plain yellow walls. Three chairs function as a waiting area.
He wants it to look like a modern to-go restaurant with copper-stained floors, white subway tiles, a parklet outside and fun wallpaper depicting his family. With relentless optimism, he talks about opening more locations all over the country, hiring and training black youth in historically black neighborhoods, teaching them to run their own businesses and building much-needed wealth for the next generation.
Armstead does not have money for any of this. He’s still busy securing more financing for his barbecue restaurant in Richmond. He’s just hoping his luck will turn around while he crashes on friends’ couches, essentially homeless.
That could happen soon, thanks to momentum behind his “Chopped” win and a growing fan base of black Oaklanders excited to see one of their own in the spotlight.
Plus, unlike during the sharp falls of his recent past, Armstead now knows he needs to tend to his mental health. He takes moments throughout his day, whether it’s cooking on the line or driving to a meeting, to pray and breathe. He plays upbeat music at his restaurant in an effort to set a positive environment. He’s improving his diet, consuming smoothies and salads daily while cutting down on sugar and fried food. He wants to go vegan by the end of the year.
He still works insane hours — 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week — but insists he’s feeling better. He can’t afford to see a therapist right now, but he’s not afraid to call his mom during a breakdown.
“If I need to cry, I’m going to cry. If I need to take a day off, I’m going to take a day off,” he said. “I need to stop trying to be Superman.”
That said, the systemic issues facing black chefs aren’t going away. Armstead’s fuzzy visions of opening dozens of restaurants to lift up the black community are still only that: visions. First, he needs to build up Grammie’s and get Crave BBQ open while treating himself well, so he doesn’t find himself confined to his mattress again.
He’s not quite there. Yet.
“I’m homeless. I’m getting a divorce. I’m dealing with mental health issues,” he said. “But guess what? This is just part of the process. I’m going to grow so much more.”
Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @janellebitker
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