Travis Wright the head chef and co-owner of the Shark on the Harbor, died by suicide on Aug. 18.
Inside the Ocean City restaurant where the late Travis Wright spent most of his waking hours, his friends and family cried and shared stories: Of the drummer from Northern Virginia who persuaded a college buddy to move to the beach, of the fearless entrepreneur who taught himself to cook and was named chef of the year, of the man who didn’t talk much but had begun dancing at concerts with his wife.
Shark on the Harbor wasn’t big enough to hold everyone who came to pay their respects; they lined up outside. Out front, a sign advertised happy hour on one side and on the other said: “Chef Travis forever in our hearts.”
A local suicide prevention group set up a table with stress balls and pamphlets with titles like: “There’s a better way to end your pain than suicide.” Wright’s widow, Jody, had invited them.
While suicide rates across nation have been "creeping up over time for the last several decades,” said Jane Pearson, who studies suicide for the National Institute of Mental Health, people who work in certain professions are at greater risk. In the restaurant industry, Pearson points to factors like “long hours, less sleep, probably higher alcohol or other substance use, competition, slim profit margins. ... You could add a long list of challenges here.”
Statistics on suicide rates by occupation are murky, and Pearson said more research needs to be done. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that women who work in food service had the greatest increase in suicide rates among females, from around 6% in 2000 to just over 9% in 2016. During that same period, the overall suicide rate among working-aged adults increased 34%.
Those who work in the restaurant industry point to cultural and lifestyle triggers that take a toll on mind and body.
As a chef, “You don’t know how to ask for help,” said Daniel Jacinto, who learned to cook at Shark on the Harbor under Wright’s direction. A cook could be seriously in the weeds, with orders piling up, but if someone asks, Jacinto said, “You say ‘I’m fine.’ "
Restaurant workers are so conditioned to think of the needs of their guests that it can be difficult to acknowledge their own struggles, said Howard County chef Chad Wells.
“Your mentality shifts to hospitality at all times,” said Wells, who lost another chef friend to suicide 10 years ago.
About a month before Wright’s death, Wells wrote a Facebook post calling the Shark on the Harbor “the best restaurant in Ocean City Maryland, and one of my favorites in the state.” It was an exception to the rest of the culinary landscape of Ocean City, Wells wrote, dominated by fried Oreos and imported seafood.
“Travis was the first person in Ocean City... to actually take farm to-table seriously,” said Jacinto.
Wright himself acknowledged that he had chosen the path of greatest resistance. “It’s really hard," he told The Sun. "It takes a very talented and trained staff...[to] pull off a menu like this on a daily basis.” He and his wife both worked seven days a week; when he wasn’t in the kitchen, he was on the phone with captains who’d call him and let him know what the latest catch was.
At a time of rampant Yelp reviews and when food is the focus of many people’s off-hours, Jody Wright said, “People tend to be awfully critical without understanding what’s going on.... It can be a little bit tough.”
Jacinto remembers arriving at the restaurant at 7 a.m. to help Wright wash and unload produce and seafood delivered to the dock below. One time, it was a 300-pound thresher shark; they served it for dinner. Another longtime colleague, Nathan Britko, said he might arrive as early as 6 a.m. to start cutting fish. The haul was amazing: moonfish and blue lobster, greens Britko had never heard of.
It was hard work. Britko said he and Wright fantasized about a retirement spent going to concerts and on trips to Belize. Still, Jacinto said, it never occurred to him that Wright was suffering. The head chef was introverted and tended to go home after the end of his shift.
After Wright’s death, Britko, who had worked side by side with Wright for 12 years, replayed in his head conversations they’d had in recent months and reviewed text messages they’d exchanged. “Did I miss him asking for help?” he said. “There wasn’t anything.”
Kim Klump, who founded the suicide prevention group at Wright’s memorial, also recalled searching for warning signs after the death of her 17-year-old son, Jesse. Looking back, Klump says, "I knew there was something that wasn’t right. He kept telling me he was just stressed.”
Her organization helps people spot symptoms someone is thinking about harming themselves. Among them: mood swings, reckless behavior or giving away once-prized possessions. 90% of suicide victims had a diagnosable mental health condition when they died, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
In Wright’s case, friends say, any warning signs were vague. Sure, there was the constant stress of running the restaurant. Wright had begun venting about staffing problems. He was a “workaholic,” Britko said. Retirement and trips to Belize seemed like they would never happen.
The long days at the Shark took a toll on Wright’s colleagues. Jacinto smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and began using booze to cope with the isolation.
“The immediacy and stress of a restaurant can be so intense that the only outlet you know is drinking or drugs,” Britko said. “What else is there to do to decompress at 1 o’clock in the morning?” And after all, most chefs need only walk out of their kitchens to find access to a bar.
For Wright’s two colleagues, the solution to burnout was to quit cooking professionally. Today, Britko is director of operations for a restaurant group in Denver, while Jacinto works for the seafood purveyor JJ McDonell.
“I’m not sitting here thinking, ‘Man, I really miss being a chef,’" Jacinto said. “Maybe I was never cut out to be a chef.”
A few people are laboring within the restaurant industry to raise awareness of mental health issues and increase access to help. Kat Kinsman, senior editor at Food and Wine, started the Facebook group Chefs With Issues to allow restaurant industry workers to open up about their problems. While chefs are often told to “toughen up,” the group’s thousands of members are quick to offer help to fellow cooks in crisis. “It’s an extraordinary thing to behold,” Kinsman wrote in an email.
While the signs of suicide are often veiled, friends and employers can help, Pearson said, by taking it seriously when someone shares suicidal thoughts, even in jest. She looks at the example of Anthony Bourdain, a hero among many chefs for his brash celebration of their work, and one who made frequent and vivid references to thoughts of ending his life. At the time, “He just seemed so brutally honest,” Pearson said. His 2018 death by suicide seemed to illustrate how tough talk can conceal inner turmoil.
Bourdain’s death helped inspire a California chef named Patrick Mulvaney to start the program “I Got Your Back,” which teaches employees in the restaurant industry to look for warning signs that someone is in distress. Another movement, Fair Kitchens, encourages restaurant workers to check in with one another, make time for breaks and to praise one another’s achievements. Their website offers statistics like “53% of chefs feel pushed to breaking point.”
For Jody Wright, the stressors of life at the Shark have continued since August. Days after her husband’s death, she told The Sun: “This week I’ve been processing the fact that I’ve just lost my husband, and we had an oven break, our hood fan had to be fixed, we had a problem with our computer system… and we had a health inspection. Do you believe that?”
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Still, she intends to do everything she can to keep the place open without her husband and business partner. In the restaurant industry, “There’s an expectation that we keep going — and we do,” she said.
At the chef’s memorial, regulars reminisced about lobster specials and other great meals they’d eaten at the Shark on the Harbor through the years.
“You never know what’s going on with someone," said Tom Johnson, an Ocean Pines resident as he sipped a soda.
Nancy Hickman of Snow Hill recalled treating herself to a meal at the Shark on the Harbor after a long day visiting her mother in a nursing home. She loved the restaurant’s commitment to “real food from local people" and Wright’s creativity with his daily menu. “It’s a really big experience when someone takes that much care with something. It’s more than just food,” Hickman said.
The week after Wright died, Hickman made a point of eating lunch at the Shark on the Harbor. She ordered the soft shell crab BLT, accompanied by jalapeño tartar sauce. Like the other meals she’s eaten here through the years, she said, it was fabulous.