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While restaurateurs are striving to create more compassionate workplaces however they can afford to, many employees are still uninsured or underinsured and can’t afford professional counseling. Drugs and alcohol still often serve as bandages for a bad day.
A handful of restaurant professionals are turning to a different place for support—Buddhism. Some found their way to the religion later in life and identify with its philosophies while others were born into Buddhist families and carry out its traditions in their establishments. About 2 percent of adults in the D.C. metro area practice Buddhism, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study.
There’s high-profile precedence. One of the world’s most famous chefs, Éric Ripert, encountered Buddhism when he was at a Paris airport in 1989. He went into a store to buy a copy of Playboy but came away with an impulse purchase: a book about Tibet. Ripert frequently talks about how practicing Buddhism helped him leave anger out of the kitchen.
Buddhism dates back to the sixth century BCE in what’s now Nepal, according to Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. A wealthy prince, Siddhartha Gautama, began to question his luxurious lifestyle and left his palace in search of answers. He encountered a sick man, an old man, a dead man, and a monk, all of whom left him curious about the causes of human suffering.
Gautama found enlightenment while meditating under a tree and eventually began teaching others how to live lives free from greed and the desire for material things through various precepts and noble truths, which vary slightly from type to type. Over time, the religion split into two main branches: Theravada Buddhism, mainly practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, and Mahayana Buddhism, most popular in China, Korea, Tibet, and Japan. Karma, or at least the linking of cause with effect, plays a key role in both.
Anju Executive Chef Angel Barreto started practicing Buddhism two years ago after he got out of a long relationship and was looking for greater balance in his life. “My parents were Christian and that worked for them,” he says. “Christianity never really worked for me. So, I went to a lot of local Buddhist temples in the area.”
He discovered Myosenji Buddhist Temple in Silver Spring. “There were people and families who looked like me,” he says. “There were Brazilian families and black families, a really great mix of culture and people. That really resonated with me.” He now visits the temple roughly twice a week.
The tradition Barreto belongs to, Nichiren Shōshū, falls under Mahayana Buddhism and was founded in Japan in the 13th century. Their head temple has a prime location at the base of Mount Fuji, and practitioners worship the law of cause and effect.
The James Beard Award semifinalist meditates twice a day—once in the morning, when he sets his goals for the day and takes time for self-reflection, and again when he gets home from work to contemplate what went wrong and what he can change. “Everything in life is a butterfly effect. If you do this there will be repercussions. You’re praying to offset the negative karma in your life by doing good deeds,” he says.
By the time Anju opened in August 2019, Barreto was well into his practice. The timing was ideal. He was taking on his first executive chef role at a highly anticipated restaurant and opening any restaurant comes with long hours and intense emotions.
“Our industry doesn’t have any guardrails when it comes to protecting people’s mental health and Buddhism was a big guard for myself to have more mental fortitude,” Barreto says. “I feel like I can assess situations better and I’m not as hot-headed as I was a couple of years ago.”
Even when “cooks mess up in big situations,” Barreto says he’s able to address his charges “with the respect they deserve.” “I’m not yelling at them, grabbing them, touching them,” he says. “We sit down and have conversations like adults. As someone who has been in this industry for 10 years, I didn’t get that in the beginning and that’s something I needed.”
Like Barreto, Chicken + Whiskey bartender Michael Francisco started practicing Buddhism two years ago. He was meditating as a part of therapy he received while dealing with grief. Finding it beneficial, he conducted research and found links between what his therapist recommended and Buddhism.
He now goes to the Kadampa Meditation Center DC in Navy Yard. According to the center, Modern Kadampa Buddhism, which also falls under Mahayana Buddhism, is a set of instructions or way of being that “allows people to be at peace at all times and in all situations and be the very best version of themselves.”
“They teach you about compassion,” Francisco says. “All living beings are precious. Part of the teaching gives you a sense of loving kindness. You can imagine in a bar where there’s alcohol it’s a bit of a challenge because people can be challenging at times.”
When Francisco catches himself veering in a negative direction when interacting with customers, he says he’s more prepared to handle situations than he was before tapping into Buddhism. “We’re all students trying to reach enlightenment and inner peace,” he says. “Whenever I make mistakes—we all do in the industry, even practicing Buddhists—sometimes I’ll feel guilty, but we’re all practicing.”
As a sommelier and Hank’s Oyster Bar bartender, Calvin Hines Jr. encounters similar stressors as Francisco. “We deal with strangers every day—that comes with thousands of personalities,” he says. “You don’t know what kind of day they’ve had. You have to be patient, have some empathy, be calm and centered.”
He wishes customers would show service industry workers the same consideration. “You’re a server, a bartender, a manager—you’re looked at as someone who brings people things,” he says. “You’re not looked at as a human being. Try to not look at someone as a transaction and look at them as a person.”
Hines says he’s adhered to the philosophies of Buddhism for 10 years, but he doesn’t belong to a particular branch of Buddhism or visit a temple. “I agree with the methods of handling your emotions,” Hines says. “It’s easy to slow things down and think about why you react to certain things and really appreciate things as they’re happening in the moment.”
He tries to meditate for 30 minutes a day while sweating in a sauna. If his method of meditation seems unorthodox, it’s not. Meditation can take on many forms so long as you’re reflecting on how Buddha’s teachings resonate with your life and are striving to quiet your mind. Meditation doesn’t have to take place at a temple, involve chanting, or take up a prescribed amount of time.
Buddhism is about to take on a much bigger role in Hines’ life as he works toward the launch of his urban agriculture project—EightFold Farms. “I’m aligning myself in a living that doesn’t allow me to directly sell alcohol at least for a little while and allows me to really give back to nature,” he says.
Some strict Buddhists are vegetarian or vegan because the religion asks followers to cherish all life. Others abstain from vices like drugs and alcohol. Both are lifestyle choices that don’t seem compatible with employment in bars and restaurants. Most workers use a modern interpretation of Buddhism, which emphasizes consuming everything in moderation.
Hines’ plan is to build small, sustainable farms throughout the city to tackle food deserts in Wards 7 and 8 and underemployment. The initiative is named after Buddhism’s Eightfold Path—right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration—which seeks to end suffering and help practitioners reach awakening or enlightenment.
Two D.C. restaurateurs were born into Buddhist families—Bobby Pradachith and Aung Myint. Pradachith operates Thip Khao, Hanumanh, Padaek, and Sen Khao with his mother, Seng Luangrath. Pradachith, citing his Americanized upbringing, is more evangelical about introducing the D.C. area to Lao cuisine than he is about Buddhism.
“I do respect the religion and it’s something I grew up with,” he says, noting that his parents are more devout followers. “I don’t think about it every day because I’m so busy with work, but in terms of how I live, I try to pay respect to it.”
Theravada Buddhism is most common in Laos, where some of the population also has animist beliefs. Animism refers to the idea that there are spirits and souls all around us. There are reminders in Pradachith’s restaurants to keep him centered.
“We have this shrine that hangs on the wall in all of our places, plus in our homes,” he says. Whoever comes into work first prepares a small tray of food to offer to the spirits who inhabit the space. “Usually you want to offer something that you’d similarly offer your guest.”
At Hanumanh, it’s a charred eggplant dip, a slice of fruit, a bowl of sticky rice, and a small glass of water or small shot of a spirit. The ceremony involves chants and making requests like “please give us strength to go through the day” or “please grant us good blessings for this service.”
Pradachith’s patience was tested recently. Just three months after Hanumanh opened in Shaw, it had to close so the city could perform gas line maintenance. “There are people who asked me if we were going to keep [the restaurant],” Pradachith says. “I kept myself very calm and collected.”
Since reopening in January, Hanumanh garnered a rare three-star review from Post critic Tom Sietsema. “Buddhism gives you insights about how to appreciate life and not take things too seriously, especially during times that are very tough,” Pradachith says. “We try to believe in ourselves and motivate others to believe in us.”
Myint was also born into a Burmese family that practices Theravada Buddhism. He operates Bandoola Bowl, a fast-casual salad restaurant in Georgetown; is currently engrossed in relocating Mandalay Restaurant & Cafe from Silver Spring to D.C. proper; and is readying to open Sticx in Georgetown.
While Myint believes hospitality and Buddhism go hand-in-hand, he’s presently stretched so thin that he doesn’t practice as much as his mother or wife.
“They calm me down,” he explains. “Before I was married I was a very bad boss and nowadays I feel a little differently. I’m older and my wife put me in my place. It’s all about seeing different perspectives.”
City Paper asked each Buddhist to share his personal nirvana—what each of them is striving for most in life.
Barreto from Anju is trying to regain work-life balance. “We’ve been here six months and it’s been crazy,” he says. “I’ve dedicated a lot of time here and now I need to get back to having time for myself.”
Francisco from Chicken + Whiskey wants inner peace. “I’m very inquisitive and I always over analyze things,” he says. “Meditation practice keeps me more level-headed, more centered.”
Hines is trying to be the best version of himself. “Every day you wake up is a chance to do something new,” he says. “You’re born every day. Whether it be through business, making a [personal record] at the gym, or making a sales goal, be a little better every day.”
Pradachith seeks positivity. “It’s something that I always work toward or just try to share with people,” he says. “There’s constant stress involved in the restaurant industry, especially if you’re a young, striving person. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s all about the process.”
Myint believes world religions are all meaningful and share things in common. “They all want you to be a certain way and have things to follow,” he explains. “Everybody comes from the same tree, but it has different branches. I believe that practicing being a good person is good enough.”