About six years ago or so, I sat around a table with a group of chefs and suggested that something needed to be done to address mental health, alcohol and drug issues in the industry. Every single chef around that table put their head down and pretended I hadn’t said it, until someone changed the subject and moved on.
It’s a sombre picture of an industry in denial that Ruth Hegarty, food industry consultant and former chief executive at the Irish branch of Euro-Toques – the European community of chefs and cooks – is describing.
In February last year, Hegarty set up Chef Network, a network and community for chefs in Ireland that now has more than 2,800 professional and student chef members.
“Over the past two years, I have been sitting down with chefs regularly, discussing the set-up of Chef Network and our objectives; from day one those chefs have raised mental health and wellness and the sustainability of the chef as something we need to address. So at an industry level, things have definitely moved on and this topic is being discussed,” she says.
That turnaround has been fuelled, in part, by a succession of high-profile chefs who have gone public on their experiences of mental-health issues directly related to workplace stress, and other environmental factors they have experienced while doing their job.
In September last year, Californian chef and restaurateur Daniel Patterson, who earned two Michelin stars at Coi in San Francisco and established Locol, a healthy fast-food chain with fellow chef Roy Choi, wrote an essay published on the Madfeed website, the online resource of the the Danish-based global cooking community.
In it, he recounts his experience of living with undiagnosed mental-health issues and the tipping point that sent him to a doctor in search of medication to help him deal with them.
He recalls a late-night drinking session with a chef friend at which they were discussing depression – “I mean, how many chefs you think are depressed anyway? Like 95 per cent?” – and his friend’s admission that he had been taking medication and attending therapy for 15 years.
“In 30 years of cooking, this was the first conversation I’d ever had about mental illness,” Patterson writes. “For chefs – the people who work through burns and cuts and sickness – talking about mental illness is taboo, a sign of weakness.”
René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, one of the world’s best-known chefs, was one of a number of industry figureheads who contributed to an episode last August of The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4, in which he spoke about his mental health, and the moment he had to acknowledge he had issues that he “couldn’t control any more”.
“I was walking to work on a spring day . . . out of the blue I had this overwhelming sensation of not being able to walk anymore and I remember telling myself, ‘I feel like laying down and crying’. I stood there and I felt so weak, like I’ve never felt before . . . I was thinking, who is going to take care of me, who is going the carry me back to my apartment.”
Irish chef Mark Moriarty, former winner of the global Young Chef of the Year title, and now working at Cutler & Co in Melbourne, has not personally experienced any symptoms of mental health issues, but he researched stress management in professional kitchens for his culinary arts degree thesis.
“I grew up in a family of mental-health professionals. My mother worked in management of psychiatric services, my sister was studying psychiatric nursing and my father is a clinical psychologist. Growing up with awareness of mental health since childhood led to an interest in the subject, particularly when I entered the professional kitchen environment,” he says.
“I think chefs have always had to deal with mental-health issues, but it is only in recent years it has become a topic for discussion. When chefs speak out, it gives others the confidence to share their own feelings, like a domino effect.”
In January last year, American food writer Kat Kinsman launched a website, Chefs With Issues, that aims to destigmatise mental illness in the culinary industry. Kinsman, who has written extensively about her own experiences of anxiety and depression, found that increasingly chefs she was interviewing in the course of her work were bringing up their own, or a staff member’s, experiences with mental-health issues.
Less than 24 hours after launching the site, Kinsman had about 100 responses to the mental-health survey she had instigated; three months later that number had risen to more than 1,300, and continues to grow. In July this year, she set up a closed Facebook discussion group to give culinary professionals a safe space to discuss the issue and share resources.
Kinsman was one of the speakers at this year’s Food On The Edge symposium in Galway, where several presentations raised issues around mental health, with work/life balance and bullying and aggressive working environments recurring topics.
Mark Moriarty believes better work/life balance is paramount in addressing mental-health issues in professional kitchens. “In an ideal, magical, world I would love to work in a four-day restaurant, from Wednesday to Saturday,” he says.
Ruth Hegarty says the demands of the job – long hours, unpredictable shift patterns, a high-stress environment and “the tendency towards perfectionism” , together with over-dependency on alcohol and drug use, are key issues.
“I have spoken to several senior chefs in industry who have talked about seeing really talented chefs go gradually downhill – coming in to work hungover, under-performing, feeling they couldn’t take the pressure, sometimes ultimately leaving the industry because the job is too tough . . . but almost any job is tough if you are hungover and lacking sleep. And then there is the drug use to keep going, get through services.”
Dr Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, senior lecturer in culinary arts at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), says he is unaware of any research that shows that chefs are “any more prone to suffer from mental-health issues than any other cohort working in high-pressure shift work environments (doctors, nurses, firefighters, pilots, and so on)”.
DIT students can avail of mental-health awareness workshops and “work -related stress, bullying and harassment” are covered in the occupational health and safety module of the degree course, in preparation for the working environment, which for culinary arts students begins in year one, with work-place internships.
Psychotherapist Trish Murphy says it is her belief that chefs are more susceptible to mental-health issues , “but in the broad sense”.
“Most chefs have to be multi-taskers and while this is laudable, it also can add enormous pressure in a life where many things have to be done perfectly, all at the same time. Anxiety and stress are often outcomes of this. Because of the unsocial hours, the intense pressure and high-octane environment, many chefs are at risk of burnout, poor work/life balance and have difficulty maintaining relationships.”
For a chef who thinks they may be at risk of suffering a mental-health issue, she has the following advice: “If someone is suffering from anxiety or burnout, then adjusting their lifestyle is a priority. Having a routine that includes good sleep, exercise and mental stimulation is a basic place to start.”
Chef Network is working on a “Charter for a Better Kitchen Workplace” that Ruth Hegarty believes will make a difference to the wellbeing of those working in the industry.
“There are small changes that all chefs can make to improve things for their staff. It could be making sure that they take their breaks during their shift, that they all sit down together to eat as a team, giving people a set day off or giving schedules further ahead of time, taking people aside to discuss issues rather than raising them in front of the other chefs, or just checking in with people to ask how they are getting on.”
For Mark Moriarty, dialogue is key. “The onus is on restaurant owners and head chefs to make it an important subject. Even if the hours can’t change, at least talking to people about their feelings can release pressure valves in people’s minds, preventing explosion.”
‘I fell into a very dark place’
James Sheridan, chef/patron, Canteen Celbridge, talks about his experiences of managing his mental health
“On the morning of Monday, July 17th, the awful news of the death of Australian chef Jeremy Strode broke. Jeremy was 51 and a father of three. He had taken his own life.
“I didn’t know Jeremy personally but his passing hit me hard, for a few reasons.
“On the surface everything in my own life looks good. Our business has had a very positive first year. It is staffed by enthusiastic and talented people. I run it with the greatest partner I could ever wish for and am the father to the most wonderful little boy ever born.
“But this year I also fell into a very dark place. A crippling emptiness and self-loathing. At first I thought I was just tired, but then I could not sleep. I usually deal with stress through exercise – but found I had neither the energy nor the motivation to do anything.
“I felt a constant fear and had utterly irrational thoughts, leaving me completely drained and devoid of happiness. A constant ‘what’s the point’ attitude prevailed.
“My partner, Soizic, has no experience of dealing with mental-health issues and must have suffered terribly throughout this period. Running a business and keeping up with a toddler is work enough without this.
“Luckily for me, someone close to me recognised the signs, and urged me to seek medical assistance, and through my GP, a course of treatment was mapped out.
“I spoke honestly to our staff and explained my situation. I can only imagine what having an indecisive and highly irrational boss was like for them. Their response was fantastic
“On reflection, this is not my first episode of mental-health issues, but certainly, given my current circumstances, it was the worst. The most important thing is to talk to someone, to tease it out.
“Our industry is a demanding one that has long had a reputation for harsh hours and unforgiving attitudes. Customers are more discerning than ever and we simply must deliver. This is a challenge we strive to rise to, but one that can carry with it collateral damage.
“An area of concern for me is that the digital age has brought with it online review platforms, where people can anonymously, without recourse, say anything they like. But there are real people, doing their best, on the other end of that.
“My experiences, in dealing with both my own mental health and the aggressive kitchens I have worked in, got me thinking that though we do our best to serve ethical, sustainable food – maybe it’s time as an industry we took better care of our key assets, our people.
Noel Healy on what led him to take a break from the kitchen
“I am 27 years’ old and originally from Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary. Both my parents are qualified chefs.
“I suppose I have suspected I have had mental-health issues for about five years. The first clear time I can remember is when I was having a hard day and my head chef could see and asked what was wrong. I broke down, but he helped me to come back. I remember walking to work Googling symptoms of depression and realising that a lot of these applied to me.
“I had ignored it for years, carrying it through jobs, adding pressure until it finally became just too much for me to handle. My parents, family and girlfriend made the decision for me to leave work and get help
“It had a massive effect on my ability to do my job – stopping in an alleyway just two minutes off from my job and chainsmoking about five cigarettes before going in to work. Being unable to focus and in a constant state of panic. My standard of work dropped as I did not care. My standard is usually very high and that was when I realised something was wrong.
“A lot of things contributed to this. Long hours, poor diet, not enough sleep, and in some of the places I have worked, the treatment from those higher up. I have treated others horribly, just so they would feel worse than I did. I enjoyed it. Made me happy knowing I was causing misery.
“But one thing that has helped to ease the pressure is good mentorship. Philip Yeung [head chef at Craft restaurant in Harold’s Cross] is the shining example of that.
“At the moment I am on illness benefit and taking some time to look after myself.”