Long hours, stress, drink and drugs – why kitchens are a pressure cooker for chefs, writes Marie- Claire Digby
Long hours, a high- stress environment and bullying are blamed for the increasing incidence of drug and alcohol dependence and mental- health issues among Ireland’s chefs, writes Marie Claire- Digby
‘ 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, Califor- nian 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. 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
I also fell into a very dark place . . . I felt a constant fear and had utterly irrational thoughts . . . Luckily for me, someone close to me recognised the signs, and urged me to seek medical assistance, and a course of treatment was mapped out – James Sheridan, Canteen, Celbridge
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 experienced any symptoms of mental health related issues himself, 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 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 dis- cussion. 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. 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 i n a four- day restaurant, f rom Wednesday to Saturday,” he says.
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- per- forming, 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
o‘ v‘ I had this erwhelming sensation of not being able to walk anymore and I remember thinking, ‘ I feel like laying down and crying’
PHOTOGRAPH: BRENDA FITZSIMONS