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

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS -

‘ 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

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