Boiling Over: Chefs and Mental Health

By Robert Parks

I was just a week into my very first job in a professional kitchen and I was feeling very much out of my depth. I was a twenty-one year-old English Literature graduate who had happened to wing his way into the semi-finals of that years MasterChef and even more surprisingly, wing my way into the kitchen of a two Michelin starred Chef in London.

Already suspecting that people were calling me ‘Masterchef’ behind my back accompanied by exaggerated air quotation marks I was diligently going about a quiet Tuesday lunch service when all hell broke loose.

Across from me on the hot starter section was Janos – one of the more junior chefs in the kitchen who had just sent out a bowl of chilled courgette soup which, when checked by the head chef, was found to be missing its Brazil nut pesto. “There’s no pesto on this soup!” our Head Chef shouted across the kitchen. “No, no stay here for fuck sake,” he barked when our confused Spanish comis waiter motioned to walk back to Janos for him to complete the dish. Instead the Head Chef told Janos to pass over the pesto so that he could quickly add it. By this point the shouting had attracted my attention and, although still busying myself with my checks I kept one eye on the drama unfolding. Unfortunately for Janos what he had been adding to the soups was not Brazil nut pesto but instead Salsa Verde and after first looking at, then sniffing and finally tasting it Chef had realised this. Lulling Janos into a false sense of security Chef coyly asked “Have you been adding this to all of the soups you’ve sent today?”

“Yes, I must’ve just missed it from that one,” Janos said, at this point not quite knowing what was the right answer and what would lead to him being shouted at again.

“So, you mean to say that you’ve been putting Salsa Verde, with ANCHOVIES in it onto the FUCKING VEGETARIAN SOUP FOR A WHOLE FUCKING LUNCH SERVICE?!?!?!”

*WHOOOOOSH*

The container of Salsa Verde flew straight past me and hit Janos square on the chest, green oil splattering his apron and chef’s whites. Dazed and embarrassed Janos was instructed to wipe himself down and change his apron before returning back to service. He duly obliged, one daren’t talk back to the Head Chef, calm was restored and everything returned to normal.

I tell this story not to feed any impression you might have that all chefs are like a certain Mr. Ramsay or that all kitchens are like Hell’s. By no means is this scene a regular occurrence. However, it is not scarce enough. What other professional environment might you expect to find such obscene language, such open bullying of less senior staff and such blatant physical abuse in the workplace? What I believe that this demonstrates is the extreme pressure of professional kitchens and it is this pressure that is effecting chef’s mental health.

It would be easy to say that this Head Chef’s vile outburst was a reflection on him as a person. However, that would be a gross oversimplification. Such a statement doesn’t account for the fact that outside of service he is a lovely guy, with a wife whom he dotes on and who would be appalled if she heard of her husband’s workplace antics. A man with a cat and a new puppy that he’s only too happy to show you pictures of. All Senior Chefs were once that comis being screamed at for what could seemingly be the most innocent of mistakes. The notion that “I was once treated like that and it never did me any harm” is one that even I, about to become a Head Chef, have to fight hard to resist. The consequences are at worst an environment of chronic workplace bullying and at best a situation where intense pressure is heaped onto those at the bottom. In an environment such as a kitchen where days are long and work is physically demanding this can put a great strain upon one’s mental health.

As much as there is pressure at the bottom rung of a kitchen there is equal if not greater pressure at the top. Benoit Violier, Chef Patron of the highly acclaimed Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville, was widely known as the “World’s Best Chef” until he was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in January 2016. This tragic end to such a promising and talented life will have seemed all too familiar to people who knew of Bernard Loiseau, another 3 Michelin star chef who met the same fate in 2003, the night before the unveiling of that years Michelin Guidebook. The suspicion was that he was about to lose his coveted third star. These are high profile and clearly extreme examples of how work related depression for Senior Chefs can affect one’s mental health and would be easy to treat in isolation; however, speaking from experience I can tell you that these issues are rife throughout the industry.

Being a chef, regardless of seniority, is hard work. Whether it be the excruciatingly long hours that can put a strain on other relationships in your life; the intense pressure of a fast paced and busy service; or the fact that you leave for work before most people are awake and you return when most of them have gone back to sleep. Any of these factors can easily become too much for some people and talking about it is often a problem.

As society begins to better understand depression as something that can happen to anyone we must be more aware of where this depression can stem from and be more open about talking about it.

The market research company Mintel found that 54% of hospitality workers said they struggled to find time for any social life, 45% of those surveyed claim they find it hard to take proper care of their health and 50% say they worked more hours than contracted. Taking these figures at face value it’s clear there is an industry wide problem, however, I would argue that the reality of the situation is far worse than these figures suggest. All chefs talk about how many ‘doubles’ they’ve worked in a row. It is clear to see from these figures, in conjunction with the fact that kitchen hierarchy can cause junior staff to be mistreated that the stresses and pressures of working in professional kitchens are great. This produces a very intense environment that can be difficult to break away from, particularly when it can be difficult for chefs to find people they feel comfortable talking to about these issues.

With many chefs leaving home, often leaving their native lands, to work in some of the country’s best restaurants most chefs do not have a stable social circle outside of work colleagues. Drinks after work can be considered a chef’s primary social activity, often not ending until the early hours (yes I’m speaking from some painful experience). This is often in spite of needing to be back at work for a sixteen-hour day just hours later. The consequence of this is a monoculture where these issues become the new normal. Being unable to socialise, working long hours and not taking proper care of one’s health will inevitably culminate in mental health issues. But how can you feel comfortable acknowledging and sharing your depression if everyone else is working as hard as you? In an attempt to fend off depression it is not uncommon for Chef’s to turn to drink and less commonly, drugs which only exaggerates and complicates the problem.  Instead of opening up and talking about these issues machismo has you working even harder, drinking harder and pushing yourself even more until eventually it becomes too much.

Can I say that things have ever become this bad for me? No. However, despite this, I would be lying if I said that I had never felt depressed at work. What has been a crutch to me is having a great social circle around me that extends beyond just other chefs giving me the ability to speak to people that aren’t in the industry. My friends constantly remind me that it’s okay if I feel tired, because I, as all chefs do, work too hard for too long in the day. This has been a lifeline for me but given how professional kitchens prove such fertile ground for the development of mental health issues more has to be done within the industry to help chef’s feel comfortable about talking about mental health.

Chefs with Issues a website launched in Dec 2105 by former editor-in-chief at Tasting Table Kat Kinsman. It seeks to provide some sanctuary for chefs and hospitality workers. The site includes a mental health survey that can be filled in anonymously as well as providing a platform for chefs worldwide to share their experiences of dealing with mental health issues whilst working in the industry. Kinsman said in an interview with MUNCHIES in 2016 that she wanted to “call attention to the pretty severe mental health crisis that is happening within the industry which is ruining and taking lives”. The fact that the website received “over 600 responses within ten days” and has grown exponentially since pays testament to the fact that this is desperately necessary.

One can only hope that the reaction to this will see more and more chefs come forward, willing to speak about their issues and will spark a reaction within the hospitality industry that sees more workplaces introducing programmes that tackle the subject of mental illness at work. Programmes such as Chefs with Issues need to be embraced by the industry rather than letting these issues simmer in the background because they will inevitably boil over.

Robert Parks is a former 2015 MasterChef finalist and is now Head Chef of soon to open ‘Copper & Ink’ in Blackheath, London. You can follow Robert on Twitter @RobertDAParks

Check out Chefs with Issues here.

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