Tips for Better Mental Health from 5 Top Chefs
If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, goes the old adage. Unfortunately, it’s a saying that has stuck, and it has imbued the hospitality industry with a ‘toughen up’ mentality, suggesting that any personal fallout from this, simply needs to be endured.
To most of us, the topic of chef health is oxymoronic. How could the very people who feed us with good, clean food, be struggling with health issues?
But the fact is, the chef’s life is not as glamorous as TV reality shows might portray. The celebrity status through TV reality programs such as MasterChef, have created a sexiness around the job that never existed before. But the off-camera, day-to-day of the actual job tells quite a different story.
Its hallmarks are crazy hours – and the relationship toll that can take – along with the obvious lifestyle challenges of diet and exercise.
Recently, the struggles of celebrity chefs and local chefs, including the tragic loss of Anthony Bourdain, have raised the consciousness of the problem. “The hospitality industry has a unique and brutal mentality where you put your head down, grit your teeth and say ‘yes, chef’ to every demand,” Wintle says.
George Wintle is an upstart 21 year old chef who launched a fundraising campaign called Eat The Issue which is designed specifically to raise awareness and funds for HEAT (Hospitality Employment & Education) program to educate upstart chefs. The program aims to empower young (16-25 year old) hospitality workers to kickstart their career on the right footing, through career guidance and counselling.
His goal is to raise funds to support and encourage young chefs to talk about the pressures, and make changes.
Pam Burnett from Cream Collection understands the challenge. Through her label Cream Collection, she’s dressed some of Australia’s best known chefs. “Designing uniforms for some of the leading chefs, I know all too well about the pressure cooker environment they work in,” she says, adding “George’s initiative really resonated with me, and that’s why I’ve started the Just Breathe initiative, where I will be donating my 100% organic cotton chef workwear pro bono to Eat the Issue. It’s my contribution to helping create a healthier, happier environment for chefs.
Surviving The Heat in the Kitchen – 5 Tips from Top Chefs
Tip #1 - Chef Matt Stone – Nurture Nature
“There’s nothing easy about working in a professional kitchen, so it’s really important to find a balance between mental and physical health. Taking time to rest and to talk to friends is crucial to surviving and succeeding! We all need to realise that it’s ok to not feel ok! On the flip side of that, as industry leaders we need to create a environment that our up and coming staff can feel comfortable enough that they can talk to us about where they’re at!
For me to be able to “Breathe”, being amongst nature and in the outdoors is what helps me escape from the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. When I am foraging, hunting or just going for a walk, I am always in constant awe of what the planet gives us and how Mother Nature works. Picking my food directly from the source gives me a whole new sense of pride in everything I put on a plate. “
Tip #2 - Chef Zack Furst – Pick up a hobby
“What I like to do to keep myself level/switch off from hospitality and come up for air is a combination of a few things, skateboarding, photography and “free time”.
Since I’ve been with Charlie Ashfield (girlfriend & professional photographer) I discovered an interest in film photography and have since invested in a 35mm Canon AE-1 camera as well as a 120mm Mamiya RZ67 camera. I like film photography because of the general unknown at first and over time having to work on a skill via trial and error. It reminds me a lot of when I first became a chef and learning everything for the first time. I also think its very important to have a second creative outlet in order to maintain some sanity. I also do it purely as a hobby with no interest in pursuing it as anything more, which I also think, helps in allowing me to breathe and come back to reality some days.
I’ve skateboarded since I was roughly 7 or 8 years old and never stopped, its been a constant escape for me.
I still try and skate once a week and sometimes with the same friends I skated with when I was growing up.
I also like to organise some time every now and then when I have nothing organised, often means myself and Charlie just heading in a random direction/suburb or town and then basically working out the day from there with no plans. I think having a day every now and then when you allow things to happen then openly seek them is crucial, and you often find some new incredible things.”
Tip #3 -Chef Adam Goldblatt – Sport
“From such a young age I’ve had a huge passion for all kinds of sport. Whether I am playing or spectating, this is something I can truly connect with and nothing else matters in that moment. Watching peoples sheer athleticism always leaves me speechless. I’ve always been a very competitive person so whenever I’m playing sport, I will always be 110% committed and in that moment of time, it’s all I think about. “
Tip #4 -Chef Jake McWilliams – Stepping outside of the “hospo lifestyle”
“I find that being with friends and family that have no connection to hospitality is a massive thing for me. Having the opportunity to converse with someone who knows little about what really helps me disengage from my work. My friends and I will often go to music events, skate, go out for a meal, or even just hang out in the park. Its nice to have people that I can surround myself with and be open about absolutely everything.”
Tip #5 - Chef Aaron Brodie – Family Time
“Although it can get pretty hectic at times, hanging out with my 2 year old son Max brings me so much joy and really helps distance myself from my work. We do absolutely everything together. Whether that is outside watering the garden, going to a blueberry farm, or even catching the tram to get a hot chocolate at a local café. Fully investing myself into Max’s growth is one of the most rewarding feelings ever”
The Final Word
The bottom line is that mental health takes daily nurturing. And talking about it is the first step. And taking responsibility through lifestyle changes – however small – is the responsibility of everyone in the food chain of the industry. This means, chefs need to talk, mentor and most important of all? Taking their own mental health seriously, and leading change from the front.
“If we are to nurture a vibrant profession and industry, we need to start changing the paradigm and cultivating good habits. Part of that means setting a new bar for the profession. The first step is starting the conversation.” – George Wintle.