We Can’t Keep Ignoring Mental Health in the Kitchen
Is the hospitality industry doing enough for the misfits who take refuge in professional kitchens?
Last year was one of the most successful in chef Selin Kiazim’s career. Oklava, the East London restaurant she opened in 2015, was busy every night. She was a finalist on the BBC cooking show Great British Menu and had just published her first recipe book. More than that, she loved the food she cooked: modern Turkish-Cypriot dishes involving meats grilled over heady mangal coals, and roasted, pistachio-flecked vegetables.
And yet, on an alarming number of mornings, Kiazim would cry as she made her way to the restaurant.
“I was coming into work literally on autopilot like, I can do all the prep, I can delegate the jobs, I can do service,” she tells me. “I’m just like, My hands are moving, but my mind is on that thing that’s causing me a lot of pain. But I couldn’t let go of that pain or put it to one side so that people could come and do their jobs. I’d be crying and I’d leave, and I’d be crying going back home.”
We’re sitting in Oklava after a midweek lunch service. The restaurant is calm and bathed in afternoon sunlight and Kiazim—not in her chefs’ whites today, but wearing a maroon shirt, with her hair loose around her shoulders—is relaxed despite currently being in the midst of a new restaurant opening. It’s hard to square what she’s telling me with the extremely chill vibe she radiates.
“After months of that, I just had this realisation: Oh god, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t cry or when I wasn’t crying during service,” she continues. “It was a real eye-opener because I literally had no control over it.”
This lack of control over her own emotions took Kiazim by surprise. A culinary graduate of Westminster Kingsway College, she had risen quickly in the London restaurant scene, opening Oklava after a stint as head chef of Kopapa and a six-month residency at a restaurant in a Haggerston railway arch.
“I never thought I would be in that situation. I’ve always thought of myself as quite a strong person, but it’s actually got nothing to do with that. I think my perception of what depression or any kind of mental health issues was wasn’t as clear before it happening.”
Kiazim began seeing a therapist regularly, and today says that she is “really focused on my work again and in a good place personally as well.” Although she now attributes her depression last year to a relationship breakdown, she notes that the kitchen isn’t an easy place to work if you have poor mental health.
“Because of the intensity in the work you’re doing, it’s a really hard environment to function in when you’re not 100-percent,” Kiazim says.
Working in professional kitchens can involve any of the following: long hours, sweat, heavy drinking, competition, drug use, verbal and physical bullying, sharp knives, hot pans, poor pay. A survey released last year by British trade union Unite found that over half of chefs said that they suffer from depression, and 27 percent use alcohol to help them through a shift.
Last week, the world was rocked by the suicide of Anthony Bourdain. The chef, writer, and television host found fame in 1999 with a New Yorker essay exposing the drug use and exhilarating chaos that went on behind the scenes at New York's top restaurants. He continued to speak candidly about mental illness and addiction, even as he rose to become one of the most respected food voices of his generation.
Sadly, Bourdain's case is far from unique. A Google search for “chefs” and “mental health” brings up articles on the stress-related suicides of celebrated French chefs Bernard Loiseau and Benoît Violier in 2003 and 2016 respectively, but also stories worryingly closer to home. Last month, the Somerset County Gazette reported on a “promising young chef” named Carl Abrams. He had also killed himself.
Restaurants are making efforts to change. Buoyed by the wider societal shift towards de-stigmatising mental illness—plus an industry staffing crisis that predicts a deficit of more than one million hospitality workers by 2029—many restaurant professionals have spoken out against kitchen bullying and offered better pay and working hours in the hope of retaining existing chefs and attracting new ones. In November, the Observer published “Is being a chef bad for your mental health?”, a longread by restaurant critic Jay Rayner that included interviews with high-profile chefs about their struggles with alcohol and work-related stress.
Of course, talking about mental health issues means very little unless it results in tangible change to healthcare, government policy, or workplace culture. But is the professional kitchen able to accommodate such change?
Many of the chefs I spoke to for this piece seemed to accept that their job will always be physically and mentally draining. It kind of has to, they claimed. To become a good chef, you need to work long, unsociable hours in an environment that is inherently stressful. You need to thrive on the pressure of a busy service and obsess over making each dish absolutely perfect. You will form ride-or-die bonds with your colleagues. Change all of that, and the job just isn’t the same; you lose the frenetic magic that attracts what Bourdain once described as people who “are in some fundamental way dysfunctional” to finding their calling as chefs.
“The kitchen isn’t always smiles and you don’t always like each other, but it is a great thing,” says Kiazim. “It brings in the strays and the people who don’t have a full circle of friends and family.”
Andrew Clarke is the chef director of Brunswick House. In recent months, however, he has also become a kind of spokesperson for chefs and mental illness after talking publicly about his depression—both on social media and in Rayner’s Observer piece. He is now working with the charity Mind to establish Pilot Light, a campaign against mental illness stigma in the restaurant industry.
I meet Clarke at a coffee shop in East London, where he sips a kombucha and describes the thrill-seeking disposition that attracts some to a career in the kitchen.
“Someone said to me the other week, ‘The reason we like this industry is because we’re adrenaline junkies,’” he says. “There is some truth to that; I think definitely the people who last in the industry the longest are the people who have that kind of mentality. Whether we’re adrenaline junkies I’m not sure, but I think there is a tendency to work hard, play hard. I hate that term, but it is that whole thing of rewarding yourself at the end of a hard service and it’s all too easy to do that every day of the week. That’s also the problem.”
Chefs do work hard—sometimes dangerously so. The 2017 Unite survey found that over half of chefs questioned reported working between 48 and 60 hours a week. Nearly 80 percent said that they had suffered an accident or near miss at work due to fatigue. With many restaurant bosses failing to comply with working time regulations that include the right to 11 hours rest a day and one day off a week, Unite warns that the industry is promoting a “work until you drop” culture.
Peter Gordon, the London-based, New Zealand-born chef who has run restaurants on both sides of the world for more than 30 years, sees overwork as one of the biggest threats to chefs’ mental wellbeing.
“We were getting these young chefs coming through in job interviews again and again and they just looked exhausted and run down,” he says, recalling chefs applying for positions at his Marylebone restaurant, The Providores. “They said they were getting sick and tired of working in kitchens where they were paid for a 40-hour week, but they were working 100 hours and they weren’t given staff meals, they weren’t given breaks.”
As a contemporary of Ruth Rogers and Yotam Ottolenghi—known for their serene open kitchens—Gordon has long made staff happiness a priority at his restaurants. Chefs at The Providores average around 55 hours a week and are provided with meals during shifts, training opportunities, and staff social events.
According to the Institute of Hospitality, other restaurateurs may be catching up to this style of kitchen management. Peter Ducker, chief executive for the Institute, tells me that “there has been a significant step-change in workplace culture in the last ten years or so,” as “more employers have taken initiatives to reduce stress and improve work-life balance.”
One of these initiatives is to shorten your restaurant’s opening hours. Kiazim took the decision to close Oklava on Sundays and Mondays last year, when her mental health issues came to a head. In 2015, chef Sat Bains famously switched to a four-day week at his two-Michelin star restaurant in Nottingham after becoming worried about staff fatigue.
“It was a massive risk,” he remembers. “I think we estimated about a six-figure sum we were going to lose but by being clever, we could do things that we made sure we didn’t have such a big hit. And what it’s done, it’s given us phenomenal return in terms of staff happiness.”
"Because of the intensity in the work you’re doing, it’s a really hard environment to function in when you’re not 100-percent."
Reducing opening hours might work for established restaurants (Kiazim was on national television, Bains’ restaurant is described as “worth a detour” by the Michelin guide), but Clarke points out that closing three nights a week simply doesn’t work for places without a steady customer base.
“I don’t think it would work for businesses staying alive,” he says. “To get everyone well rested, you need more chefs and that would cost the business, particularly smaller businesses, a lot of money to operate.”
Instead of changing work hours, Clarke thinks restaurants should improve work culture by training head chefs to become better managers and instilling rules against bullying.
“There are things we can’t change and things we can change,” he says. “We can change how we treat each other.”
Gordon agrees: “I think to say that the hours has no impact [on the mental health of chefs] is wrong, but if you’re working in an incredibly supportive environment and you're doing those hours—and you're loving it—that’s quite a different situation.”
Another problem can arise from working long hours—on top of fatigue and disrupted work-life balance. At the end of a 12-hour shift in a sweaty kitchen, how do you let off steam?
We’re all acquainted with the stereotype of the heavy-drinking, hedonistic chef. He appears in Kitchen Confidential, the 2000 memoir Bourdain wrote following the success of his New Yorker essay, describing a life spent in restaurant kitchens rife with “sex, drugs, bad behaviour, and haute cuisine.” He (and it is almost always a “he”) is in the chefs-are-the-new-rockstars trope of early-noughties food writing and Gordon Ramsay’s recent ITV documentary on cocaine use in the restaurant industry.
For many chefs, booze and debauchery in the kitchen are just that: a stereotype. But there’s no denying the fact that access to alcohol and sometimes drugs is easier in restaurants than almost any other workplace—and that this can lead to rampant misuse.
In a 2015 report, the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration listed the food services industry as one of the top fields for alcohol and drug use. While Bourdain had not worked in kitchens for many years at the time of his death, his passing has prompted a number of chefs to speak out about alcohol and substance abuse in their industry. South Carolina chef Mickey Bakst, who had mutual friends with Bourdain, told Buzzfeed News last week: “Alcoholism and drug addiction are here to stay. They’re not going anywhere, and the only way that we can start addressing this is a more open, regular discussion of it. That’s what Anthony Bourdain helped do.”
In 1980, when Ken Crosland was in his early twenties, he moved from the UK to New York. He found work as a waiter in a high-end restaurant and soon got to know his new colleagues. It wasn’t long before they were going out together after service—sometimes several times a week.
“Everyone in the bar at half 11 at night had been drinking for a couple of hours, and it was catch-up drinking,” Crosland remembers. “I had a lot of fun and I ignored the warning signs when they came, so at the end of my first year [in New York], I was on my way to an alcohol problem. I also started using cocaine, and my introduction to cocaine was the people I worked with. A couple of years passed and I lost two jobs in good restaurants and it was sort of related to my lack of reliability.”
After four years in New York, Crosland returned to London, where he worked in media and spent many more years struggling with alcohol before making the decision to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. He has now been in recovery for over 20 years and teaches Hospitality Action’s alcohol and drug awareness seminar. Designed to “educate the hospitality industry’s students, employees, and management as to the dangers of alcohol dependency and other drug misuse,” the two-hour sessions see Crosland share his story of alcohol dependence, and offer alternate ways of coping with hospitality work stress.
"Whether we’re adrenaline junkies I’m not sure, but I think there is a tendency to work hard, play hard."
“The ultimate message we’re saying to them is, ‘You’ve got to find ways of dealing with the stress that don’t always involve reaching for a glass or a spliff or something else at the end of service,’” he says. “And because the presenters come from the industry and we speak about our own addiction and our own recovery—we’re all in recovery, that’s an important thing—then the kids tend to love it.”
While Crosland says that some restaurant managers were “skeptical” about the seminars at first, there is clearly an appetite for open conversation about drug and alcohol abuse. Since 2003, when he started teaching the seminars for the Ark Foundation (a drug and alcohol awareness organisation that later became part of Hospitality Action), Crosland has spoken to managers and staff from top London restaurants, as well as catering college students and hotel workers.
“In every room that I speak with, someone has got a problem—at least one person,” he says.
In a way, it’s not surprising that alcohol and drug abuse are a workplace hazard for some chefs. Think about it: you spend all night around people enjoying themselves with alcohol, booze is there in your place of work, and you clock off right around when everyone else is already buzzed—a reason for FOMO-induced catch-up drinking if there ever was one.
Almost any chef will have their own tale of drunken antics.
“You’d walk past some people’s stations and you’d smell Jack Daniel’s kicking up from them,” says Clarke, recalling the kitchens he worked in at the start of his career almost 20 years ago. “Their storeroom pour of Coca-Cola would just be absolutely topped up with Jack Daniel’s before service—but they were kind of like hedonistic days, I definitely had a motley crew of chefs in that kitchen and everyone was either drunk or hungover. It was dangerous but we laughed about it at the time.”
Interventional methods like Crosland’s seminars seem to be effective, but steering chefs away from drug and alcohol abuse must also be ingrained in kitchen culture.
“We persuade employers that they should adopt a balanced approach, which is actually much more aligned with corporate social responsibility and the duty-of-care to employees,” Crosland says. “It basically starts with them saying that as an organisation, ‘We realise that sometimes, people in our industry will maybe drink too much as a way of dealing with stress. Sometimes, that becomes a problem and as a good employer, we would like to help.’”
Pilot Light, Clarke’s developing mental health campaign, also takes a holistic approach. Rather than rely on “people to come in and tell us what to do,” Clarke wants chefs, front-of-house, and bar staff to work together to support colleagues with poor mental health and instigate wider industry change. Pilot Light would then support this by offering training and practical performance advice from ex-military speakers like Floyd Woodrow.
“It’s one thing, us saying that we need to look after each other and get people to do that, because that’s going to happen,” Clarke says. “People want to know how, so by reaching out and having people like Floyd help us, this is a way we can lead our teams better.”
The campaign only launched in February, and has a small team that includes chef Doug Sanham and restaurant PR specialist Ula McCarthy, but Clarke is already set on one objective: the Pilot Light pledge, a list of employer commitments to supporting staff mental wellbeing. He envisions it as a physical poster, displayed in the kitchens of participating restaurants like health and safety guidelines.
“If there’s a bunch of us that are doing that [signing up to the Pilot Light pledge] and you’ve got limited amount of chefs, they’re going to go to the places where they feel respected and actually have a shit given about them,” Clarke says. “More restaurants will start adopting that strategy, so they coax more people to come to them—that’s how a movement gets started.”
Many chefs admit to being “perfectionists.” They make and remake a dish until the ratio of lemon juice to coriander is perfect, or go to extreme lengths to find a specific ingredient. This desire to be the best is often driven by an innate passion for cooking but also, I suspect, the fear of letting your team down. In a professional kitchen, your workmates can become like family.
“You build this network of people,” Kiazim tells me, back in her sun-dappled dining room. “These are the people around you and you all really care for each other. The amount of teamwork that goes into producing the food—and you spend all these hours together.”
The advent of Instagram and review sites that allow any self-styled “foodie” with a keyboard to think themselves A.A. Gill has only increased pressure on chefs to perform. In a recent mental health survey released by Hospitality Action, “pressure to create Instagrammable dishes” and “all customers having the opportunity to be a critic via social media” were listed as optional answers to a question about causes of stress.
Kiazim sums it up: “You’re working the long hours, everyone’s really tired, and you’re all competing about who can do it faster, who can do it better—not showing any weakness, basically.”
It’s understandable then, that tensions back-of-house often run high. Horror stories of head chefs lashing out at anyone who gets an order wrong and even physical assaults circulate the industry. But there are signs that the show-no-weakness approach is on the wain. Pioneering nose-to-tail restaurant group St. John has long promoted calm kitchens and just last month, a montage of Ramsay’s most aggressive Kitchen Nightmare moments tweeted by Channel 4 drew criticism from many in the restaurant industry for promoting a sensationalist view of chefs’ behaviour.
“That feeling of top-down abuse and shouting and swearing—that stuff does go on but there’s a big movement away from that now,” Neil Rankin, founder of London’s Temper restaurants and experienced critic of Ramsay cartoonish TV presence, tells me.
Indeed, unlike alcohol or working hours, being more accepting of supposed “weaknesses” is something that can change without the need for large-scale adjustments in regulation. All it takes is the attitudes of people who work in restaurants.
“There are things we can’t change and things we can change. We can change how we treat each other.”
On the same day as our talk in the coffee shop, Clarke shows me around St. Leonard’s, a new restaurant he is opening with Brunswick House collaborator Jackson Boxer. A few minutes walk from Old Street tube station, the space is a concrete shell—empty save for construction workers hurrying around in high-vis vests. Clarke excitedly points to where the wood-fired grill will be, and describes his plan to install an ice bar for fresh shellfish on the back wall. “We’ve got a very, very interesting kitchen in terms of the hearth, the fireplace, and the ice bar,” he says proudly.
I ask Clarke whether preparing for this launch has been different to restaurant openings he has worked on in the past.
“I’m trying to rest up while I can at the moment. Exercise is also gonna help, looking after myself really well,” he says. “I’m not drinking or partying, that’s it. When it comes to everyone else, I want to be a better person by constantly feeding back and getting the best out of people. My head chef is a guy that I gave his first job to 15 years ago. He’s a super talented guy and having him again will hopefully take him to the next stage of his career.”
“I’m hoping to create a very inspiring kitchen with interesting techniques,” he smiles. “And just making sure that everyone has the best time.”