Jock Stewart
Chefs and Depression

by Jock Stewart

 

Black Hat George Hill writes in his book Am I Chef? under the chapter heading Professional Codes – Australian Culinary Codes of Practice, Code 10:
Strive to balance my responsibilities in work, recreation and family in harmony with each other.
The code of practice supports a commitment to excellence and passion as a cook/chef but not at the expense of one’s personal life. This code of practice requires you to always consider the needs of your family and immediate loved ones in your career aspirations.

This is my personal story which I write to make young cooks and chefs aware of the dangers of spending too much time at work in the kitchen, because I was one of those who always put my job first in everything, first before sport and recreation and first before my family. In the early years of my culinary career, before I was married, I wanted to do well in salon culinaires, do well in my City & Guilds exams and learn as much as I possibly could from chefs by offering to work in other departments of the kitchen, on my days off, and not be paid for it. I wanted to gain as much experience as I possibly could.

Later on when I held senior positions, I would be called in if staff were sick and as Head Chef people often wanted to talk to me about personal problems just as I was about to leave work. These meeting would often mean that I could be at work for sixteen hour a day, plus travelling time. When I was part of the management team of the 2000 Junior Culinary Olympic Team, my boss agreed to support me, but later he said that when we finished training in Terrigal on the weekend and came back to Sydney, I was to get everything ready for the Monday lunch, this meant working in my kitchen until 2.00 am and having to be back in the kitchen in Terrigal at 6.00 am. Then work until we returned to Sydney at 7.00 pm where I would work until 1.00 pm, getting mis-en-place ready for the next day, because we served 220 for lunch and 300 for dinner. I would then return to work the next day and start at 6.00 am and work until 7.00 pm. This went on for a very long time. I also remember not having a day off for weeks on end because I was needed in the kitchen.

As a chef I really enjoyed working and had been working as many as 80+ hours a week, plus being involved as the secretary of a chefs’ organization for at least 14 years. As a young chef I often didn’t have a girlfriend because who wants to go out with someone who finishes work at 11.00 pm or later.

When I did have time off I didn’t want to have friends around for a BBQ, I just wanted to sleep, and the only people that I socialised with were other chefs. I remember working at a well known eatery in Bondi and being away from home for 18+ hours a day for numerous weeks without a day off, because the restaurant was constantly short staffed. One day I went to work only to find that a junior staff member had taken my mis-en-place and had set up her station. When I reprimanded her, she complained to the Executive Chef who said that it would be better for all if I did some more mis-en-place for my station and not worry about this. Because of the way the Management and the Executive Chef were treating me over this incident and not allowing me to take time off, I walked off the job, which was unacceptable from a professional view point.

After a few days off I rang the Executive Chef and could not get him on his phone, so I left a message apologizing for my behaviour and promising not to do it again. I said that I wanted to come back and that if he didn’t want me back could he please ring me and let me know this. I then said that if I didn’t hear from him over the weekend I would see him on Monday. He didn’t call me, so I eagerly went to work on the Monday, only to see him standing in the middle of the restaurant waiting for me. He then abused the hell out of me in front of the waiters and the customers who were having breakfast. I left the restaurant very humiliated and on the way home I remember standing at Town Hall Station and just as the train was drawing in at the platform, I felt like committing suicide, but I had enough sense not to jump because I thought of the people most important to me and who loved me dearly, my wife and daughters. I also thought of the effect that my actions would have on the innocent driver and what it would do to him emotionally.

When I got home I went to bed and started smoking and drinking a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. When my wife came home she found the door partly ajar and could smell cigarette smoke coming from inside, she immediately went and got our next door neighbour because she thought that there was an intruder inside. They soon learnt that it was me. I couldn’t be bothered to do anything: read, watch TV, or as a Christian, to read my Bible or pray, I was so deflated, I didn’t wash for days, I couldn’t be bothered eating. I just wanted to sleep, eventually after a few weeks I told my wife that I wanted to end our marriage and go and get a flat. That’s how depressed I was. If it had not been for my loving wife and daughters I would not have gotten through this terrible ordeal.

When I went back to work, after about 6 weeks off, I worked for Troy’s Hospitality Agency. It was in the jobs that they gave me that I regained my confidence.

The following year I met some chefs who told me that they had heard that I’d gone a bit ‘funny’ the previous year, when I asked them if they meant that they had heard that I had ‘a break down’ and they said, “Yes”. I then told them what had happened and how it had happened. They were disgusted at the other chef’s behaviour towards me. Some of the chefs admitted to me that they had had a break down and they wanted to know why I was telling people. They asked me if I was after sympathy but I explained that I had thought that I was ‘bulletproof’ and the reason for my telling people was to let others know that if it could happen to me then it could just as easily happen to them.

A couple of years after my breakdown I was working at a well known sports club and told the Head Chef and Sous Chef in confidence what had happened to me, because they were asking why I wasn’t in a top position. One afternoon I went to work and staff members were laughing at me, saying, “You’re mad”. I couldn’t understand why they were saying this until I got to my work bench and found a list of task for me to do from the Sous Chef. It started off, ”To the mad Scotsman.” To someone who has suffered a breakdown, this was gut wrenching and a total betrayal of my confidence. When I complained to the Management, I was told that it was just a joke and not to take it personally. To me it wasn’t funny. Chefs suffering breakdowns isn’t a joke, because they often give the best years of their lives to an industry which can be so cruel.

Over the years I have carefully considered why was it that so that many cooks and chefs had break downs and these are the conclusions that I have come up with.

 

The Lifestyle:

Cheffing is a macho world, it’s tough, it’s demanding and it has absolutely no room for weakness. Being exhausted on service and coming back for more is what we do. You don’t show you’re struggling, you don’t ask for help – to do so is going to get you precious little in the way of sympathy and more likely a barrage of ridicule from your colleagues. It is a unique lifestyle that leaves us out of sync with the rest of society, with its long unsociable hours, hot often cramped working environments, extreme physical demands, because of the long hours spent on our feet and the requirement to frequently lift heavy objects, and constant high pressure to meet deadlines. This makes it extremely difficult to have any sort of social life outside of the kitchen, and can put huge strains on relationships with partners and family members. Starting work mid-morning, having lunch mid-afternoon and not finishing until the early hours of the following morning does not allow much time for seeing friends and family, particularly when most chefs work five days a week.

As well as regularly missing out on social events, chefs are often busiest when everyone else is enjoying the holidays; Birthdays, Christmas, Public Holidays, you name it – if it’s an event for others, a chef will probably have to be at work. Chefs never complain about doing back to back 18 hour shifts in a kitchen? We bitch and moan constantly but about trivial and petty things, we will constantly go on about how some moron split the hollandaise, how clueless our front of house staff are, about the imbecile on table 12 who ordered the steak well done or any number of other things but you will never hear a chef publicly admit to his peers that he is feeling depressed and unable to cope.

Why do you think so many people crash out of this game? It is because they never admitted they needed help before it became too much. Then there’s the inability to see friends and family as a result of work can lead to chefs feeling isolated and lonely. It is unlikely that a chef would be working in the industry if he or she didn’t enjoy it, but everyone needs to enjoy some time off and do something a little different. This can be difficult on a six-day working week, as one day is often not enough to find some time to relax as well as doing something different.

Even if chefs are working with people they like, the lifestyle can really test their relationships with those outside of work. From this sense of isolation, depression can follow. The loneliness combined with the stress of the job can have a huge impact on the mental well-being of anyone in this industry, particularly those either trying to make their way to the top or those running their own kitchens. Chefs have to work extremely hard to make a living, and it is not the most financially secure of professions. Remember that a chef is only as good as his last meal, and with so many establishments cutting down on the number of staff that they employ, it’s not surprising that chefs feel under the pump.

Most chefs that I know want to sleep on their days off and relax at home after working a long five day week.

When I suffered my breakdown I felt sad, anxious, empty, hopeless, worried, helpless, worthless, guilty, irritable, hurt and restless. I lost interest in activities that were once pleasurable, I experienced loss of appetite, I had problems concentrating, I slept a lot, I was fatigued, I lost all my energy.

Depression is often seen as a weakness and a sign that the sufferer is not capable of coping, but it is extremely common and can affect anyone.

Substance Abuse:

Some apprentices and chefs try to use alcohol or even drugs to help them to relax and escape from the pressures of work, but this can lead to long term health problems, both physical and mental, and can be a harder problem to overcome than if help is sought before it gets to that stage.

What we can do to help:

So what can be done to help these people in the industry who we see are bordering on becoming depressed?

 

  • We can ensure that they take proper meal breaks.
  • We can try and encourage them to maintain a healthy balance between work and a social life.
  • Chefs should be encouraged to exercise and maintain a healthy mind, although it can be difficult to squeeze it in around work. Getting up just half an hour earlier can give you time for a quick ten or twenty minute run or jog in the morning. If working split shifts a run between these shifts can help to invigorate you before the evening shift begins, provided there’s somewhere you can shower before you start your evening shift.
  • We can ensure that rather than bringing a chefs in from their days off, we hire agency chefs. This will benefit our establishment in the long term and will stop the chef from being burnt out.

 

 

 

 

I am very grateful that I have a loving wife and daughters who truly love me, and with them and Christian friends I was able to come through this. My wife supported me through this difficult time and other chefs’ families will suffer if people are not made aware of depression and it is because of this that I want to help others. It’s no secret that the life of a chef can be extremely stressful, but mental health problems are often swept under the carpet, and dismissed as just a side effect of the job. Instead of pretending that the problem is not there, it is far more effective to identify it soon so that it can be treated, and so that the relevant help can be provided to ensure a full recovery.

This article was written to make other chefs aware of what can happen to them and to let them know that they are not alone for Mental Health Week on www.foodservicegateway.com.au

JOCK STEWART

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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