Pandemic Pressures: How Chefs are Coping with Mental Health

01 February, 2021

'Chefs' Hands' image courtesy of Joakim Blockstrom

But times have changed since she set up her business in 2018. "There is much more openness when it comes to discussion and emphasis on the topic, which is promising; however, there is more work that businesses need to do to change the culture within establishments", she adds. "It's changing, but very slowly".

According to the therapist, the Covid-19 pandemic made things even more difficult, as grief became a familiar feeling among many restaurant workers. “When we think about grieving, we think about death, but we also grieve when we lose other valuable human needs such as freedom, purpose, jobs, finances. On a daily basis, I see people trying to process and trying to accept this adverse time,” she says. 

Personal connections and financial issues are real concerns for people in an industry so harshly hit by governments' measures, such as lockdowns and curfews. Not being able to see loved ones, putting oneself at risk, and living on furlough or lower wages (the uncertainty of not knowing if there will be money for the next month) can be extremely distressing.

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“The mood got heavier”

In this regard, the pandemic has also affected projects aimed at helping those suffering from mental health issues. The Pilot Light campaign, one of the first such initiatives to gain international prominence, is stepping back for a while, as its co-founder Andrew Clarke explains. "We're all optimistic, but I think that the last series of blows for hospitality has also affected our mental health. Everyone is struggling to pay the bills, pay the rent. It's hard to talk about mental health if you're not in an excellent state," he says.

Clarke was one of the first chefs to share in public how he had suffered and recovered from mental health issues over the years. He received a huge response from fellow professionals, from young cooks to major Michelin-starred chefs, many of whom shared their stories. Since, at the time, no one was really doing anything within hospitality on these issues, he decided to do something about it. “My post opened a public discussion about the lack of support for young creative people in this industry, which led me to set up Pilot Light with chef Doug Sanham,”, he recalls. Sanham suffers with a strong form of disassociation, and also “wanted to find a way to make a change in this voiceless industry, so that people were comfortable enough to start talking about it”. 

At first Clarke was only able to dedicate himself to the project during his time off, but in 2019 he decided to step away from restaurants (his latest position was as head chef in St. Leonards, in London) to give it his full attention. He dedicated himself to working with charities and keeping a busy schedule to meet people’s expectations. “A lot of people that needed an extra voice to give them a bit more confidence,” as he says. “We had a lot of things lined up for 2020. It would have seen us going to various parts of the world raising awareness on mental health and trying to change the stigma about it,” he says.

But with the pandemic, the events were restricted to online activities such as a series of livestreams with chefs and other industry professionals that Pilot Light promoted in May. If, in the beginning of the pandemic, many restaurant groups were reaching out for online training, towards the end of last year fewer were getting in touch. “I feel that the mood got heavier,” Clarke confesses. “There are so many hurdles people and businesses are trying to get through just to survive.” 

He is cooking up some news for the project and hopes that in the summer Pilot Light will be able to act again - maybe they can organise an event during the UK's Mental Health Awareness Week in May. "We set out to get people talking about mental health, and we've achieved that so far. Now there's been a lot of other initiatives, a lot more people talking about it. It can be a bit frustrating sometimes because many want to make a business around it. But I think at the same time this is what we always wanted. We wanted people to talk about it more and more. It's the only chance we have to change the upcoming scenario,” he adds.

Pilot Light also began to pick up steam from other initiatives willing to collaborate with the campaign. The Chefs' Hands Project, from photographer Joakim Blockstrom, highlights the uniqueness of a number of cooks, their work and identities, aiming to reveal a part of their personality. His pictures were displayed at an exhibition in London, where people could bid on experiences offered by chefs to raise money for charities supporting mental health. "The business is treating this subject more seriously, and lots of people in the industry are making sure their staff are not overworked and have support," says Blockstrom, who has worked with many cooks through the years.

2020 may have been the year when mental health in the restaurant industry was talked about the most. If initiatives in this regard started some time ago (in 2017, for example, El Celler de Can Roca hired a therapist to help staff cope with their high-tension jobs) the pandemic brought even greater exposure. The team behind Noma decided to cover staff supplementary health care (including mental health, of course) when the restaurant had to shut its doors in March. 

chef-hands_courtesy-of-Joakim-Blockstrom

Chefs' Hands image courtesy of Joakim Blockstrom

Practical solutions

Mental health became the central theme of the international Congresso dos Cozinheiros (Chefs' Congress), a major Portuguese restaurant-focused symposium that has been taking place for the last 15 years, promoted by Paulo Amado, editor-in-chief of InterMagazine and organiser of culinary events in cities such as Lisbon and Porto.

Considering the burnout, high pressure, abuse and other problems that are part of the daily lives of many professionals in the sector — which gained an even more urgent dimension this year — Amado decided that it was necessary to discuss mental health as the main focus on the lectures and interviews broadcasted on YouTube last November.

The symposium looked for practical solutions to the problem: Amado set up a collaboration between his company, Edições de Gosto, and a group of psychologists (Oficina de Psicologia) to create videos and workshops to allow leaders and restaurant owners to deal better with their teams, creating a friendlier environment, and decreasing risk factors. They will also provide free and anonymous therapy sessions online for restaurant professionals. Amado has the role of identifying those who need help and connecting them with therapists.

The plan is for at least 12 sessions over the first semester of 2021, providing assistance for two-dozen cooks, servers and other restaurant professionals in the first phase. “Hospitality has always been a challenging sector, but Covid-19 put extra pressure on these businesses. With so many closings, people are struggling more than ever before, and they need help,” says Amado.

His goal is to take advantage of this delicate moment to help people change their mindset about the restaurant industry, to realise that it is not normal to accept abusive behaviour on the part of leaders, and to always work under pressure with toxic coworkers. “We have a chance to look inside like never before, and try to make the changes we want to see in the future. I’ve known for ages that this normalisation turned victims into villains. We need to show that a lot of the pressure on people's minds comes from the environment itself, and that we can have healthier workplaces.”

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