health

"You don't realise until you're in the middle of it": The harsh reality of being a chef.

“How long have you got?”

My Kitchen Rules‘ Manu Feildel has just been asked how hard it is to be a chef, and if there are any common mental health struggles in his industry.

In the wake of the death by suicide of renowned Australian chef Justin Bull, a conversation has resurfaced about what it truly is like to be a chef in this country.

Eight Australians die by their own hand every day, and 20 per cent of suicides are linked to work.

Over the past two years, suicide rates in the global hospitality industry have risen, and 80 per cent of hospitality workers agree mental health issues are a challenge in the industry.

In 2018, prominent celebrity chef and American TV host Anthony Bourdain died by suicide.

In 2017, respected Sydney chef Jeremy Strode took his own life, as did Darren Simpson a month prior.

And they’re just the chefs with high-enough profiles for us to hear the news.

Samuel Johnson has spoken to Mamamia about why he doesn’t like mental health labels. Post continues after video.

Video by MMC

Manu is not in the least bit surprised by the struggles being felt by his colleagues, but luckily he knew from the start what he was getting himself in for.

“My dad was a chef, my granddad was a chef, my great granddad was a chef,” he told Mamamia. 

“I remember from very little my granddad telling me that it was like slavery, you know.

Manu Fieldel
Being a chef has run in Manu's blood. Thankfully, having relatives in the industry he knew how hard it would be before he started.
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“It’s hard when everyone only sees all these TV shows about chefs and cooking - but the truth is it has always been a hard gig,” he said.

Fellow Australian chef Curtis Stone agrees.

"Restaurant kitchens are a lot of pressure, and not everyone is cut out for that pressure, because it's so intense," he told Mamamia.

“It's something you don't realise until you're in the middle of it.

Curtis Stone continued: "It is really hard, especially as many chefs view themselves as artists, and they are tough on themselves with what they produce. For example, after I've written a menu, I'm never happy; I'm never fully satisfied with it. I always think I can do better."

A quick venture down some chef-related Reddit threads and a similar picture forms:

“The hours are bad, split shifts will destroy your circadian rhythm and the job is a minefield for bad habits to keep yourself 'balanced'."

“You will be working the hardest when people are all enjoying themselves during traditional times - weekends, nights, public holidays and major events. You have to be prepared for that.”

Curtis Stone
Curtis Stone says there is a lot of pressure in a restaurant kitchen.
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But renowned Australian chef Matt Moran believes it’s all of that - the good, the bad, the ugly - as well as the glory that chefs are drawn too.

He once told Goodman Fielder Food Service, chefs are “mentally, physically and emotionally tested in the kitchen each day over long hours".

“While it’s true that it’s very challenging, that’s often what many of us love and thrive off at the same time,” the restaurateur told the publication.

“I love being a chef and couldn’t imagine being anything else but there’s a misconception that it’s this glamorous, rock star life. It’s the best job in the world and a great career but it’s bloody hard work,” he said.

In the wake of Justin Ball's death this month, Matt shared his heartbreak about losing one of his "closest friends and another chef far too soon," before ending his Instagram post with the hashtag #RUOK, an organisation he has shown his support for in the past.

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Manu says the other problem he has discovered working in Australia is the stress of staffing a kitchen to the quality he requires.

“Anyone who has their own restaurant or runs their own kitchen knows there’s no staff in Australia. We struggle to run restaurants with good staff. So that puts even more pressure on our shoulders,” he said.

On top of that stress, Manu says chefs won’t go home after a long arduous shift - they go out in an effort to have a social life after work.

“You do go out regardless and might start drinking too much or [some start] doing drugs and this and that, and that is a huge issue in the industry. It is a problem,” he said.

Manu hopes that by talking openly about the pressures of his industry it will encourage his colleagues who might be doing it tough, to reach out.

But he knows how hard it is.

“I’ve been having [this conversation] over the last few years... I don’t know what we can do about it.

“There’s RUOK, there are friends, family [to talk to] - but when you are in a situation, you are so deep down it takes a lot to get out of it,” he said.

Centre for Corporate Health psychologist Rachel Clements agrees: "We know Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and specific support services are in the industry, however they're not always known about or utilised."

"We understand that mental health issues and life's pressures can impact those in the hospitality world, but with support, employees can still have a rewarding and successful career," she insists.

In a recent RUOK survey, 40 per cent of respondents said they had thought about asking someone if they were OK, but didn't. Mostly, because they didn't feel like it was their place.

Ms Clements wants that attitude to change.

"When you work in a team environment, it's essential everyone feels supported, heard and valued if they're having a tough time." she said.

Manu has this piece of advice for anyone either considering the industry or struggling in the industry:

“Do it for a year, if you love it keep going, if you don’t stop and do something else, because it’s not going to get any easier.”

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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