In October last year Andrew Clarke, head chef of the much-admired Brunswick House restaurant in Vauxhall, London, posted a picture of himself to Instagram. It’s in black and white. He is sitting at a table against a wall of distressed plaster, his straggly hair unsuccessfully tucked away beneath a ragged beanie hat, tattooed arms on show. In his hand is a teacup and before him, a bottle of spirits, the implication being that the contents of one are filling the other. It could have been the moody cover to one of the albums Clarke thought he would release when he was pursuing his first love, music.
The long message below tells another story. “This was me 10 months ago,” it says. “Inside I was suffering from a pain so extreme that I could barely cope … I hated who I was and wanted to kill myself every time I came home from work … I never believed in depression and only ever saw the world in a positive light. But it’s not until you experience it, that you realise just how real it is.” The message has a positive ending. With the support of family and friends Clarke is back on his feet. “Depression can happen to any one of us,” he concludes. “Don’t suffer in silence. Talk to someone. Talk to me.”
If he thought the post was going to be a minor footnote scribbled on social media’s huge wall, he was mistaken. Quickly the “likes” piled up by the hundred, many from fellow chefs who had experienced similar things, and were grateful for the opportunity to open up about the stress of cooking for a living. “Everyone needs to speak about this more,” said one cook; “If I could have read a post like this at my darkest time it would have given me a sense of the light,” wrote another. It felt like a dam-burst, the moment at which a generation of cooks finally put their hands up and announced that the job they so adored also risked destroying them.
The idea of stress in the kitchen is nothing new, but until now it has been presented as the curse of the culinary genius in pursuit of the glittering prizes; the kind who announces hyperbolically that if they don’t win a Michelin star, “I’ll blow my brains out”. (That particular chef didn’t win a star in the latest round; his brains are still intact.)
Less attention is paid to those cooks who populate the superstar’s brigades, or who work in the more ordinary kitchens; the ones who cook the restaurant meals we pay less attention to but whose price we regularly moan about. Earlier this year Unite, the country’s biggest union, conducted a survey of professional chefs in London,and the impact upon them of their working conditions. Almost half regularly worked between 48 and 60 hours a week. Seventy-eight per cent said they’d had an accident or a near miss through fatigue. More than a quarter were drinking to get through their shift, a figure which doubled to 56% when it came to taking painkillers. A startling 51% said they suffered from depression due to overwork.
“We do know that if someone experiences extended periods of stress in the work place that can lead to anxiety and depression,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. While the charity has had some success with campaigns aimed at removing the stigma around mental health issues at work in general, “the hospitality industry in particular has been slow to talk about it”.
Start talking to career chefs, and too many sound like little more than flannels squeezed out and squeezed again. On television the professional kitchen is the setting for an accessible action movie. Pans clatter and flames leap. Furious star chefs bark out their orders and aspiring culinary heroes jump to it, breaking off only to mop their brow and mutter to camera about “their passion”.
But the professional kitchen is not a TV set. It is a real place of work and an extraordinarily hard one at that. Kevin Reynolds has been a chef for more than two decades, working in senior positions in hotels. The number one issue, he says, is “overwork and exhaustion coupled with a salaried pay check that does not reflect the number of hours you put in”. Chefs will be contracted for 45 hours a week, but end up working at least 10 more than this with no extra pay. Or it will be managed over a month, so that they end up doing 90 hours one week, and just 20 the next. Many chefs, he says, are not aware of the working time directive and in any case most employers operate an automatic opt-out.
“This has a massive impact on any work-life balance you may want and can have health implications,” Reynolds says. Indeed, it can. Two years ago he had a serious car crash, after working a series of what he called “back-breaking” shifts. “This crash could well have been avoided if my reflexes were sharper after sleeping properly.”
Simon Wood has been in the business even longer than Reynolds, and now runs the fine dining operation at a northern university. Over the three decades that he has been cooking he has seen many colleagues blighted by drug and alcohol addiction. He has escaped that but acknowledges that “perhaps the broken marriages are my drugs”. He’s been married three times and is clear the first two failed because of the job. “Being a cook is addictive and compelling. It grips you, grabs you and rinses you out. You pay the price outside of work.”
“The pressure is just getting worse,” says veteran chef Brian Mcelderry. Part of the problem, he says, is the catering colleges, for which he serves as an outside examiner. Because they are now charging their students fees there is an imperative to pass them whether they have made the grade or not. “They’re passing kids out of college who aren’t qualified and then they end up in kitchens and they can’t cope.” With other colleagues he has now set up a closed forum on Facebook called Unichef, where cooks can discuss their work-related problems. “I’ve been amazed by the number of chefs with mental health issues,” he says.
All of the chefs I spoke to, many on condition of anonymity, were able to describe abusive environments, run by bullies re-enacting the violent experiences they had been through when they were juniors. They talk of intimidation, of humiliations, of pain administered via burning hot tongs. As Jeremy King of the company behind glossy restaurants including the Wolseley, the Delauney and Brasserie Zedel puts it: “The hierarchical system, the dependence on fear rather than encouragement, has meant that for too long it was an incredibly harsh environment.”A year on from that Instagram post, over a cup of coffee in the shabby chic dining room at Brunswick House, Andrew Clarke reflects on the job that took him to the very brink. Clarke says his situation was the result of a perfect storm. Anger about an incident in his youth had never been resolved. A love affair ended. The new job at Brunswick House offered an escape. “I was cooking 100 hours a week. I was barely sleeping, barely eating.” He hesitates. “There’s also the culture of ‘if it doesn’t hurt, it’s not yours’.’’ He admits he needs stress, lives for it. Indeed, like so many of the cooks I talked to, he says that the job which did him so much damage is also the one he loves. “It’s immensely rewarding. I’ve travelled the world with it.”
Along with other chefs who have been through stress-related depression, he is planning to launch a social media campaign called The Pilot Light, designed to make it easier for kitchen professionals to speak about their problems. “Kitchen life encourages drink and drug abuse,” Clarke says now. “If you do well on service you reward yourself. And if you do badly you console yourself.” Or as it was put to me by chef Doug Stanham, who is working with Clarke on The Pilot Light: “Kitchen life attracts a certain type of misfit, the sort of people who too often may need drink or drugs to get them through their days.”
It’s a culture recognised by Tom Kerridge, the multi-Michelin starred chef of the Hand and Flowers in Marlow. Much has been made of his massive weight loss. A major contributing factor, he readily acknowledges to me, was quitting his vast booze habit. “From the age of 18 when I started cooking, the after-service drink was a part of the job. You’d try to get service done by 10.55 and send someone off in advance to get the round in.” The hospitality industry, he says, is an extreme lifestyle because it is time short. “So you try to pack a normal life in to the limited time you do have.”
His time became even shorter when he started running his own business. There would be no drinking during the day. “But after service it became a huge part of my life.”
How much would he drink?
“The kind of amount a rugby player would drink once a week. I’d do that every night. It was about volume. It needed to feel big, excessive.”
As he approached his 40th birthday he finally accepted it was a problem and quit altogether. He does not use the ‘A’ word – “I didn’t think of myself as an alcoholic because I didn’t need it during the day” – but he accepts he cannot have just one drink. So now he has none.
As the evidence stacks up, one thought becomes unavoidable: the restaurant business model is dysfunctional. Customers regularly complain about the cost of restaurant meals, as if chefs and restaurateurs are involved in some filthy “get rich quick” project. And yet, to make the economics stack up, cooks are required to work ludicrous hours which, due to chef shortages and rent rises, are only getting longer. Kevin Reynolds describes how he has seen deskilling in the kitchen over time. “The skilled senior members of the brigade left and were never replaced with a similar skill levels.”
Tom Norrington-Davies, founder and original head chef at Great Queen Street, reflects nostalgically on his early days. “As a chef de partie in the mid-90s I was able to buy a cheap flat in Camberwell and whizz back and forth to work on my bike in 20 minutes. By contrast I now have a long-serving sous chef with a young family. He rides the Central line out to the back of beyond, sometimes after midnight. I don’t know how a young chef is meant to move to this city and get ahead any more.” On top of that comes ingredient price rises as a result of Brexit, up by more than 20% for those that are imported. And each increased cost results in more stress on the cooks.
Some kitchens have reduced the number of services they are open for, specifically to improve their staff’s quality of life. These tend to be very high end restaurants, such as Sat Bains in Nottingham where the luxe economic model makes it possible. But Bains has admitted it wasn’t all altruistic. There is a chef shortage and he needs to both attract and retain the very best. A three-day weekend is a way to do that.
What other solutions are there? Jeremy King employs more than 200 cooks in his many kitchens. Part of the problem, he says, is poor career management. “Cooking is a vocation for many chefs, but because of the nature of kitchen life it’s not cherished. I’m convinced one of the reasons so many chefs have drink and drug problems is thwarted ambition.” The company has long had an internal reward and incentive scheme to manage some of that. Post his experiences with stress, Andrew Clarke has wised up to this too. “I’ve changed my management style completely. I’ve gone from wannabe Marco Pierre White …” – famously, a young Gordon Ramsay burst into tears while working for Pierre White – “and worked out that you have to manage people individually.”
But there are more basic issues too. “Kitchens are noisy, hot stressful places,” King says. (As Kevin Reynolds points out there are laws covering cold in the workplace but none about heat stress.) King has recently refurbished the kitchens at the Colbert, their restaurant on Sloane Square. “We’ve replaced all the gas stoves with induction which immediately reduces heat and noise.” He also works actively to reduce swearing, leading by example. “If any of my staff hear me swear I have to pay them £5.” Most intriguingly though, he is softening the atmosphere both by employing older cooks and by employing more women. “All-male environments are very harsh. Women in kitchens are a simple way to destress them.”
As a part of that, they’ve introduced new shifts from just past 9am until around 3pm, enabling parents to drop their kids off, prep for and then cook some of the lunch service, before leaving for the school run. King recognises however, that this is enabled by the scale of their organisation. Other chefs agree that a mixed gender kitchen does make a difference though Ravinder Bhogal, who opened her first London restaurant, Jikoni, a year ago, says it’s not always guaranteed. “I worked in a number of kitchens where as a woman you specifically had to not show any weakness to get through.” That said, she has tried to change things with her brigade. “I have a slightly older woman on my team. She’s a mum and she does bring a softer dynamic. We just have to work around her hours.”
It all sounds very encouraging, but these initiatives may be the exception, not the rule. In quick succession I receive two unsolicited emails. One is from a restaurateur friend in Essex. He has just been sent the CV of a chef de partie who has been working at one of London’s most prestigious hotels. He has been required to work 17-hour split shifts with only a few minutes break for £24,000 a year. His pay worked out at £5.45 an hour. “I don’t know how they get away with it,” my friend says.
The other comes from a concerned father whose son has just stepped back from the business after cooking in Michelin-starred restaurants. The reason: the behaviour of head chefs, “which in any other field would mean summary dismissal and probably charges of assault”. The problem is that so much of this takes place not in front of the diners, but closed away behind the kitchen door. As diners we may complain about the cost of our restaurant meals. We may wish it were otherwise. But the reality is that, far too often, it’s not us who are paying too high a price. It’s the people who are doing the cooking.