Long, unsociable hours, punishing deadlines and intense pressure have long been part of a chef’s career. It’s no surprise that the word “stress” comes up a lot when you’re talking to top chefs.
In 2017, the UK trade union Unite published the results of a survey of professional chefs in London. A startling 69 percent of those surveyed said that the hours they worked impacted their health, with more than half saying they suffered depression due to being overworked. Almost a third (27 percent) said they drank alcohol to get through their shift.
Alcoholism, substance abuse, bad diet
“We all know that alcoholism, substance abuse, bad diet and not enough exercise has always plagued the industry,” Maria Kabal, head chef at Fitzroy’s Añada. “It's important to find a balance that works for you, but the first step is to acknowledge that it’s important to you.”
In Australia, 80 percent of hospitality workers agreed that mental health issues were a challenge in the industry. “Our industry is dynamic and exciting but there can be pressures that come with long hours, a fast pace and high expectations,” says R U OK? Ambassador and chef Mal Meiers. The mental health charity recently launched their “Chances are one of your work family needs to talk” campaign to help get industry workers talking to each other about their struggles.
Of course, prevention is always better than a cure. We asked some of Australia’s busiest chefs to tell us how they achieve balance between the demands of the job and caring for themselves. Here are their best tips for keeping stress contained.
“We all know that alcoholism, substance abuse, bad diet and not enough exercise has always plagued the industry."
Make exercise routine
Michael Rantissi, owner and head chef at Kepos Street Kitchen is equally disciplined. He is a regular gym goer, although he admits that lately he is paying for a weekly gym membership he doesn’t use. “I find that when I am in the routine and groove of going to the gym, I really stick to it and I feel much better when I do exercise,” he says.
This is a feeling Harry Dhanjal, owner and head chef at Atta, can relate to. “I used to be a gym junkie and made sure that I exercised at least five days a week,” he says. “But with the work pressure and late nights, it became difficult and stopped going to the gym all together for more than a year.” He’s since started up again and says that spending an hour in the gym each day centres him and keeps both his mind and body healthy.
Maria Kabal practices yoga for her mental health in much the same way. She makes an effort to do half an hour on the mat every night after work. “I've never been a morning person so after work is really the only time I can practice. I'm still quite energetic and it's a great way to wind down.”
Feed yourself well
Many of a chef’s meals are eaten at work, something Kabal is mindful of when planning food for her staff. “It took me a while to get there, but now I try and make sure we eat plenty of vegetables for staff meals because it's where my staff and I get most of our meals from.”
Over at Atta, Dhanjal and his team take care to eat the right kinds of foods and not too late at night, but this wasn’t always the case. “We were eating wrong food and lots at night [after service], and would then go straight to bed,” he confesses. “I realised that was affecting my health. Eating on time and healthy is extremely important, and we chefs take this for granted.”
“We were eating wrong food and lots at night [after service], and would then go straight to bed.”
It’s definitely something that Rantissi found himself taking for granted. He acknowledges that unless he is organised and plans his meals, he has a tendency to grab food which isn’t a good nutritional choice. “We are working on a new routine at home to organise a healthier approach to eating, organising what we eat in advance, with my wife doing meal prep,” he says.
Have a schedule
Prioritising health and making time for exercise, downtime and sleep is critical for good mental health. While long hours at work can make it hard to find the time, Sydney-based chef restaurateur, Alessandro Pavoni (Sotto Sopra, Omeggio and Via Alto), brings the discipline required in the kitchen into his everyday life.
“I’m extremely disciplined in my day-to -ay,” he says. “I wake up at 5.30 am and do stretching, then plan out my day, so I’m not wasting time later. I know what I have to achieve, then I make it all happen.”
Enjoy regular non-work activities
Pavoni's disciplined approach means he regularly carves out time for activities like surfing, yoga, golf, Jiu Jitsu and guitar. Likewise, Rantissi also makes time in his schedule for regular massage and chiro visits. The only way to ensure that happens? “Our restaurants are closed on Sunday and Monday nights,” he says.
Often a hobby can be inspirational for the job, as well as a great way to wind down. Dhanjal reads autobiographies, he’s recently cracked through Richard Branson and Steve Jobs: “This turned into a good stress releaser and very motivational for me,” he says.
Learn to leave it behind
Rantissi books overseas trips, knowing that it is only when he is in a different time zone that he is forced to switch off. Empowering his staff to make decisions and assess importance helps too.
“In the first year of the restaurant opening, I did not take a single day off and that was a lot of stress."
“I was recently given this excellent piece of advice that I tell my staff each time before I go away. Before you think to call me, ask is it urgent, or is it important? If it is both urgent and important, yes please call me, but otherwise most things can wait until I am back at work.”
Make it a daily habit
Dhanjal makes sure his breaks are a daily occurrence. “We are very lucky with the restaurant next to St Kilda beach. After the service is over, me and my business partner Brij take a long walk.”
He admits that daily breaks are important because he isn’t great at taking time off. “In the first year of the restaurant opening, I did not take a single day off and that was a lot of stress,” he admits. “It is important to take some time off and break the routine.”
Kabal’s tip for switching off is simple and literal: “On Sundays, I switch off my phone.”
Wind down for sleep
Coming down after a high-pressured evening service can be next to impossible for a buzzing chef. Getting enough sleep is a constant battle, with many sacrificing shut-eye for socialising or morning activities.
After-work drinks are one way to wind down, but Kabal cautions the importance of balancing this approach with other relaxing activities. “Three nights a week I would choose to have a drink and three nights a week I practice yoga.
“Get to know yourself and your limits,” she cautions.
"I guarantee that everyone in the industry has at one point felt the way you feel."
For Rantissi, it’s all about trying to get to bed as soon as possible after a late night shift. “I’ve managed to reduce my home wind downtime from work, so I can get to bed within an hour of getting home from work after a dinner shift,” he says.
Making up for missed sleep in the mornings can help too. “I’ve worked into my weekly schedule a few mornings where I can sleep in a bit,” says Rantissi. “This is really only to 7 am, but it’s better than the alarm going off every morning at 6 am.”
Talk it out
“Talking to your partner, colleagues or friends is key to when you are feeling frustrated,” advises Rantissi.
"The amount of support you will find is amazing. It's so much better than the alternative.”
Kabal agrees, advising anyone who is experiencing pressure or challenges to be open about it. “Talk about it as much as you can to anyone who will listen. I guarantee that everyone in the industry has at one point felt the way you feel, and you will find people to support you.
Talk about it to your colleagues, your boss, your friends, the 7/11 guy. The amount of support you will find is amazing. It's so much better than the alternative.”
To further support the industry, R U OK? has launched an online short course in collaboration with Allara Learning, designed to open a conversation about mental health and responds appropriately and safely.