With the advent of TV shows like “MasterChef” and “My Kitchen Rules” the culinary industry has captured the public’s imagination with glamorous images of five course meals, sparkling kitchenettes, and high tech kitchen appliances flashing across our screens.
What is often hidden from the public eye, however, is the stress of kitchen life. Shift work, low wages, long working hours, demanding customers, harsh physical labour, mental strain, loneliness and isolation are rife in the culinary industry. The elusive Michelin star rating, when finally acquired, often creates more stress for chefs, who may struggle under the pressure of maintaining their stars. The loss of a Michelin star can be brutal for a chef, and famously reduced Gordon Ramsay to tears in 2014, when the New York restaurant Gordon Ramsay at the London went from having two stars to none. Such conditions undeniably take a toll on the mental health of those who feed us and often result in serious issues such as depression, addiction, anxiety and devastatingly even suicide.
Earlier this week, beloved Sydney chef Jeremy Strode took his own life, which has shocked and saddened the Australian culinary community. Strode aged 54, moved from London to Australia in the 1990s and established the popular restaurant Bistrode CBD, with his wife Jane in September 2005. Strode’s passing has reignited conversations about the pressures that chefs face, with Nahji Chu, founder of the popular Miss Chu restaurants posting “Another chef taken this year! We all need to have an open and honest discussion about this industry and what it's doing to us.”
Sadly, Strode is not the only chef to take his own life. Last year, Benoît Violier, 44, killed himself just one month after he was voted as best chef in the world adding to the growing list of suicides by prominent chefs such as Homaro Cantu, 38, and Bernard Loiseau, 52. Both Cantu and Loiseau’s suicides were said at the time to be related to job pressures.
So, what can be done?
As the saying goes, ‘prevention is better than cure.’ Decisive steps need to be taken to create a healthier balance between work and social life. For starters, shift hours should be reduced, so that chefs are not worked until exhaustion, and have the energy to undertake self-care rituals outside the kitchen and spend time with friends and family. It is critical that chefs are taught to identify the symptoms of depression, addiction and anxiety and encouraged to seek medical and psychological help if necessary. An overhaul of the kitchen culture is also needed, as reports of shouting and abuse within the kitchen are commonplace. Rather than rule by fear, industry veterans should value and inspire their apprentices, and encourage creativity and experimental learning.
Finally, as a community we should reward our chefs by prizing their talent, innovation, dedication and the incredible food they produce. There is more to life than Michelin stars and we need to stop judging these talented people through the rigid expectations of legacy rating systems such as Michelin.
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, and MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78.
Published: 21 July 2017