'Push on chef': kitchens a melting pot of mental and emotional risk factors

Kate Aubusson
 Photo: Louise Kennerley

"I'm sorry, mate."

"I'm sorry, Jez."

"I'm so sorry, Jeremy." 

The messages appeared with sorrowful uniformity alongside photographs of the brilliant and much-loved chef the days that followed his death.

Jeremy Strode, just 53, the renowned hatted chef at Bistrode CBD in Sydney, ended his own life on Monday. 

For fellow chef Jake Smyth, the messages seemed to be more than expressions of condolence. They were acts of contrition.

Jake Smyth says chefs are feeling vulnerable after the death of Jeremy Strode.
Jake Smyth says chefs are feeling vulnerable after the death of Jeremy Strode.  Photo: Supplied

"People were saying sorry they didn't ask the question. They were saying sorry they didn't check in on Jez to see if he was OK," says Smyth, co-owner of Mary's, the Unicorn and the Lansdowne in Sydney. 

"We're all a mess of emotions. We're all feeling vulnerable, and we're all feeling like we need to own this."

The industry that plates up pleasure for patrons at every service is a melting pot of mental and emotional risk factors for staff. 

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Strode himself was an ambassador for suicide prevention charity RUOK. At a fundraising dinner in 2015, he said: "The hospitality industry is renowned for its unforgiving nature, adding pressure personally and on our relationships. Having the foresight and taking the time to have a conversation with someone you may or may not know and asking if they're OK, is a wonderful thing."  

"For this to happen to Jez … we're all feeling really vulnerable right now," Smyth says.  

"I'm trying to be a responsible employer, and I'm thinking about my staff and I'm thinking of times when I may not have treated them right and thinking about how I've impacted their lives," says Smyth, his voice cracking.  

"We need to own up to the fact that we all need help. We need to learn how to support our staff and they need to know they can speak up and get support."

'Just keep cooking'

"Push on chef" is a catchcry heard in kitchens around the world, says Smyth, 35. 

"You don't stop for anything. You just keep cooking."

Like Strode, who started out washing dishes in a hotel in rural England at age 14, Smyth spent his formative adolescence in professional kitchens. He doesn't know many top chefs who haven't.

"At that age, you're easily influenced and that attitude, that 'push on' mentality, becomes a mantra personally, not just professionally. You can't help it," Smyth says. 

But blaming the hospitality industry as the sole cause for any suicide was too simplistic, he says, pointing to the fact that many chefs and kitchen staff handle the high-pressure, high-stakes environment just fine.

"At the end of the day, the industry can compound mental health issues that are already there," Smyth says. 

The most prestigious kitchens attracted people with a singular focus on excellence, perfection, who feed on pressure and competition, Smyth says. "It's certainly not MasterChef. Our jobs are tough and brutal. The hours are gruelling, the pressure is intense, and the reward financially at the end of the day isn't great."

Kitchens are also a haven for misfits. "Rebels, runaways, and last-chancers find a home in the kitchen," Smyth says. The "military-esque" environment of the traditional industrial-scale kitchen offers young kitchen hands discipline, routine, direction and purpose. 

"It's also a male-dominated place and men aren't good at asking for help. Showing signs of weakness and vulnerability is not encouraged," Smyth says.

"Those things thrown into the crucible spit out a real recipe, excuse the pun, for isolation and that is the biggest danger when it comes to mental health issues," he says.

'It's not easy to escape'

Secretary of the Liquor and Hospitality division of the union United Voice, Tara Moriarty, says  the pressure of service, unsocial hours, coupled with the uncertainty or short-term contracts and cash-in-hand shifts were not the stuff of good mental health. 

"Kitchens are notorious for their high-intensity, high-adrenalin service periods. Then what tends to happen is workers finish at 2am and there's no real downtime.

"Their families are already in bed, and it's not an ideal time to exercise so many people self-medicate, with alcohol or drugs," she says. 

"It's so standard in our work to turn up f---ing brutally hungover," says Smyth. "As long as you do the job, no one cares. 

"You're exposed to it day in, day out. I'm old-school hospitality. I'm a hedonist, I love drinking but over the years I've realised it has to be done with moderation. For people who really struggle with addiction or depression, it's not easy to escape.  

"We work in the pleasure business. We play in delight and engage with people's pretty base desires. At the top end of the game we're competing to deliver the greatest indulgences, the most pleasure. It's because we have a strong desire for pleasure too. But too much pleasure does not equate to great mental health." 

'It's all about bravado'

It's all about bravado, says Green Park Dining chef Jess Browning.

Working in a kitchen is all about bravado, says Green Park Dining chef Jess Browning. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Research that specifically investigates mental health problems among hospitality workers is scarce. But the industry bears many of the same cultural and industrial hallmarks that exacerbate mental health problems among emergency services workers, doctors and fly-in, fly-out workers.

Head of the Workplace Mental Health Research Program at the Black Dog, Associate Professor Samuel Harvey, said the high-pressure environments, bullying superiors, and unsociable hours and the insecurity of short term-contracts were risk factors for mental illness.

"In cultures where toughness is put on a pedestal, and asking for help is not encouraged, you can get into a situation where people wait too long to reach out for support," Harvey says. Under these conditions, the risk of serious, protracted mental illness and suicide rises.

If a chef cuts or burns themselves in the kitchen, they work through it without complaint. That's the expectation, says Jess Browning, chef at Green Park Dining in Melbourne.

"It extends to mental health problems," she says. "It's all about bravado … as a woman in that blokey environment it can be especially isolating."  

Women are also more likely to be exposed to harassment and abuse in the male-dominated industry, says Browning, an ambassador for hospitality union United Voice's "Respect The Rule" campaign, which is working to stamp out sexual harassment in the industry. 

"Certainly there are instances of sexual assault, inappropriate touching [and] grabbing."

But few women report harassment, because there is a belief that they would not be taken seriously.  "It's self-preservation to just keep quiet," she says.

The way forward

Chefs Dan Hong and Jeremy Strode in 2014.

Chefs Dan Hong and Jeremy Strode in 2014. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

Combating harassment and mental health problems in the workforce demands cultural change as well as importing industrial conditions, Harvey says. 

"Very often it's about upskilling middle management, because it's these people who set the culture for the whole team and make it easier or harder for people to ask for help," he says. 

There are some encouraging signs that the industry is recognising its inherent risks and is working to protect staff.

Dan Hong, executive chef of Merivale's Ms.G's, El Loco and Mr Wong, says he learnt to cope with the high-pressure gig by spending time with his loved ones, and exercising daily. 

"This is the first time someone [Jeremy] with mental illness has really affected me and the way it ended couldn't have been worse. 

"Thankfully, Merivale holds regular classes on handling mental health in the workplace and I attended one not long ago," he says, adding the class helped him keep a lookout for signs of depression and other mental health problems.

Smyth and his management regularly have conversations with staff about how they are coping with their workloads. "We're trying to entrench a work-life balance. It's an overplayed term but it's never been much of a consideration in our industry before. 

"Our single-bloody mindedness is great when you're driven to get to the top of the industry, but when you've achieved all your goals but you've got nothing else it's a pretty lonely place," he says. 

He is determined to change that trajectory.  "I've got a two-year-old daughter and a wife I never see and I'm not going to do this any more. I'm going to choose my hours and have a life outside work." 

Lifeline 13 11 14; MensLine 1300 789 978; Beyondblue 1300 224 636, RUOK