How chefs are beating burnout by growing food and practising yoga

From left: Nathan Toleman, Sandy Melgalvis, Simon Pappas, Sam Slattery, Diamond Rozakeas and Ben Clark at the Common ...
From left: Nathan Toleman, Sandy Melgalvis, Simon Pappas, Sam Slattery, Diamond Rozakeas and Ben Clark at the Common Ground farm. Photo: Simon Schluter

From little things big things grow. Ten minutes' south of Geelong, in the rolling green paddocks of the area known as Freshwater Creek, a group of Melbourne cafe czars are about to kickstart a hospitality industry wellness revolution.

It's here that the Mulberry Group's Nathan Toleman, Diamond Rozakeas and Ben Clark, the trio who ignited cafe culture with the likes of Higher Ground, Top Paddock and the recently opened Liminal, are about to hit "go" on a farm project designed to put chefs back in touch with the land.

Both deeply philosophical and eminently practical, the Common Ground Project is a co-working biodynamic farm where stressed-out city chefs can get their hands dirty and their heads right. Grounded in the principles of mindfulness, wellness and reconnection, the social enterprise offers a quid pro quo: for a subscription of $230 a week, its cafe and restaurant members send their chefs to weed, water and dig one day a week in the leased 1.6 hectares. In return, they get a share of all the produce grown, along with an immeasurable sense of wellbeing.

"They'll start the day with meditation, then work on the farm as a group, then have lunch together," says Toleman. "It's really such an obvious way to help the industry, and at the same time it's one of the most exciting things we've ever done."

The seed for the Common Ground Project was planted several years ago when Toleman and his family bought a farm at Merricks on the Mornington Peninsula. Not wanting the land to go to waste, he asked his chefs if they fancied getting their hands dirty one day every week. The answer, at least from some, was a definitive yes. "They'd come back just buzzing from the reconnection with nature."

The result: Toleman sold the farm to put his resources into giving that feeling to an industry-wide audience.

The staff at Amaru do a weekly yoga class with Paolo Arlotta (centre), a chef and yoga teacher.
The staff at Amaru do a weekly yoga class with Paolo Arlotta (centre), a chef and yoga teacher. Photo: Justin McManus

"We thought it would be amazing to open up to other venues because it's not just about me or our business, it's about our industry. We don't own this business: it's owned by its members and the more we put into it the more we get out of it. You see so many chefs come into the industry and losing interest, slowly becoming disillusioned. They lose contact with themselves, they lose contact with produce. This is a really positive way to counteract all that."

In an age where wellness has gone mainstream, even the previously unassailable hospitality citadel is falling. The industry has legendarily been in thrall to the Dionysian pursuits of booze, drugs and late nights, but professional kitchens are now more likely to start the day with meditation than Panadol.

Or yoga. At Amaru in Melbourne's Armadale, Clinton McIver has introduced his chefs and floor staff to a weekly yoga session before service. Run by Paolo Arlotta, chef and yoga instructor working under the banner Chefs of Yoga, it was a natural progression from McIver's personal exploration of mindfulness following a challenging 2017.

Advertisement

"At first I was little worried what the staff would think. What surprised me the most was how well they all took to it and appreciated the time to find a little bit of initiative in making personal improvements," he says. "It's been amazing to see the growth and progression of team. Long gone are the days of uninspired chefs drinking themselves into oblivion every night and thinking they are legends in the process. Thank f---ing God! The power of positivity and optimism is extremely powerful, and unfortunately so is negativity."

Sustainability has become an almost cliched buzzword on menus, but the sustainability of chefs has been another matter entirely. It would have surprised few when a 2015 report by the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found hospitality had among the highest rates of alcohol and drug use of any industry. The 2017 suicide of highly respected Sydney chef Jeremy Strode was another wake-up call for an industry that has long prided itself on its work hard, play harder culture.

Something needed to give.

They'd come back just buzzing from the reconnection with nature.

Nathan Toleman

"In the past year there's been so much change," says Brent Savage, chef-owner of Sydney's Monopole, Bentley, Yellow and Cirrus. "The past 12 months have been massive in terms of the industry taking a long, hard look at things like working hours and the pressure on chefs and what we as owners can do to make sure everyone is OK."

Changing the dog-eat-dog, boot camp ethos of restaurant kitchens is no easy feat – not when it has been enshrined in popular culture by the powerful words of Anthony Bourdain's smash-hit 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential, which celebrated chefs as hard-living misfits, and commercial kitchens as the louche domain of "a thuggish assortment of drunks".

But slowly, the ship is turning. Last month, The New Yorker spent 2300 words lionising Montreal restaurant Joe Beef's David McMillan and Frederic Morin, posing the big question: "What happens when the chefs behind North America's most hedonistic restaurant quit drinking?" (As it turns out, they declare themselves more responsible bosses who now crusade against the excesses of restaurant culture.)

Downward dog in the dining room.
Downward dog in the dining room.  Photo: Justin McManus

The global ranks of the prominent partying apostates include Michael Solomonov, chef-owner of acclaimed Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia, a former cocaine addict and alcoholic who now devotes the profits from one of his restaurants to the homeless. Sean Brock, previously of Charleston restaurant Husk, last year outlined to Bon Appetit magazine his post-sobriety self-care regime that includes acupuncture, reiki, and intuitive energy work therapy.

And in Spain, the three-Michelin-starred Azurmendi opens for dinner only two nights a week so staff can spend evenings with their families. "We believe that in order to make others happy, we ourselves must also be happy," owner Eneko Atxa said on winning the 2018 World's 50 Best Restaurants award for sustainability.

"Since 2005 we have been campaigning to open only at lunch [in order] to reconcile work with family or social life. We changed that expectation of the client by explaining to them that there are other options. So we start working in the morning, we finish in the afternoon and we go home."

George Calombaris also encourages his Made Establishment staff to practice meditation.
George Calombaris also encourages his Made Establishment staff to practice meditation. Photo: Justin McManus

For Savage, the change in workplace culture was both inevitable and, by necessity, driven from the top. "Not that we were ever big on aggressive behaviour in the kitchen, but eventually you realise it's far more powerful to inspire people rather than push them. Big-name chefs have always made it more about themselves and their egos, but you have to make people feel they have ownership of what they're doing so that in turn they can pass it down the line."

At Melbourne's Made Establishment, George Calombaris' new-found love of meditation has caught on among his staff.

"My industry ways were archaic, I admit that, and I had to dramatically make changes," says the MasterChef judge. "Meditation saved me in my darkest days, and I want it woven into the DNA of the business."

Brent Savage: 'You realise it's far more powerful to inspire people rather than push them.'
Brent Savage: 'You realise it's far more powerful to inspire people rather than push them.' Photo: Louise Kennerley

A "people and culture" management team now oversees the staff of more than 600, including ensuring no one works more than 40 hours a week. Staff are allowed only three or four emails a day: "The rest of the time, just pick up the phone to communicate with each other – it's a much better way to do it."

And every day at around 4pm it's wise to be quiet in the dry-store at the group's restaurants, including the Hellenic Republics and the Press Club, so as not to disturb meditating staff.

Chris Lucas of the Lucas Group, owner of Chin Chin in Sydney and Melbourne, among others, believes hospitality business can only prosper by acting like any other professional workplace.

"At some stage it became painfully obvious that we were always going to find it difficult to compete with better-paid and more glamorous industries if we didn't clean up our act," he says. That covers a swathe of behaviour, from banning double shifts and knock-off drinks, to subsidising gym memberships and finding Quit programs.

"We have woven into our training a lot of lifestyle things. It's not just about being an employer of choice, it's about showing it's a good career path – and one where you won't burn out in your thirties or forties anymore."

Back in Freshwater Creek, Toleman and his dedicated crew including general manager Sam Slattery, a former business partner at Top Paddock and Higher Ground, and head chef Sandy Melgalvis, formerly of Top Paddock, are counting down the days until July 1, when the Common Ground Project cafe is due to open on-site with a farm-based menu bedded in a minimal-waste philosophy. The social enterprise farming will kick off at the start of September; 15 members are being sought at first.

After that, the sky's the limit. There is more land that can be farmed, and more chefs who can be helped while helping themselves. Any money the farm raises will go into mental health and mindfulness initiatives.

"It's not just the hospitality industry that is searching for more meaning. People in general have a sense of loss and longing," Toleman says. "Common Ground Project is a simple tool. It says we believe in the power of other people. It could be a movement; it could be replicated all over the world. It's not something that's hard to do, but it could be life changing."

Meet the chef farmer

It was two years ago, while cheffing full-time at Top Paddock, that Simon Pappas (pictured right) had his epiphany. Top Paddock's co-owner Nathan Toleman had put the call out for any chefs who wanted to work one day a week at his Merricks farm, on the Mornington Peninsula.

"One day became two days, three days became four. Over the course of a few months I went from a full-time chef to an almost full-time farmer. I was working grudgingly one day a week back in the kitchen. That was it, I was a farmer."

He and Toleman were determined to share the buzz Pappas got from working the land with other chefs. "That feeling of, 'these radishes – we grew them, now we're cooking and eating them'. It sounds simple and it is, but it's also profound in its own way."

As the farmer in charge of the Common Ground Project, Pappas, 39, is looking forward to instilling that same feeling among the chef members while helping alleviate the mental health problems plaguing the industry.

"What's really great about Common Ground is Nathan's come along and made it clear it's possible to have a sustainable business using the highest standards of biodynamic farming and then he's tacked on the extremely important issue of mental health.

"You can't work in this industry without seeing the effects of anxiety and depression. Working outside, daily meditation and just being healthy has made a huge difference to me and I can't wait to introduce it to other people down here."