Chef Wellness: Promoting Industry Change

The hospitality industry, and commercial kitchens in particular, have developed a reputation for poor staff welfare. Long, antisocial hours, and hot, high pressure conditions have combined with a toxic culture in many kitchens to create a serious and endemic problem in the industry. It shouldn’t and needn’t be this way. I’d like to see it change, and I’m not the only one.

Last week, I was invited by Hospitality Table Cornwall (an industry-led project that aims to raise aspirations for quality careers and develop industry-relevant learning pathways) to lead a day-long workshop for a group of chefs around the concept of chef lifestyle and wellness.

Chefs work long, abnormal hours. The busiest times are obviously meal times, which means that most chefs end up skipping meals, and although they work around food all day they, ironically, rarely eat well.
When I worked as a chef I’d often finish a dinner service at around 10.30 or 11pm, so was very late getting home and going to bed. I’d wake up later as a result of that and often end up going to work having just had a cup of coffee. If we were busy through lunch, I’d quite often only get a chance to eat a chip butty, standing up in the kitchen, before dinner service began. That’s not unusual, and for juniors in busy or prestigious kitchens, the pressure is even greater. I’ve had friends who slept in their cars in between shifts because they didn’t have time to go home and go to bed, and Tom Kerridge’s admissions when he was a guest on Desert Island Discs, about working 48 hour shifts to keep his pub going during the recession, were shocking to those outside of the industry, but not to those within it.

I have been lucky enough to present alongside Tom Kerridge, in the time since he made huge changes to his lifestyle and health.

If you add to those existing issues a macho culture of bullying that exists in lots of kitchens, with some head chefs shouting and being rude and abusive towards their team and that being considered “normal” in a “if you can’t stand the heat” kind of way, and you have a recipe for poor self care, physical and mental health issues, awful morale and a high turnover of staff within the industry.

It is down to head chefs and the owners of restaurants to address this problematic culture, whether or not it exists within their establishment, and be a force for change. You can’t change the fundamental fact that chefs are busiest at mealtimes, but it is possible to think about how you plan rotas and plan in staff meals with easy and nutritious options to keep everyone energized. We shouldn’t be seeing situations where junior chefs working in restaurants prepare incredible food and then end up eating microwave meals when they get home at midnight. Plan to feed your team. Talk to them about the importance of a good night’s sleep (even if they are 18 and head straight to the bar after a dinner service), and try to create a caring culture in the kitchen where everybody feels valued. Kitchens can be stressful working environments; insanely busy at times, having to answer to demanding customers and mangers, high pressured, fast paced, and hot. A simple “please” and “thank you” can go a long way towards avoiding confrontations or ill-feelings when the barometer is rising.

Some simple stretches and basic exercises to alleviate soreness in the joints and areas that are under pressure when you’re stood on your feet all day can also help. Your hips, lower back, wrists and ankles all take a hammering. It’s unusual but not difficult to start every shift with a warm up – it’s a physical job, after all.

It’s a physical job, so warm up accordingly and stretch during service!

Outside of work, regular exercise can be a great aid to mental health as well as physical health. Whether it’s running, swimming, cross fit or surfing, if you can make time for yourself the benefits at work will be noticeable.

So, to summarise:

  1. Try to plan rotas to allow you and your team opportunities to eat and rest.
  2. Consider offering staff meals.
  3. Keep yourself and your team hydrated – perhaps by giving everybody their own water canteen to drink from during service.
  4. Try to create a caring, polite and tolerant culture in the kitchen so that when the temperature rises, tempers don’t flare.
  5. Do some simple stretches before and during service.
  6. Try to make time for exercise outside of work, hard as it may be, even/especially during the peak of silly season.

The saying goes that “you can’t pour tea out of an empty pot”, so look after yourself and your team, and your best work will follow.

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