Andrew Clarke: "We are forever talking about sustainable food, let’s not forget sustainable chefs"

By Stefan Chomka contact

- Last updated on GMT

Andrew Clarke: "We are forever talking about sustainable food, let’s not forget sustainable chefs"

Related tags: Chefs, Restaurant, People

The St Leonards chef on dealing with depression, addiction and why his new mental health campaign is so important for the industry.

Last week I launched my new restaurant St Leonards, and I was finding it increasingly hard to write this while in the throes of a launch. Then the shocking news came in on Friday (8 June) that Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life and the incentive really hit me. It’s the worst possible way I can ever make my point about how real depression is. The fact that the devastating news affected so many people around world hopefully means we are all aware of this very serious issue.

In October 2016 I posted a short piece on Instagram about my experience with depression and suicide to recognise World Mental Health Day. I was overwhelmed with support from friends, family, chefs and front of house, many people telling me I’d said something they can’t. So many friends have been through similar experiences and yet I never knew; we never know what anyone is going through but we cannot allow ourselves to suffer in silence. Mental health and addiction issues are a taboo and will continue to be a taboo unless we speak up.

We are all quite open about our ailments if we have a cold or flu or any other physical health problems and yet even the smallest sign of depression can lead to silence. One in four will suffer from a mental health problem this year. This is too high a statistic to not do anything about. It’s not going away and is only getting worse. It occurred to me I should do something and use my voice to help others find theirs.

"One in four will suffer from a mental health problem this year.
This is too high a statistic to not do anything about"

I want to be very clear, I don’t blame kitchen life for what I went through. That unhappiness and self destructiveness was in me since my late teams, it only manifested itself into depression a couple of years ago after a break up of a relationship. In short, I put all my happiness into someone else rather than being happy with me. When she left I had nothing, only my cooking. I worked every day, 100 plus hours a week. I hardly ate anything, I couldn’t sleep, it wasn’t sustainable.

I didn’t know where I wanted to be, I just knew that I didn’t want to be there. There was a Churchill quote that got me through the first weeks: ‘when you’re going through hell, keep going’.
I posted quotes everywhere all over my flat, positive words to keep me focused from the moment I woke up.

Eventually cooking brought me back from the dead, I found love in what I was doing and became proud of myself, my team, and restaurant. Slowly I became a new person.

"I don’t blame kitchen life for what I went through.
But [it] was a catalyst for my drink and drug addiction"

But kitchen life was a catalyst for my drink and drug addiction, the undeniable pressure led me to blow off steam every night, the drink and drugs were far too accessible. To get myself out of the darkness I gave up partying, I changed my eating habits - for someone who cooks a lot of meat I actually eat mostly a vegan diet these days. I meditate every night and practice self love and mindfulness. If you want a health body you go to the gym; if you want a healthy mind you have to exercise that too.

My bout of depression was very short and yet many people suffer in more extreme ways than I ever did, every day. I can and do offer advice of what worked for me but I am no expert, we all suffer differently.

There are more and more restaurants opening every week and yet fewer and fewer staff to fill them. It’s about time we changed the way our industry is viewed - long hours for little pay, bullying, drink and drug culture, they’ve all featured in the media over the last few years. With these horror stories how can we expect to encourage a new generation of chefs in?

I like hard work and hard working staff, but we may just be facing a staffing crisis unless we have a rethink. I can’t image the [working] hours will get much better but it’s what we give back to our staff that keeps them engaged and motivated.

We are forever talking about sustainable food, let’s not forget sustainable chefs. This is what has led me to create Pilot Light - we want to get people talking first and foremost. Admitting there’s a problem is the first step of getting help. From there we can understand how to manage our staff and look out for each other. Pilot Light is working with [charities] Mind​ and Time to Change​to produce support for our industry, we will be launching an interactive website later this year where we can share our experiences and access professional support.

It will also be a link to fundraising - if we’re good at anything in this industry, we know how to raise money from food and drink.

I have two restaurants now and the reality is that launching a mental health campaign is a full-time job, so the success of Pilot Light will be how the industry adopts it as its own. I don’t own Pilot Light, I just want to get the conversation started. Who wants to help me drive it forward?

For more information about Pilot Light, to help or to pledge support visit www.pilotlightcampaign.co.uk.

Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123

Andrew Clarke was speaking at the Restaurant magazine’s Restaurant Congress

Related topics: People

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