Exit Interviews: Four former chefs on life after restaurants

By Tony Naylor

- Last updated on GMT

Exit Interviews: Four former chefs on life after restaurants

Related tags: Chef, Restaurant

Why do so many chefs turn their backs on the kitchen? And what does life after restaurants look like? Four former chefs spill the beans.

Every year, 19,000 chefs leave the restaurant sector, according to data from People 1st. They hang up their knives, kick-off their Crocs and get some sleep. Eventually they re-emerge, blinking in the daylight, as postal workers, teachers, plumbers and accountants. The industry discusses this loss of talent in broad terms, as a contributing factor to the chef shortage, but we rarely hear ex-chefs talk in detail about what made them leave. That is hospitality for you. One chef leaves, another  comes in. It is an ever-revolving door with no time for the ‘exit interviews’ used in other sectors to drill down into the personal stories behind this skills drain.

So Restaurant decided to talk to four former chefs about why they jumped ship and how, remarkably – despite exiting the industry disillusioned, creatively frustrated or physically knackered – they have forged stellar second careers in food. For clever chefs, the opportunities available beyond the pass have never been greater.

Gaz Oakley
Avant-Garde Vegan, Cardiff

In hard numbers (466,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, 235,000 Instagram followers, two cookbooks with Quadrille), 25-year-old Gaz Oakley, aka the Avant-Garde Vegan, is an unalloyed success. He illustrates how, in 2018, an unknown chef with a savvy grasp of social media can turn themselves into a rising star. But rewind six years and Oakley felt “a complete failure”. At just 20, the restaurant industry had chewed him up and spat him out. Oakley has been obsessed with food for as long as he can remember. At 14, he competed on ITV’s Britain’s Best Dish. At 16, despite his parents’ objections, he went to work at a local hotel. Nicknamed ‘Gordon’ by fellow chefs, within months Oakley (his real hero is Marco Pierre White), was running the kitchen during quiet services. A year later, he moved to a three AA rosette Cardiff restaurant Le Gallois (now closed). It was an invaluable experience. Or it was until he became too exhausted to learn.

“It was an animal. I was 18, working 80-hour weeks and I put myself through hell, health-wise,” he recalls. When he had a break between split shifts, he’d sleep in his car.

“I wasn’t eating. I can only imagine what my parents were thinking when I was coming home, apparently looking like a ghost. I had no social life. But I never thought about that. All I thought about was the next service. This is what I’d got myself into and I didn’t see any way out. At the end, I was messing up constantly. I was just a pair of hands. I wasn’t as active. Earning £10,000-a-year, doing those hours. It just didn’t make sense.” 

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Oakley moved to another restaurant, planning to work less.That did not work out so, finally, he walked.

“If I’d stayed there, I’d have run myself into the ground. I’d lost all the creativity. It was really sad.”

The Avant-Garde Vegan was born a few years later when Oakley, by then a gym-honed, sports-mad sales rep for a civil engineering firm, went vegan overnight. He got back into the kitchen, he says, to figure out how he could make beautiful vegan food.

Pop-ups and collaborations aside, Oakley misses the kitchen and still dreams of opening a restaurant. One where young, talented staff will be mentored in a more holistic way.

“I honestly think if I’d have had my head screwed on, been a little older or if I’d been looked after a bit more, I’d still be [a chef],” he says.

“I’d have coped. But I wasn’t eating, sleeping, exercising. When I have a restaurant, I’d love a nice working environment where people aren’t working those hours. It is do-able.”

Mark Hill
Chef-owner, Street Cleaver and Born To Lose, York

Street Cleaver

Maybe Mark Hill was always destined to rebel. “I was a young punk rocker, fighting against the times and the kitchen sucked me in because of that, really,” explains the Hull native who, in his teens, was playing in bands while pinging between factory and warehouse jobs.

“Kitchens always have their misfits and drop-outs. I was welcomed into that community with open arms. It was instant acceptance.”

Largely self-taught, Hill was a natural, becoming a head chef at 20.

“I’ve always loved food,” he explains. Yet, over the next decade, as he worked across the north of England, that enthusiasm was eroded by constant battles with restaurant owners. With a few exceptions (he loved his years at Manchester’s Common), Hill believes that some of his bosses had little interest in facilitating his self-expression.

“I was quite stubborn. I wanted to do my thing. At interview, I’d take in my recipe books, my whites and knives, and that wasn’t for some people. They want it done their way. Fine. But that wasn’t for me.”

When Hill was given creative licence, it tended not to last.

“A lot of places want you to meet high standards and, for six months, they’ll give you the freedom to get the menus going and get good customer feedback. But , suddenly, they want to cut corners, cut staff or save money on lesser ingredients. But [customers] want the same product and it’s not achievable. When I was younger, that happened a lot.”

That struggle to maintain food quality, a matter of personal pride for Hill, had to be handled alongside the daily grind.

“You see the owners making a lot of money, while in the kitchen you’re working 18 hours a day and getting double-booked for 200 on a Saturday night and that can only go so far. It’s not about money. It’s about respect.”

Hill had two options: go with the flow and become a cynical old chef lazily knocking-out what he considered average dishes, or go it alone. Two years ago, using £2,000 savings, he launched Street Cleaver, a food truck serving sharp East Asian-inspired dishes. That has since spawned a kitchen at shipping container development Spark York and, in a project with Brew York, Born To Lose, a burger joint with a sideline in experimental seasonal small plates.

At 31, Hill has 100% control. No external investors. No compromises. In everything from employee relations to business strategy, he aims for a transparency, which he sees as lacking in the restaurant industry. Yes, he could be earning £40,000 a year as a head chef somewhere (Hill does not currently take a wage), but that’s not for him, he insists.

“What’s the point? I’d be miserable. Working those hours I probably wouldn’t have a partner. You never see your family and close friends. I love what I do but it shouldn’t make you depressed. Do it. Be passionate. Don’t let it kill you.”

Joris Gunawardena
Head of production, Sutton Community Farm, Surrey

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From long hours and low pay to a lack of structured training, there are many concrete reasons young chefs exit cooking. For Joris Gunawardena, the issue was more abstract. He found it unsatisfying, philosophically and ideologically. He had dreamed of being a chef since the age of 10.

“I was going to be a chef, have my own restaurant, and went to study business as a support for that,” he says.

At university in Brighton, he worked at several venues, but mainly at Troggs, a high-quality café and restaurant where, over a couple of years, he worked his way up from KP to sous chef. Yet doubts began to nag at Gunawardena, particularly after he took on a second job cooking at the construction site of a university research facility.

“Building this massive machine that’s going to be there for 50 years was such a juxtaposition with cooking where, literally, you are satiating someone’s hunger for five hours. There’s all that pressure in a café lunch service and [people] barely appreciate the food. They just want to get back to work. They expect it in 10 minutes. It doesn’t really mean anything and you’ve got such economic pressures on your ingredients and time that you end up serving something that, because you really love food, is a bit compromised by the situation.”

Gunawardena was also becoming aware of environmental concerns around food production that, back then, few restaurants engaged with.

“People who buy from me care  about provenance and the way something’s farmed. But that is not the experience in most places,” says Gunawardena, who at Sutton Community Farm supplies vegetables to the likes of Mark Hix, Chiltern Firehouse and Petersham Nurseries.

After university, Gunawardena worked on a Cambridgeshire farm-cum-wedding venue.

“I’d grow vegetables and, in the evening, do a wedding service. I’d farm and cook.

For a while he planned his own farm-restaurant (“you never truly let go of your dream”) but, bit by bit, he began to accept that if he wanted to challenge  the industrial food system, then working on a model farm such as Sutton would have a far greater impact.

“I guess I wanted a broader mission than making sure someone enjoyed their meal,” he muses.

Now 33, Gunawardena hopes more restaurants will engage with wider ethical issues. As his story illustrates, it may be a positive recruitment tool.

“If you can align someone’s working environment with their broader beliefs, you tend to get someone who is more productive. To a degree, the restaurant world has to take on what is happening in the zeitgeist, because it will help retain and motivate staff.”

Nicole Pisani
Executive chef, Chefs In Schools, London

Nicole Pisani is keen to stress that she loved her last restaurant job as head chef at Yotam Ottolenghi’s NOPI. She fostered a friendly vibe in the kitchen (“most chefs work by shouting. I needed to learn how to be hard but not resort to bullying”) and, having worked in London for 14 years, the 38-year-old Maltese chef talks fondly of the bond hospitality co-workers enjoy, the 16-hour days, the late drinks, the 1am feasts at friends’ restaurants.

“It becomes family. If you love socialising, it’s perfect.”

Nonetheless, after three years at NOPI, Pisani was at breaking point.

“I wanted to prove to myself I could be a good head chef and then, suddenly, I was like, ‘my body is caving in on me’,” she recalls. 

In an industry where sitting down to eat lunch is seen as a laughable weakness, the physical toll of cheffing – hours on your feet, constant rushing , lack of sleep – had worn Pisani down.

“You have to be resilient and, as a woman, work twice as hard until people see you can pull your weight. You wake up, you push hard, you do the same over and over without realising the implications. Everybody’s proud they left at 3am and were back on their sections at 6am. There’s pride in this self-inflicted torture.”

But, in 2014, aged 34, Pisani left NOPI with no job lined-up.

“As soon as the ego drops, things are much clearer,” she recalls.

Utterly spent, she intended to take three months off, until a friend pointed her to the charity, Chefs In Schools (CIS), co-founded by Henry Dimbleby, which aims to place 100 chefs in full-time cooking and education roles at 100 state schools by 2023.

Pisani now oversees three London schools where CIS is active, while working to expand the project. The upsides are obvious: shorter days, longer holidays, better quality of life.

“I know when I’m of for the next five years. I can plan. All the drama of the week falls away. The CIS school chefs have almost two months’ holiday in summer.

“If you need to earn more money, you can work. If you want to chill out, you can.”

This summer, Pisani is doing a stage at Hartwood in Mexico.

“Feeding kids was exactly what I needed,” says a chef now deploying her skills in training, management, menu-planning and sourcing, with a renewed sense of purpose. In education, driving dish costs down is a pleasure rather than a pressure.

“I was tired of the financial side of restaurants. It’s a different energy here. It’s about doing a good job rather than trying to make money.”

Related topics: People

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