Andrew Clarke: "Chefs are our most precious commodity and too many burn out early"

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Chef and restaurateur Andrew Clarke officially launches Pilot Light mental health awareness scheme this week

Related tags: Chef, Restaurant, People

Chef and restaurateur Andrew Clarke officially launches Pilot Light this week, a campaign designed to raise awareness of mental health in hospitality.

What is Pilot Light?
It’s focused on changing the way people in professional kitchens think about mental health. I set it up with chef Doug Sanham and it's in partnership with Time to Change.

What’s your motivation behind it?
I want to get people talking about mental health and also be able to spot the telltale signs of mental health problems. Restaurants are fast-paced, and we are always working to such a speed that we often forget to check up on each other and to check on ourselves, which is just as important, so we’re not burning ourselves out. We want longevity in the industry; there has to be a rethink of how we manage each other.

Are mental health issues a big problem in the hospitality sector?
Finding staff, and chefs in particular, has become much harder over the past 10 years. Sometimes the media portrays this industry badly, whether it be through bullying, drugs or long hours, and it doesn’t necessarily make people want to come into it. Chefs are our most precious commodity and I’ve seen too many burn out too early – you get five or six years out of them and then they want to go and do something else, and that is bad for our industry. I love working hard, but we also all need longevity in our jobs. I guess it’s like ‘work hard, rest hard’.

How will Pilot Light help?
We are officially launching our website later this month. I want it to be used as a place for people to share stories. Pilot Light started as a post on Instagram where I opened up and started talking about my experiences. If people can contribute and tell a story about what they’ve been through then hopefully it can start breaking down the stigma attached to mental health issues. Any young chef coming into the industry can go on there and see that maybe a few of their heroes have gone through the same thing as they have and, all of a sudden, they can see they are not alone. By talking about it you can normalise mental health issues. And by normalising it you are making it easier for someone to go and get help. It’s only a taboo because we keep it a taboo. It’s going to be a very interactive, sharing website.

And the name?
If your pilot light goes out on your stove you can’t cook, which is a great metaphor. But it’s also about having a co-pilot to guide you – this is a website where people can access information and where they might find a few answers.

How can the industry get involved?
We’ve come up with an idea of a pay-it-forward thing on the website where anyone can do just one job for somebody else. I have friends who are masseurs, cognitive therapists and raki healers. There are so many people who have different skills and are encouraging self-care, if they could do one thing for someone else we could promote a network of people who just want to give something back. It could be a chef doing a cooking lesson for someone else.

What else can restaurants do?
We want to get restaurants to put up posters in their staffrooms that are the equivalent of the health and safety ones but for the mind (you can cut out and put up the one opposite). On the poster there’s information on a few things to look out for if you think someone is suffering from mental problems and who to contact if they feel they need help. I’m guilty in that I don’t have any support information in my staffroom at the moment, and I should do.

Is it just for independent restaurants?
No, it is for every kind of business. Pilot Light is easier for independent restaurants to adopt – we know a lot of independent restaurant owners and it has always been a narrative we’ve spoken about. But what’s been impressive is that places such as Soho House and Baxter Storey are now asking how they can get involved. Baxter Storey employs 21,000 people, for it to want to be involved is brilliant. How exactly [larger restaurant groups] can get involved, I don’t know just yet. It will be a case of someone coming in and asking what specific problems they have and us saying we’ve got a number of solutions, tell us what may work for you.

What do you hope Pilot Light will achieve?
I don’t want this industry to be seen as something that causes mental health issues. It is hard work and it can cause stress but there’s a growing number of people who want to combat that and make it a great place to work. We want to give everyone the tools they need to do so.

Pilot Light launches officially on 14 May. For more information, visit www.pilotlightcampaign.co.uk

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