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Over the past two years, suicide rates within the global hospitality industry have risen as more chefs begin to suffer from the darkness brought to them by mental illness. Government studies have shown that suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44.
Recently, the global hospitality sector lost celebrity chef and TV presenter Anthony Bourdain to suicide after years of battling mental illness in the public eye. Last year, the Australian industry was left mourning after popular chefs Jeremy Strode and Darren Simpson also fell victim to the illness and claimed their own lives.
It’s never been more important for the industry to raise awareness and support each other to overcome what has traditionally been a taboo issue. Indeed, while there are many hospitality workers battling their demons behind closed doors, some of the leaders within food service are prepared to share their stories to help raise awareness and make a difference to the industry that is loved by many.
R U OK Day ambassador and chef Mal Meiers opened up to Goodman Fielder Food Service about his own experience with mental illness while expressing the importance of spreading awareness. The former chef explained he used to suffer from anxiety attacks and be physically sick “every Friday and Saturday night before dinner service.”
Following years in the kitchen, Mal admitted that mental illness overshadowed his thoughts as he refused to seek help. “I went through a really dark point five years ago. I was at the lowest point…I almost committed suicide,” he revealed.
“At the darkest point, I reached out to my best friend and he answered the phone call and talked me out of it. The thinking of when you’re in that situation, it’s actually not rational and afterwards, you don’t know how it got to that point.”
The thinking of when you’re in that situation, it’s actually not rational and afterwards, you don’t know how it got to that point.
Reflecting back on his own experience, Mal insisted individuals need to “make sure people don’t get to that point because they might not reach out” like he decided to. “We need to break down that wall and talk to each other,” he said, adding: “We are very disconnected from each other and that is one of the reasons why someone is at risk of suicide.
“People who are disconnected think they are a burden, that it just doesn’t really matter.” He continued: “So many people just don’t know how much help is available and it was really daunting for someone to know where to start to talk to someone but it is important to make the right decision.” Mal also insisted that having a conversation to show you care can “make 100 per cent of a difference” to someone who is struggling in silence.
Renowned Australian chef, Matt Moran explained to Goodman Fielder Food Service that hospitality has “its highs, lows, good, bad, ugly and glorious but it’s that dynamic that all chefs are drawn to.” After more than 30 years in the kitchen, Matt admitted chefs are “mentally, physically and emotionally tested” in the kitchen each day, over long hours.
“While it’s true that it’s very challenging, that’s often what many of us love and thrive off at the same time,” the restaurateur said. “I love being a chef and couldn’t imagine being anything else but there’s a misconception that it’s this glamorous, rock star life. It’s the best job in the world and a great career but it’s bloody hard work.”
Matt continued to explain: “The kitchen is a high pressure, hierarchical environment and you certainly have to be resilient; the job is tough, the environment hot and noisy and the hours are gruelling.” When reflecting on the dark side of hospitality, Matt admitted the loss of close friends Jeremy Strode and Anthony Bourdain “has been heartbreaking”.
“I’ve experienced first-hand loss of some incredible mates to mental health over the years, both in and outside of the industry,” he admitted. “It’s a very real, concerning issue and I feel I have a responsibility to speak about it.”
While speaking on the issue, Matt explained: “Mental health issues are on the rise in society in general as we all face more pressure and competition and our lives get busier. Mental health doesn’t discriminate.” Matt added that while being a chef is a “tough gig”, chefs need to be reminded that being “invincible” isn’t part of their job descriptions.
Creating a kitchen culture of stability, partnership and respect is a good place to start.
While handing out advice to others within his sector, he encouraged individuals to start “speaking up” about their struggles. “Business owners and managers have a responsibility to educate their teams and build support programs,” he added.
When reflecting on his own business, Matt revealed he educates his staff on “strengthening communication with one another and removing any stigma about mental health issues.” He added that it is important for himself to let staff know that they have someone who will listen and support them and that all kitchens should follow the same direction.
Speaking to Goodman Fielder Food Service, R U OK Day Campaign Director Katherine Newton admitted, “R U OK isn’t just about that one day anymore, it’s about every day of the year.” While asking the question is important, Katherine revealed studies have found only two-thirds of people are comfortable to have that conversation with someone.
Only two-thirds of people are comfortable to have that conversation with someone.
“Why is that third uncomfortable?” she questioned. “What we found is that its reasons such as ‘the person might get angry, they might say it is none of my business or I don’t know what to do if they say no’.”
To help begin the conversation, Katherine explained those concerned about someone should first find a safe space to have the conversation, somewhere where no one can hear or interrupt. “The best way to ask R U OK is to say ‘I have noticed XYZ’. It is a really good idea to be able to reflect back on them what you have noticed.
“Once you have asked the question, regardless of their response, listen. Then, encourage action,” she said. “Then, make some suggestions to them like ‘have you seen your GP, have you talked to your manager, have you spoken to a family member?’
“Lastly, always check in. Check in with them within a couple of days or the following week. “If they have opened up to you it is really important you don’t leave them and that you genuinely show them that you care. Asking R U OK can change a life but it can also save a life,” she concluded.