Stuff Limited (NZ)


Alice Neville investigates the mounting mental health crisis in the restaurant industry LONG HOURS, relentless pressure, isolation, lack of sleep, drug and alcohol abuse, a culture of harden up or get out – the restaurant kitchen is not always an easy place to be. Is it any wonder, then, that the industry is said to be in the grips of a mental health crisis worldwide? The suicide of top Sydney chef Jeremy Strode in July 2017 prompted an outpouring of shock and grief from those in the industry on both sides of the Tasman. Strode, who died days short of his 54th birthday, had battled depression for years and had been an ambassador for RU OK?, a suicide prevention charity. The “sad loss to the industry”-type posts filling up his social media news feeds left Auckland-based chef Jamie Robert Johnston feeling frustrated at what he felt was a failure to properly address an issue that is far too common in kitchens. So he wrote his own post, which he shared on Facebook and Instagram, revealing that he suffered from bipolar disorder – something he had never discussed openly beyond close friends and family. “Maybe it’s time we all stand together, look for the warning signs, or just ask the question ‘Are you OK?’”, Johnston wrote. “The industry isn’t the kind of industry where you talk about stuff,” reflects Johnston, 34, who runs popup Chinese eatery Judge Bao with his partner Debbie Orr. “It’s a mainly male-orientated industry and we have a terrible habit of not talking. It’s like harden up, have a concrete pill – you come in when you’re sick, you don’t take the day off because you burnt your hand or something.” Strode’s death, sadly, was far from isolated. Other big-name chefs to have taken their own lives in recent years include Frenchman Benoît Violier, whose Swiss restaurant, Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville, had recently been named the world’s best when he died in early 2016, and Homaro Cantu, a Chicago-based chef famed for his use of molecular gastronomy, who died in April 2015. The intense pressure to perform was pointed to in the inevitable search for explanation in the wake of the above chefs’ deaths. It was certainly considered a factor in the suicide of another Frenchman, Bernard Loiseau, who died in 2003 following widespread rumours that his restaurant La Côte d’Or was about to lose its third Michelin star. We may not have the pressure of Michelin stars to contend with, but New Zealand kitchens are far from immune from the mental health crisis afflicting the restaurant industry. In early November 2017, Auckland chef Matt Bing passed away suddenly after a long battle with depression. Bing, 30, had a new baby with his wife Sarah and had recently started a job at My Food Bag, which he seemed to be enjoying, his friend Brendan Kyle says. “He was so stoked to be out of chef life – he’d made a post on Instagram about how he was never working a night or a Saturday or Sunday again.” Kyle, a sous chef at Cazador, first met Bing when they worked together at Dida’s Wine Lounge and Tapas in Devonport. He didn’t know his friend had struggled with mental health issues until after his death.