Pressure of the Profession: Shedding Light on Mental Health and the Food Industry

Chefs looking to expand their careers seek resources on any number of topics, from cooking techniques to financial and business matters to the latest food trends. Personal and private chefs establish their clientele, work to market themselves, and create unique and personalized menus for their clients.

And while any number of concerns may come up, too few stop to consider one thing that may greatly impact not only their careers, but also their personal lives.

Mental health.

While most chefs are incredibly innovative, passionate, and driven, it is these positive traits, coupled with uncertainty, that tests emotional well-being. In 2003, the famed French Chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide after his restaurant was demoted from three stars. Shocking as this tragedy was, it was a very small sample of chefs, both well and unknown, facing deep depression and sometimes seeing no way out.

The Center for Disease Control ranked the food industry as having one of the highest rates of suicides per occupation in the United States. The trend is not limited by nation, either. In Canada, concerns about mental health in the food industry led to a survey. The survey revealed that up to eighty percent of chefs or cooks reported experiencing anxiety, panic, or depression that affected their daily lives. Both statistic sets suggest that mental health issues may be more prominent in those that work in the food industry than in other industries.

The Harsh Reality of Being a Chef

Monica Dimas is known in Seattle and beyond for her signature fried chicken and Mexican sandwiches. Last year, she was named Thrillist’s Chef of the Year. But for all her acclaim, she has not been without moments she doubted what she was doing.

In an interview with Cosmopolitan, she opened up the hardships of being a chef, things she did not fully realize before she went into the profession. In the interview, she named long hours, endless training, and changing career goals. But she also mentioned less discussed topics, hitting hard on how much the profession could impact someone’s personal life:

“You’re expected to work sick and you’re not really expected to take time off. Only if you’re really sick, like you have the flu or something…” she said, adding that despite her love for preparing meals, “[m]ost people won’t appreciate how much goes into their meal besides cooking it.” While she conceded she loved what she is doing, she also opened up the conversation to the sometimes hard and volatile work environment being a chef really is.

High standards, little assistance, fast pace, and sometimes little appreciation all make for difficult work. In addition, chefs are often asked to set aside their own needs for others. And with any somewhat creative profession, many chefs may feel their dishes are not as good as others in the profession, leading to crippling perfectionism and self doubt.

Joel Rubuchon, a Master Chef, shocked many when he retired at the age of 51:

“He was, I thought, the best chef in France. I was not alone. He had the top, three-star rating from Michelin, the only chef ever to win one, two and three stars in three consecutive years…..” David Shaw, staffwriter for the LA Times, wrote at the time.

“I was working 20 hours a day,” [Rubuchon] told Shaw, saying he “just didn’t think [he] could maintain the same level of three-star quality, with all that pressure, every day”.

While Mr. Rubuchon did end up returning, he changed the type of cuisine he served, to more every day rather than gourmet food, and lowered prices as well. It’s not clear whether or not he had planned, initially, to return at all.

Personal and Private Chefs have an Advantage

While all chefs face these issues, evidence suggests that personal and private chefs may have several things working in their favor. Personal and private chefs select clients and in general have more flexible schedules than chefs who must daily operate within a restaurant’s hours, as well as possibly manage other employee’s schedules.

Cochrane Researchers, based in the UK, found that individuals who set their own schedules or had more flexible schedules reaped a number of health benefits. Blood pressure, quality of sleep, and overall mental health were among the recorded advantages.

Working within hours that fit your personal life, as well as your habits (a morning vs night person for instance) makes for a healthier environment. In addition, working for your clients and not under or with others may, for some individuals, lead to a sense of empowerment and control.

What can be Done?

Even with these advantages, personal and private chefs need to tend to their well being as much as anyone else. Here are some tips with coping and reducing the stress and pressure of the profession:

Practice and Polish: While you certainly don’t want to obsess, taking classes every once in awhile and revisiting skills may help you feel more confident. Just make sure it doesn’t impede on your personal time too much or become competitive in nature.

 

Remember Why: It sounds simple, but reminding yourself of your passion and the initial reason why you went into the profession is important. Try making a list and revisiting it when you feel discouraged. Also keeping a notebook of positive experiences and achievements can be a way to reconnect with better times, and hope for future rewarding challenges.

Keep Track: Keeping schedules, food orders, and other needs are all keys to success. Organize everything in your phone, calendar, or whatever works for you. Set a schedule when you check on menu planning, shopping, etc and try to keep it.

 

Take a Vacation: Everyone needs time off, no matter what they love doing. When you feel yourself getting worn or stressed in a way that is affecting you on a daily basis, plan ahead for even just one day off, if more isn’t doable. One day may be all you need to recharge

 

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