On 4 & 5 May, the Chefs' Manifesto hosted two virtual gatherings to discuss and raise awareness about the difficult times ahead for our food systems, and especially for the most vulnerable. Many thanks to OmVed Gardens – the Chefs’ Manifesto London Action Hub – for organising Monday's session!
On Monday, the Chefs’ Manifesto London Action Hub session on “Investment in Livelihoods” with a London-focus, discussed mental health and how to drive positive change for chefs.
On Tuesday, the Chefs’ Manifesto Global Call on “Investment in Livelihoods” provided snapshots of the current challenges from chefs from different regions and a platform to discuss how to support and invest in chefs’ and farmers’ livelihoods.
The intent with both gatherings was to provide ideas how to support livelihoods for chefs, their teams and partners, generally and especially during the current crisis. It was a delight to have over 40 participants join each day!
Could you tell us how the current crisis has impacted OmVed Gardens and how you have responded? Many events of course have been postponed; however, we are still growing vegetables etc. in the garden and are taking the surplus of produce to the local Highgate community in bags twice a week, especially to vulnerable people, the elderly and those who can’t travel far for their food. This has created a different kind of community feeling for our team. OmVed has also been doing Instagram live events, which I believe have created curiosity and helped people feel relaxed in a time where we all spend a lot of time online to begin with.
Can you share a little about the topic of livelihoods and mental health, and why it was chosen as a focus for today? While food connects a lot of the SDGs, the identity of chefs – who they are – is the piece that’s missing. We talk a lot about what chefs do, but rarely about the chefs themselves. Chefs work within socioeconomic systems and are products of their societies, families etc. We can’t talk about a chef without talking about where they’ve grown up, what their relationship with food is and so on. If we can look at the more complete picture this avoids making assumptions; need to know more about chefs around the world: how they work, how they become chefs etc.
Alex: The body and mind are one. By feeding the body, we are feeding the mind. What is important, too, is eating a real food diet with its colours and tastes.
Anjli: Time is medicine, too, an important component which we don’t allow ourselves. When we’re in this situation, our thoughts aren’t going anywhere, we’re rushing but staying in one place, being able to be patient with ourselves, take a meal for ourselves, when these jigsaw puzzles come in as harmony that’s great
How do we build and design this into our personal lives to destress?
Alex: We need the right ingredients in our cupboard to start with and need to prepare. We need self-awareness, even a quiet moment to ask yourself “am I prepared?” It’s about developing a habit, taking a few minutes in the beginning of the day to check in with oneself and ask yourself how you nourish yourself. E.g. adding berries (cardiovascular function) or oats can make a difference to being able to deal with a very stressful day.
Anjli: In a head chef role, you’re often not recognising that when you’re leading a team, you need to lead with compassion and understand that it’s humans working with you. In order for them to work better and be committed to you, you need to serve your team with grace. Holistic wellbeing in the kitchen has to start at the top and go all the way down to the customers.
Alex: If you do this as the manager, you can empower the others by example.
Anjli: If we are to normalise and essentially prioritise mental health and togetherness, they won’t be negative or sensitive topics. It becomes a culture. And once it’s a culture, it gets legitimised.
Often, chefs are hammering out Michelin star food but are eating badly all day. How do you design a menu that’s well balanced? Is this something new you only feed your staff? Or does it roll over into the menu for the customers?
Alex: It’s crucial to sit down with the team and bind the team. Secondly, you should eat real food, oats, nuts, seeds, eggs, vegetables and nut butters for breakfast, which will slowly release energy to take you through the morning. Maybe add a delicious herb tea. If you want, have the espresso but after having food.
Anjli: The question is whether we as chefs should take this time to completely diversify the offering based on wellbeing. As a chef, you have to be practical: menus don’t need to be redesigned for your customer. However, one of the most important things is that you are building education and curiosity in your team and make sure they can take care of their own bodies. If your team functions well and you’ve created a safe environment, your product will be delivered in a more positive way. When I lived and worked in India, I learned so much from my team. They’d have ginger tea first thing in the morning, whereas I sustained on coffee. It was a cultural exchange. On the flipside, they wouldn’t eat anything that looked foreign to them. I had to find a new language to communicate with them.
How best do chefs survive this anxiety through food?
Alex: Build in self-care from top-down. If you like, make links with a local herbalist or nutritionist to get advice in your local area. Eat colours, diversify, have two meals and try not to snack throughout the day. Have beans and pulses for lunch and aim at eating 30 different foods each day. Have a delicious tea on the go all day!
Anjli: Introspection, acceptance and curiosity.
Craig, I know you work with people who're struggling and in social care now but you have come through the kitchen as a chef and felt how difficult it is to work there so I just want to ask you if you could share what are your experiences of mental health and the importance of working with it and recognising it and trying to heal it.
Craig: My mental health as a chef was quite bad and it got worse as I got older. I started at 16, living on my own, loving life, working 90 hours a week as a senior chef, and I always had one option to go to when I was stressed as I grew up in the industry – alcohol. Alcohol was a big part of my life and the situation got worse. By the time I was 20, I was travelling the country and living in hotels, moving away I thought I would be able to deal with the stress in a different way, but I didn’t, alcohol was always there. I knew that many of the chefs I was working with were dealing with the same problems. I wasn’t in the right space to tell them how to deal with things differently. Now I have been living in Cornwall for 6 years and it was the best thing I ever did but I when I got here, I was still drinking and still dealing with alcohol and drug addiction and stress and even tried to commit suicide because I had no way of ending it. It’s not the hospitality industry that is to blame but I do think that owners need to take a certain amount of responsibility or at least the ones I worked with didn’t help my situation. They used to wind me up as you don’t have enough interaction with them and there is a lack of communication. It’s called back of house for a reason, no one likes going there - as soon as you go through that door, anything can happen. I would love every kitchen to be open because if you can see a customer and they can see you, the stress levels would be a lot lower. I’ve not had a drink for two years and my life has changed for the better, I share this story to help others. Acceptance is a big thing. I had to accept that I had a drinking problem, I accepted I couldn't deal with stress and had to find new methods. Now I meditate every evening, started running and did the London marathon last year. I also do a lot of work for charities now.
It is really important that we listen to the issues that chefs are facing at the coalface. We can talk about great diets and changing the way food works but there is a reality and the reality is tough. And yes, it is focussed on getting as much out of the people in the kitchen as possible and delivering for as little money as possible so that there can be a profit. Chefs are under a lot of pressure and we are talking about good diets and the importance of livelihoods but you’re talking about the reality of alcohol and drugs in the workplace which is how some chefs are surviving. Robin, can we come to you for your experience of ‘surviving’ and how you managed to pull yourself up and out into an area where you have been able to influence people.
Robin: Surviving, yeah. I probably should be dead quite a few times over actually! Been through burn- out, drug/ alcohol addiction and lost a lot. My way of coming back from rock bottom... I was homeless, not sleeping on the street but had nowhere to live.... and it was nature that was the great connector, food and foraging - I started foraging as a way to break out from the burn-out but it still took a long time to get clean. I got clean 6 years ago and it's interesting to hear this discussion as I’ve worked with a lot of chefs. I was thinking about the chefs that I've worked with who have been really respectful and compassionate towards their team. I worked with a team in Wiltshire where the exec chef would sit down with the team, he was never ‘head’ of the table. This is something I have not experienced in the business. He trusted his staff and his team completely. Another extraordinary place was in India at a health retreat. A guy had set it up to feed India organic food. His blueprint was to look after staff so the clients are obviously important but the very next focus after the customers were the staff and he sponsored local farmers to re-grow heritage crops that hadn't been growing for years and funding local farmers so that they could reconnect to their traditions instead of growing things from the West. The food was feeding the guests, the staff and the staffs’ family, like a spiral outward. Everybody was given respect and time to look after themselves. Well- being always came first. His interest was how to invigorate a national well-being programme.
The fact that you have both struggled with mental health - I have too - I collapsed in a kitchen and couldn’t continue, I had to change to another style of food completely but you have both connected in some way physically to a natural way of alleviating the mental stress that you were under and being able to cope, Robin you turned to foraging and nature and Craig you started running, you recognised that there was a problem and turned yourself around, you're now working with people who are struggling. How can we alleviate and support people are going through mental health problems?
Craig: I think that a lot of us are struggling from mental health issues without realising it, so creating awareness of mental wellbeing is really important. In myself, eventually, I recognised that I needed a different job. After getting clean, I went back into the hospitality industry and managed to stay clean but after 6-8 months I could feel it creeping back in.
Robin: What I teach is sensory Botany - Botany is normally through the eyes but my way of teaching it is through the senses. You really get to know a plant/ingredient through the senses - the smell, the texture, what the flavours are doing. For me it is bringing a presence of mind and using that approach when you are trying to pair a plant with another - its a mindful practice - just like washing the dishes can be a mindful practice... Walking out in nature and really paying attention to the soundscape around - it embraces you as you walk through it. When I go out, I just sink down into feeling my body, trying to hear the sounds and smell the scents in the air. When I pick a plant, my immediate thing to do is smell it. That is how I identify it and I really like to sense how my body feels as the smell goes down into it. This encourages a sense of relaxation and de-stress response in the body. Even if I am in a hyper ‘on’ state, by doing this, I start to relax, slow down, come back to the present. The presence of mind in order to bring together simple flavours rather than complexity is the art of a chef and one of the tools that chefs can use to bring presence and lower the stress response while working. Engage with the sensory body. Get out of your head and come to your senses – that’s my saying, it’s very simple. It’s what we used to do when we were living in the ecosystem rather than being detached from it - think how can you translate that to the kitchen?
Just to round off Robin, how do we best keep ourselves well?
Robin: Cut yourself slack when you screw up, its ok not to be perfect. We live in a society looking for pinnacle of perfection. The flaws are good. For the plants to have its antioxidant defences, as Alex mentioned, it has to have struggled. Anyone with mental health problems, we’ve all struggled but just by living life it will throw curve balls at you. We can deal with those and work with them by having tools in our box for managing them. Its self-care.
🇮🇳 India/Asia: Chef Radhika Khandelwal:
🇮🇹 Italy/Europe: Chef Cristina Bowerman
🇺🇸 California/US: Chef Samuel Monsur
🇿🇦 South Africa/Africa: Chef Pinky Maruping
🇵🇪 Peru/Latin America: Chef Arlette Eulert
🇦🇺 Australia & East Timor: Alva Lim