This article discusses self-harm.
Chef Gareth Howard of Camperdown restaurant Acre Eatery had long been aware that mental wellbeing among restaurant workers was at dangerously low levels. And when the news broke of US celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s suicide on June 8, he knew it was time to act.
He proposed a Mental Health Awareness dinner at his restaurant for industry, and put out feelers to providores and beverage suppliers. He was overwhelmed with responses and within 24 hours the event, held on July 1, was fully sponsored. Staff from local restaurants were invited to the free event – from dishwashers to CEOs – and all 200 places were soon filled.
Featuring speakers from RU OK?, as well as a yoga instructor, tai chi master, breathing expert, meditation expert and holistic healer, the evening’s success was clear to anyone in attendance. Keeping the mood upbeat, speakers offered practical help for dealing with stress and negative feelings. Some attendees were visibly moved by what they heard and approached speakers afterwards for help.
Howard says that several factors contribute to restaurant work being injurious to mental health. They include the long, gruelling hours; the fact restaurant workers can live a nighttime existence without seeing the sun; poor pay; and being underappreciated by their superiors. “Half the time they’re treated like robots,” he says. “Work welfare is so big in other industries and still so neglected in our industry. The rates of suicide are higher than in a lot of others.
“People who work in restaurants are pretty resilient but there comes a time when your body will go ‘I can’t take any more’ and your mind will follow.”
Feedback from the Kitchen Confidential Dinner had been “phenomenal”, Howard says, and a similar event is being planned for Melbourne. “I would love it to go six monthly or yearly, and be a catalyst for other people doing similar events.”
Howard says that he has been deeply concerned with kitchen staff welfare for ten years, ever since the suicide of a colleague back in the UK. “It was awful, and always stuck in my mind – whether we could have done something. In any kitchen I’ve been in since we try to give staff every tool they need to be happy at work, which, in hospitality, has always been sadly lacking.”
Lifeline: 131 141. RU OK? www.ruok.org.au. For more resources, check out Kitchen Confidential Dinner.