COVID-19 is not the only pandemic we are dealing with right now. There is a growing mental health pandemic in the hospitality industry that demands attention. According to The Burnt Chef Project, a not-for-profit group founded in the U.K. but recently launched in Canada, eight out of 10 hospitality workers have experienced at least one mental health crisis during their careers. And given the pandemic, I’m sure those rates have only risen: hospitality workers have lost their jobs and their savings, and some have lost their passion. In an industry notorious for long hours, poor compensation, pressure to perform, and difficult working conditions, many people thrive largely off their passion for creating unforgettable experiences for strangers. Even those contented, smiling faces have been taken from us.
I, like so many others in the industry, have been immensely affected by the global pandemic. After spending two years as the opening sous-chef at Stofa on Wellington Street, I filmed Top Chef Canada during the summer of 2019. Shortly afterwards, I sold my car and put my belongings into storage. I had no plans to return to Canada, and in the fall of 2019, I was working on the south coast of England at Etch, a tasting-menu restaurant owned by MasterChef winner Steven Edwards. Some months and many great experiences later, summer 2020 was looking promising. I had travel plans and internships lined up at some of the world’s most reputable restaurants, including The Greenhouse in Dublin, Ikoyi in London, and Noma in Copenhagen. But this all fell apart when Trudeau told Canadians to come home. My partner and I returned and hunkered down. My dreams were crushed, my career goals stunted; I lost money and opportunities. I hit a wall of depression and was riddled with anxiety about the future. There was no light at the end of the tunnel.
The contrast was stark. I’d gone from working in a fast-paced environment surrounded by people to lockdown in Toronto with family and my partner. Despite their solid support, I lost my passion to cook and the motivation to dream. Instead of the breakthrough year that 2020 had promised, I couldn’t see the future.
I stumbled across The Burnt Chef Journal podcast, where founder Kris Hall interviews leading hospitality figures. His guests share their personal struggles along with their methods of building mental resilience for both themselves and their teams in this time of uncertainty. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one missing out on big plans and opportunities for growth. I heard industry leaders such as Sat Bains, Clare Smyth, and Matt Abe talk about how they will improve working conditions for their employees going forward. They promised better hours and a decent work-life balance; they talked about health benefits and sessions with a therapist, as well as healthy staff meals on shift. I’ve worked at many places where no importance is put on the fuel we put in our bodies, and it shows in the long run. They sounded like the role models we need in an industry on the edge. It gave me hope; my positivity started to creep back in.
I started working on my mental and physical health. I began meditation, yoga, and reading non-food-related books. I really took time to relax and think about other aspects of my life, such as relationships and family, good food, and consistently eating well.
After falling in love with the podcast, I took a deep dive into what The Burnt Chef Project has to offer here in Canada. Their mission is to challenge the mental health stigma within the hospitality industry by providing training to enhance mental health awareness in the workplace. I have taken online courses that included videos, facts, tips, tests, and teaching on leadership, personal resilience, and equality and diversity and that have offered me tangible skills to use in the future.
COVID-19 has brought uncertainty to all our lives. But for those in the food industry, it has tested our patience, resilience, and passion to the core. I believe that this pandemic could serve as a rebirth for an industry that has ignored its issues far too long. Together, we can contribute to a happier, healthier, and more sustainable hospitality industry to help shape a better future. Suggestions include less than 10 hours a day at work, living wages, health benefits, and better representation of gender and people of colour in kitchens. This last suggestion really motivated me because I’ve felt and seen discrimination on multiple levels based on race and gender.
To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, we must be the change that we wish to see in the industry.
The Burnt Chef Support Service is a free text-based service. From Canada, text HOME to 741741 to access their resources.