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Secret chef: Out of darkness

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When you’re living for work rather than working to live something has to give, says the secret chef

We are not normal. A lot of the time we chefs take not just solace, but pride, in that fact. Our reputation is one of a bunch of fighters. Individuals you would want next to you in the trenches. A brigade of “work hard, play harder” types. Our industry runs on a fuel of macho posturing and bravado. We try to out-do each other with tales of the hours we work, how little sleep we get, the cuts and burns we have sustained. We exist in a perpetual purgatory that is out of sync with the normal world – where everyone else lives, works, sleeps and eats.

This limbo is appealing for a while. It attracts non-conformists and outliers – pirates is a neat description. We take comfort in our differences and accept shortcomings in others, providing they can work hard. Perhaps we were no good at school. Maybe we dislike the boxes we found ourselves in. In any case, a lot of us find acceptance in a kitchen.

Sustaining this level of intensity can lead to some dark places. I’ve endured dark times, both personally and vicariously: a junior sommelier who turned up for work high on ketamine; a waitress whose wild mood swings and occasionally violent behaviour were eventually explained by marking the bottle of vodka behind the bar; an assistant manager who emerged from the bathroom twice a night far more talkative than he had been three minutes before and another whose fondness for alcohol had caused him to kill someone, when driving his car, two years previously.

I’ve heard tales of high-end kitchens where tough Saturday nights are completed thanks to lines being chopped out in the pastry kitchen and a multi-starred, world-renowned chef whose PA would wipe his nose before a dining room stroll.

With a pervading atmosphere of pressure and, regrettably often, bullying, it’s no wonder such self-medication occurs. With late nights, early mornings and long hours it’s a miracle we don’t hear of more tales such as that of Bernard Loiseau who committed suicide in 2003 or Benoit Violier who killed himself just last year.

At the top end the pressures can be greater. You may not have to worry about being publicly reprimanded by your sous chef, but the financial pressures of maintaining a good reputation on razor-thin margins are considerable. I know how easy it is to flirt with mental health difficulties. At its worst, driving to work would make me feel physically sick, my heart racing and breathing shallow. Checking the bank account needed time and courage. I developed hives and skin problems – dormant allergies thriving during a time of emotional weakness. At work I had to maintain a veneer, but at home it cracked. Sleep, when it came, was blessed relief, but it was superficial and pitted with lurid dreams. I needed to work more to increase turnover, but the more I worked the less effective I became. The cycle was brutal and relentless. Depression is not merely being at your lowest ebb, it’s being unable to see a way out.

A break came at the right time. We closed down for three weeks and I confirmed a decision I’d made a year before. It was time to move on. And in six months time I’m closing my restaurant and will do so with pride and grace. Suppliers and staff will be paid and I can walk away knowing I did my very best.

Others aren’t so fortunate. Addiction, depression and bullying are rife and the industry has to embrace change to survive. We’ve taken baby steps but there are far greater strides that need to be made.