This Year’s Food on the Edge Symposium Shines a Light on Mental Health

For the third year running, Irish food visionary, chef and restaurateur JP McMahon has congregated some of the world’s most revered chefs in Galway to discuss the most pressing issues in the food industry today. Food on the Edge 2017 is well underway and a number of topics have been explored, perhaps most prominently the issue of mental health in the food industry.

A number of chefs touched on the issue of chef well-being, which emerged as a consistent concern across the board, both at home and abroad. Chef/proprietor of 3 Michelin starred Maaemo in Oslo, Esben Holmboe Bang took to the stage with his Irish sous chef Halaigh Whelan-McManus to highlight the importance of a work/life balance for chefs and propose a revised model of the working week.

“We talk about sustainability but not how are we creating a sustainable environment for ourselves” Esben noted, describing how the gruelling 80 hour weeks chefs routinely put in can lead to burnout, mental health issues and a loss of a sense of self in chefs young and old.

An experiment in reducing the number of days chefs at Maaemo were expected to clock in to four a week resulted in staff being able to reclaim their hobbies and interests and arrive at work with a re-energised “Duracell Bunny” enthusiasm. On the common chef trait of perfectionism, he suggested “let’s make our obsession healthy, not kill ourselves in the process” by limiting the hours chefs work.

On the important topic, JP McMahon weighed in noting that “we have to mind our chefs and let them enjoy the things they used to do, often, we cook 18 hours a day and that’s it.” To counteract the negative mental effects of this all-encompassing career, JP added “we need to be able to do the things we love without feeling guilty.”

Delivering a powerful food story of bullying in the professional kitchen setting, London-based chef Anna Haugh of Bob Bob Ricard recounted a campaign of abuse suffered by a porter as an example of the notoriously difficult workplace. In an emotive speech, Anna recalled feeling powerless in the face of the aggression of the offending head chef and urged all chefs moving up the ranks to be mindful of the mental health of their team and to rebel against the culture of abuse in kitchens.

Daniel Clifford of Midsummer House spoke openly about the aggressive tempers of head chefs, recalling his days in Marco Pierre White’s kitchen and his own propensity to lash out in the kitchen under the pressure of maintaining two Michelin stars – “that’s when I became proper terrible and I’m not proud of it” he admitted.

Chef Elise Kornack tackled the notion of “pushing through” the early onset of burnout and the taboo associated with speaking out about mental health in the kitchen in a refreshingly honest and open speech concluding that “not taking care of your body and mind is not an option.”

Kat Kinsman, food editor of ExtraCrispy and author of “Hi Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves”, asked “why does the food have to matter more than the people?” Tackling the issue head on, Kinsman’s illuminating talk was warmly received by an audience keen to ensure the topic would no longer be bottled up.

As the theme of this year’s symposium is Action:Reaction, the open and honest exploration into an aspect of a thriving industry badly in need of change has lifted the taboo in a bid to stoke change. For more information on Food on the Edge click here.

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