Outsider's perception of the catering industry has always been negative, with the unsocial working hours and the discipline not too dissimilar to the military. We talk to 3 guys about their experience in the industry from the camaraderie of the kitchen to the toll it can take on your mental health.
Hey Guys, I'm just going to jump straight in, I think.. What position are you all and how long have you been in the industry?
Ryan: Head Chef at the Langford Inn, I've been in and out the last 17 years, I started as a kitchen porter (KP) when I was old enough to work, that's that same for you isn't it Jordan?
Jordan: Yeah, I'm assistant manager at the Northey Arms, I started as a KP when I was 13, since then I've done some bar work and it's only really been the last 2 years that I've taken it seriously.
James: I'm Head Chef at the Congresbury Arms, I started as a KP when I was 17 and again, have been in and out. I started doing it as a career when I was 24.
What made you join the industry?
Ryan: It was just money to begin with, wasn’t it? It was just a job in the town, but for me it progressed from washing up to working out front and then I remember helping out in the kitchen one evening at the Lobster, and they made us all put chef jackets on to go upstairs to greet the people who were having a buffet and I remember walking back in and thinking “I actually quite like this”, it was quite cool having the chef jacket on and being part of the kitchen.
James: I started when I was at college and wanted a job over the weekend, so I got a job as a KP in a Hungry Horse in Fakenham, I had been there for a couple of weeks when the grill chef didn’t turn up during lunch service, so they pulled me off washing up and chucked me onto the grill to cook steaks and stuff, and I f*cking loved cooking actual food, I didn’t know anything about it - I was there for 45 minutes then the chef turned up and I got chucked back into the sinks, instantly my heart just sunk. A few days later I heard that a restaurant a mate was working in had an apprentice chef position coming up so I went for it.
Jordan: I dropped out of a teacher training course and didn’t have anything else going for me, I knew the industry and has always done it so started taking it seriously and pursued it as a career rather than just a job. I found that I quite enjoyed it surprisingly.
Ryan: It’s not surprising really is it?
Jordan: Well, it is..
Ryan: It depends which way you look at it, people say surprisingly because of the stigma that revolves around the industry. A lot of people in the industry view it as a shit job but that is solely down to the work-life balance.
James: Yeah, compared to normal society, it is a sh*t job comparison, but if you can learn to love it then it makes it all worth it.
Jordan: I think as well, for a lot of people in the industry, it isn’t what they want to do as a career, its something they’re doing as a filler job that’s just temporary.
What is it that you love about it?
Jordan: I like the sense of accomplishment, like if you look at the bookings and you’ve got a full house, then you go out there and you absolutely kill it, and people come up to you and they say that they loved it, at the end of the night your like “yes, mate!” Yeah, it is the sense of accomplishment, as you can be in deep and have customers ask you weird questions, stuff that you don’t get the training to answer, as you don’t get much training with front of house. For me, I quite enjoy the bar side as you get your locals and regulars, and you meet people so many different people, especially when you work on the hotel side. You get to meet people from all corners of the world who want to talk about what they’ve been up to, which is quite fun.
Ryan: The social side of it..
James: Yeah, the camaraderie, Jordan put it really well, the sense of accomplishing that within your team and when you know that the people you’re working with have got your back and you’ve got their back, you’re all working together and it’s just not one person doing everything to make it work. Then following on from what Ryan said, it’s the social aspect that leads on from that, all the people you work with through those hard situations, become your family.
Ryan: Yeah, some of my closest friends are people I’ve met through the industry..
Jordan: Because you’re doing so many hours aren’t you?
Ryan: Yeah, you spend more time with these people than you do at home, most of the time. What I love most about it is when you’re running the pass on a busy night and you’ve got like 4 or 5 people behind you that are literally hanging on every-word that you say you are literally in control of making sure every.. like 20 or 30 dishes on at once that you need to orchestrate that in a manner that people are going to enjoy themselves and people are actually going to get in, at the right about of time. When you pull it off it’s such a nice feeling, the adrenalin buzz is sick.
Jordan: I imagine for you two, you enjoy the food side of it, like I hear you guys talk about food all the time.
Ryan: Yeah, the creative side of it, you do get to express yourself, everyone definitely has their own way of cooking and the way they view and how it should be served, its really cool when you get high enough to write your own menus, its so much fun, coz you can literally, in most places, do whatever you want.
James, You get to put your mark on something and when you do it well, you get the feedback of people enjoying what you’re doing.
Ryan: Yeah, you put yourself out there sometimes, like there’s times you put stuff on and it doesn’t sell, it’s a bit of a kick in the teeth, because you could spend 3 or 4 days working on something..
Jordan: I quite enjoy that it’s different to other jobs I’ve worked in at least, like retail, every day is a tough graft but I found it was better than sitting behind a checkout, I much prefer it. It’s different to say my graduate friends who have got quite cool, career jobs, like office jobs - hospitality sounds so different to a lot of other areas people work in.
Talking about camaraderie, you guys between you have worked with so many different people, do you feel like that kind of environment would be good for people, like young guys who are going down the wrong path in life?
Ryan: If you go to the right kitchen, yeah.
Jordan: You get role models, like you can act as a role model to some young lads, like someone I worked with, it was quite nice to get him out of his shell a little bit.
Ryan: You definitely get that as head chef, like my last job, the Chef De Partie (CDP) would ring me if something was going wrong, or the Junior Sous will come and speak to me. But I was like that as well with my old head chefs, if something was going wrong at home, they were people I felt like I could go and have a chat to about it.
James: You’ve got to be in the right kind of kitchen for that kind of thing, you do hear a lot of stories about young people who go into the industry and then it destroys them, because of how hard it is. There’s a lot of stigma with alcoholism and drug abuse within it..
Ryan: I’ve worked with a lot of people that have been like that..
Jordan: Yeah, the stereotype comes from somewhere..
James: It depends on the person and the kitchen they go into as it can have a very negative effect on a lot of people.
Jordan: Was it you guys who told me the story about the headache who poured hot water down someones trousers?
Ryan: That was all over the media and on Chefs Arse, but I’ve never experience it, I’ve never been in a kitchen where its happened.. I’ve worked in kitchens with people who have got serious problems with substance abuse, I’ve worked with quite a few people like that.. but not so much in the last 5 years.
James: So, now you start getting to the downside of it all.. So the way that the kitchen is structured is very hierarchical, the person at the top has all the power and then it goes down and in a lot of cases, it will just be that time spent in the industry will just give you power, whether you’ve got passion or whatever, if you get to the top and have that power, you can be a dickhead and you can lose that power, when that gets sent down the line the people underneath, that’s when they get effected negatively.
So, leading on from that.. Gordon Ramsey’s documentary about cocaine use was shocking for many.. What are your thoughts on it?
Ryan: The thing I found funny about that is, yeah it’s pretty outrageous, but it’s not that outrageous given the industry.
James: For a lot of people who aren’t exposed to that, when they’re introduced to the industry and there’s all this stuff going on, it’s a coping mechanism for a lot of people and they can get drawn into that in a negative way.
Jordan: What I find interesting is that it’s not an industry that attracts upper - middle class people, you look at front of house, if you’re a server, waiter or barman, many are lower class. For that reason, I think the industry attracts a certain type of person, do you know what I mean?
Jordan: There’s a lot of interesting characters out there, like you haven’t got to interact with customers so you can come in scruffy and hungover and still smash it out, it doesn’t matter. There’s not many drugs out front, the only thing is because you’re working on a bar when you finish work, it can be very dangerous because you all start drinking. That happens a lot. In one of my past jobs every single night we would finish and people would just start getting beers in and that would very quickly develop into a problem wouldn’t it. When you smash service, you’re finished for the night, you get a free drink, everyone’s buzzing..
James: I definitely know of a lot of alcoholics, maybe illegal drugs don’t become an issues but alcohol can definitely become an issue.
Jordan: It seems like it’s a lot more acceptable to come into a hospitality job hungover, then it would be to go to an office job, like the stigma with it.. you don’t have drugs tests in hospitality do you? My two friends work for the council and they have drug tests every 6 months so it’s a completely different thing. If you have a drug problem you’re not going to go and pursue the kind of jobs where you’re going to get caught out, are you?
James: I’d definitely say that hospitality is the most drug riddled industry..
Jordan: The backend of Tescos, the people who dealt with deliveries were the kind of people to get into that kind of thing, but that’s because they were in the back room where no-one has to look at them.
James: Another big part of why alcohol and drugs are bad for you, we don’t live this life ourselves so much, but if you’re a chef living in the centre of a big city and you’ve just finished work, you’re already in the middle of the city where everyone is out, so you go for a drink, and that’s quite a hectic drink so you have another drink and so on, and then it’s already 3am because you didn’t finish work until midnight, the only way you’re going to carry on going is if you get some cocaine, that’s the beginning of quite a big spiral.
Describe one of your best moments.
Ryan: Getting two rosettes as the BA.
Jordan: For me, some of the best moments have been, as cheesy as it sounds, top banter moments, it’s a lot of fun isn’t it, when there’s a lot of people around and there have been some instances that have been hilarious.. Other then that, the other moments that I really enjoyed was when it’s really busy and you absolutely killed it and everything went really well and you have a sweet high-five moment at the end.
James: I was about to say, one of my best moments is actually one of my worst moments.. A horrible, horrible, horrible service - Bank Holiday August?
Ryan: Bank Holiday Sunday yeah… 200 at lunch
James: Yeah, it was just too busy.. and I ran out of halloumi for halloumi burgers on order, we were so deep in service that there wasn’t a spare surface anywhere near me to cut the halloumi..
Jordan: You sound stressed even talking about it..
James: There wasn’t the correct coloured chopping board that was clean.. so I ended up with a blue chopping board for fish, on a shelf just above the floor, underneath the Rationale oven.. then I found myself in a situation down underneath an oven on a blue chopping board with some cheese.. I was like “Oh god, Ryan… don’t look at what I’m doing”.. a very very low moment..
Jordan: I guess one of the best moments is the intensity of it..
James: That’s it, at the end of that day, we felt like shit but we can look back on it with a sense of accomplishment..
Ryan: That was absolutely horrendous..
Jordan: What was yours’ Ryan?
Ryan: Getting the two rosettes, the fact that he ordered one of everyone’s dish as well, didn’t he.. That’s why it felt so good coz it wasn’t like.. I was so worried about what he was going to order..
James: So that leads you guys on to your worst moments..
Ryan: Worst, ooooh, how long do you have?
Jordan: I’m sat here trying to rate the worst moments..
James: There’s one time I remember where I properly yelled in a kitchen at someone..
Ryan: I threw a tea towel at the GM..
James: I threw a full handful of feta salad across the kitchen at him like a week later.. because he squared up to me..
Jordan: I can’t remember the worst moment.. I think it’s probably when something goes bad.. Like the worst moments; 1. Where it’s too busy and you can’t cope, or 2. When something drastically goes wrong.. I’ve had customers swear at me.. I’ve had them shout and kick off at me.. That’s not fun, then having to deal with the staff.. Any of the days like that, they’d be the worst ones..
James: What I forget to think about was some of the worst moments I had when I was a commis chef, trainee.. I don’t think about that much anymore..
Jordan: Was it when you got shouted at or something?
James: Or the feeling when you lose it and one thing fucks up and suddenly you’re only a junior chef, everyones in the shit and you literally don’t know what to do next.. and you freeze and you don’t move.. oh my God..
Ryan: I did that in front of Nik on his trial to be my head chef at the White Horse, I just completely fell apart.. I came back from my holiday and Jack and Ben had changed the menu and I didn’t have a clue how to do any of it.. and it was like a Friday, Nik was in and it all went wrong, we ran out of shit.. absolutely awful.
Jordan: I mean, I cried.. do you remember that, before Christmas.. when I was left on my own for three hours, and I had tables in and check-ins taking ages and everything went wrong.. like one thing after the other.. no matter how much I tried to fix one problem, another one just popped up..
Ryan: I can image the support for some people is sh*t.. we’re quite lucky because we all live together and we all work in the industry..
Jordan: Can you imagine being in live-in, finishing that then just going upstairs..
Ryan: Yeah, or just going home to no-one.. Or going back and your missus and your kids are asleep.. that must suck.. we’re quite lucky because when we come back we can shoot the shit and get it over and done with. Do you know what I mean? I’d hate to after some of the nights I’ve had, to go back to no-one, I’d be like “Brilliant.. I’ve got to just go to bed”..
James: Yeah.. There’s one night that I did end in full blown tears.. I was 17.. yeah that went wrong..
How do you feel the lifestyle of someone in the industry can effect their mental health?
Jordan: I think straight away, you can’t talk or see the people you want to, because of the hours are so long and the shift patterns are horrible.. Like when my friends are working set hours and have the weekends off, I can’t go and see them and if that’s your significant other or your family, I suppose that can cause a lot of stress can’t it?
James: That can also effect.. so what you do to counter that is your friends and your family become the people in the industry, that’s the only thing.. Like if you can surround yourself with people who are in the same position as you then it doesn’t become an issue, that’s why we’ve done it well.
Ryan: Yeah, we are quite lucky.. I think it would just make you depressed, because I imagine you just get caught in that routine..
James: You end up in a spiral definitely, if someone doesn’t have that support system they can go back to, then you just wallow in it..
Ryan: Yeah, you go back to work the next day and it happens again and happens again..
James: Yeah and you just spiral down and spiral down.. where the fuck do you go from there?
Jordan: Having anxiety’s horrible, having anxiety in a job where you’ve got to be surrounded by strangers and some aren’t going to be that polite to you, can be horrid. Absolutely horrid, you put on a persona, everyone does it, you play a character almost, it’s like acting.. I can’t go up to people in the street and talk to them.. but if someone walks through the door, I’m happy to ask them how their day is and pretend to be interested..
James: You do have to bare in mind that most people who enter this industry, really at a young age are people that couldn’t really do much else in society and they couldn’t go out and do a normal job, they needed to get something that was, you know.. out of the way, not in retail, not in an office because they couldn’t deal with that kind of interaction.. so these are already people that struggle with society and get put into this high- stress situation..
Jordan: Yeah, it’s not good, it can have negative effects, spiralling is a big one.. like what happened around Christmas and it kept getting worse and worse.. and because your doing so many hours, I used to just come back and not be able to get out of my head because you were always there.. all the people you see are the people you work with and you can’t escape it I suppose.
Do you feel like there’s enough support for anyone in hospitality?
Ryan: I think it’s more recognised now, but it wasn’t for me.. like the last 4 or 5 years it has been getting better..
James: Yeah, with social media, it has got better..
Jordan: It has got better a whole hasn’t it?
Ryan: But it wasn’t, like when I worked at the Horse, my head chef.. he was coming to work and just like bashing cocaine and pills and getting pissed up, he passed out in the toilets on a Saturday night when I was there.. and someone had to break the staff door in to get him out, it was mental mate. But there was no support for that..
James: No, there wasn’t then at all.
Jordan: There isn’t like set sick days and I suppose for a lot of it, working in pubs and restaurants, a lot are independently owned.. not like you’re new job Ryan, a lot don’t have a HR department that you can go to when you’re got these problems going on, you’ve just got to crack on with it.. The owner might be upstairs working, maybe he does two days a week.. is he really going to have time for you?
James: The people that you work with are the people that you would go to, and they all work in the same industry as you, they’re in the same situation as you.. and there’s a lot of, when you’re being trained.. a lot of the training is hardening you and it’s all about toughening you up so you can cope..
Ryan: It’s hard to just have a day off isn’t it.. because your such an integral part of something.. sometimes if you’re not in..
Jordan: You’re a cog in the machine..
Ryan: If you can’t get to work, they can’t run the shift, do you know what I mean?
James: Yeah, absolutely.
Ryan: If you could do with not going in and sorting your shit out, you can’t.. or you feel like you can’t..
James: Or if you’re ill, you feel like you can’t because you’ll let the team down..
Jordan: That’s one of the things, like if you’re off, you don’t get paid.. generally speaking.. so if you’re having a day off for your mental health, you’re not getting paid for that.. and if anything you get in trouble because it’s done by rotas.. so you’ll be letting everyone down..
James: But now because social media has become a much bigger thing, and now there’s like big chef communities online, this has become an issue over the last couple of years.. so for example on Chef’s Arse (Facebook group for chefs), you constantly see adverts of people saying “I’m here, I’ve been through this..” Loads of people are really open about it now..
Ryan: You get offered jobs don’t you, like people say “I’ve got a job, with live in”.. people do offer you a way out..
James: So, not through the industry but through social media.. it’s getting better in that way definitely, and now also there’s companies like Butcombe..
Ryan: Yeah, they’re involved with The Burnt Chef Project..
Jordan: I think it depends on the manager, like my last manager.. when I had time off for mental health, he was really understanding.. and everyone else was, I have to admit..
What do you feel employers could do to help?
Jordan: I think just to mention it a lot of the time, the hardest bit is talking about it.. and I think even just going.. “If you need to talk about it, text this number or call this person..” Establish that it’s okay to talk about it, I think’s the most important thing..
James: Yeah, just making it aware that this is a thing.. I think part of the problem when you’re in this situation, is that in your head, you think you’re the only person in this situation, you don’t realise there’s people all around you who have been through it, but it doesn’t get talked about so making it something that comes up in conversation.. or make a day when you talk about it, or a meeting about it, or something like that..
Jordan: Unless you work for a big corporation, there isn’t like a big department to go to is there.. Like mateys pub down the road..
James: If people know they can talk about it, then they will..
*If you or anyone you know are struggling, you're not alone. Call the Samaritans on 116 123*