Mind over Stomach - Chefs speak on building a support network to beat stress
Long working hours, constant pressure to create the best, experimenting, innovating and setting trends puts a lot of pressure and stress on chefs, whether they are managing the staff or facing the camera
In a fitting tribute to chef, author and television host Anthony Bourdain, former US President Obama tweeted about a meal he shared with Anthony in Vietnam in 2016 as part of a TV series called Parts Unknown. His tweet reads, “Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. That’s how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.”
Anthony redefined culture through food, and showed us how to accept the “unknown”. However, his demise, while leaving us sad, has thrown light on an issue that we often sidestep and refrain from talking about.
Mental and emotional well-being is as important, if not more, than physical well-being. Though we may not talk about it, we all have an inkling of how anxiety, and stress often lead to depression, and impact the best and the “supposed” strongest of us.
While food always brings joy, the same can’t be said for the people working in the food and beverage industry. In 2017, Mental Health America reported that the industries that ranked the worst for workplace mental health were - manufacturing, retail, and food and beverages.
Constant expectations, high standards, long working hours, and the pressure to create the best, experiment, innovate, and set trends tend to put a lot of pressure on chefs whether they are managing the staff in hotels or facing the camera.
YourStory speaks to some experts and chefs from the industry to find out how they battle the continuous demand to give their best at all times.
Women more vulnerable
Stressful life events such as trauma, childbirth, and difficulties in relationships, along with additional home and work responsibilities that women juggle with, can often trigger a depressive episode, according to Anna.
“Women are expected to be perfect daughters, perfect wives, and perfect mothers, while also ensuring their work life is unaffected by their personal stressors. Being held responsible to impossible standards for each role, and striving for perfection in every sphere of their life can have a significant psychological impact on women, often resulting in a distorted body image, as well as furthering their guilt and anxiety,” she points.
Anxiety also triggers eating disorders and even depression. “In addition to this, women are also more likely to experience hormonal fluctuations, when compared with men, which can further impact their mental health,” points Anna.
Celebrity Chef Amrita Raichand shares it is not easy, and that she has had her fair share of moments when she broke down.
“Infact, when I started my show ‘Mummy Ka Magic,’ the first day was a nightmare. I’ve always been a good cook trying out new recipes at home with my son and family, but when I had to do it on screen, I just couldn’t get my act together. I realised that I was trying to play someone who I was not. I was trying to be this professional chef, who had to be perfect in everything, and that was tough. Then I told myself that just be yourself, a mom who loves to cook and wants to make delicious food for her child without compromising on the health quotient of the dish. And suddenly, it all just fell into place.”
The need to deliver something unique and trend-setting, along with the competition does put a definite pressure. But it’s important to play to your strengths and be comfortable in your shoes.
MasterChef India winner, author and Chef Shipra Khanna says that the industry is evolving all over the world and sometimes, chefs may feel stressed with the demand to come up with new ideas.
“Being on top every day, adapting to the changing tastes in this fast-growing, challenging yet exciting space is difficult,” says Shipra.
But this very atmosphere may be a trigger for someone else, who is unable to cope with the pace of change, and growth of the industry. If you find yourself in that situation, then it is time to pause and reflect.
How to spot the early signs
Often, in case of depression, even the close ones miss the signs. Sometimes the person under duress, stress or depression may not be able to spot the signs. So how do we read the signs and take appropriate action?
According to Anna, depression, specifically, is characterised by persistent feelings of sadness and a continuous loss of interest. Some symptoms include feeling hopeless, guilt-ridden, a lack of energy, disturbed sleep, neglecting social activities, and having no motivation or interest in things you previously enjoyed. If these symptoms are persistent, and continue for more than two weeks, the best first step is to visit a mental health professional who can advise them on their best course of treatment. In most cases of severe depression, mental health professionals usually prescribe a combination of medication and counselling.”
Anna shares a list of therapists with us.
Strong support network and openness
While identifying the signs and reaching out for help is important, although it may not always be easy, but it needs to be done.
The other important thing is to tackle the daily stress and the challenges our work-life throws up. It is important to build a support system and to learn to share and unburden ourselves frequently.
“One needs to have a great supportive team to make anything a success as nothing can be achieved alone is what I believe in,” says Shipra. So the way we turn to our support networks to succeed, and it is also important to tell them when we feel we are not in a great mind space. It is important to reach out for help if you feel isolated and alone.
Amrita too emphasises the importance of having a strong set of family and friends who can act as a protective shield. However, the onus is on us as well to take a positive approach. “Woman or man, chef or not, we all have our stresses, and we will continue to have them always. How we deal with it is what matters,” says Amrita.
Matters of the heart and matters of the mind are complex too. There is no right or wrong, there are good and bad days. Hence it is important to let go, choose your battles carefully, and not get into a race that has the potential to imbalance your mental peace. And when it feels impossible to do either of these things, then seek help and lean on family and friends.