The elephant in the kitchen - what's killing our chefs? Blog by KnifeofBrian

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th April 2017

For his latest blog, Brian Powlett, head chef at the Greyhound in Ipswich and owner of Knife of Brian Cookery & Catering, takes a look at what's killing our best chefs and offers his own advice. 

I have a few accounts on twitter. One, as you would assume, for @knifeOfBrian and another which is used to share my running and cycling updates as well as my more general, non food ramblings. What these both have in common is that they are both littered with facades of projected personas. Posts from chefs showing off their latest creations and runners announcing their latest PB's. Certain tweeters I would look out for on a regular basis. What is chef @R*****2 up to this week? How did @Run*****73 do in his race? Without any abhorrent cynicism, I’d just scroll through my social media feed, stopping at recognised avatars or user names. Then it would dawn on me that someone was missing.


Brian Powlett What happened? Were they on holiday? Maybe. Had they had enough of social media? Sometimes, yes! But this time in particular, their veneer had cracked to reveal a tortured soul. All that glistened was not golden. Had I missed a metaphorical cry for help? Something was not right. News would then filter out that this person was gone. This is the point where I would realise that those tweets and Facebook posts were only 1% of the whole story. We are all guilty of doing it. We post the glory moments. We share the “ups”, but only a little of the “downs”. Are we afraid to show weakness?

“Oh my gosh! What if someone finds out that I don’t find this easy?”

I'm not sure this post is going where you thought it was? This is very difficult for me to write/talk about. I want to make sure I get my point across without scaring you off.

To get more specific, I will be talking about chefs. They do make up a larger percentage of my readers. I have seen too many fall by the wayside. There is an industry wide epidemic at the moment where chefs, young and old are crumbling and cracking under the pressure. The bigger problem is that we are not talking about our issues or emotions. We are too "Manly" for that! I say 'manly' because to be even more specific...MEN are a problem. Please bear in mind that I am writing from personal experience. I am fully aware of the struggles women have in this male dominated industry/world (unfortunate but true). But that can be covered in another blog post.

Chefs are dying. Men are dying...literally killing themselves. I would not have believed the statistics had I not seen them for myself. The biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is suicide.

>>> Related: 'World's best chef' Benoit Violier found dead in apparent suicide

A few years ago, I lost two friends within weeks of each other to suicide. Both were guys, both in their early 40’s. Totally unrelated to each other. I cannot even begin to guess what was going on in their minds. But one thing was for sure, they may have been helped by talking about their problems. Around this time I was made aware of chefs I’d worked with were having personal problems and were dropping out of the industry. They were finding it tough and had got to breaking point. Turning to drugs, prescription or other. Finding solitude in the bottom of a beer glass. Depression was one of those things I’d hear a BBC radio 4 feature about. None of my mates had it! Oh, how wrong I’d been.

Brian Powlett I have tried to make a point of making myself available to talk whenever I can. Through local forums, online and network meet-ups. The amount of chefs out there who are abusing themselves with drugs, alcohol and corrupt behaviour is astounding. A quick fix to mask a problem which can sometimes be solved by talking openly. I have found that sometimes a slight change in lifestyle can help. A step backwards in the career can be what’s needed to help move things forward. There is no single answer. No fix-all recipe. But talking does help. Meeting up with chefs is always difficult. The long unsociable hours and the fatigue can make it a challenge, but always well worth it.

I have been very surprised when speaking with chefs and front of house members who I have worked with in the past. To find out the breadth of this issue. My own ignorance and laid back attitude to life in general had made me oblivious to other’s struggles before now. I may have used the term “Man up chef!” in the past. Not realising that those words can be as damaging as they are stupid. We need to support each other. We need to take a moment to know when a colleague needs help. Not just with the Mis en place, but their state of mind too.

This career is not easy. Now, in 2017, we are under more scrutiny than ever before. The days where you’d wait to see a food critic from the local press, sitting at a table, are long gone. Now EVERY table hosts a critic. All just an App update away from ruining your long awaited days off. A generation of tech savvy, Egon Ronay wannabes, with the literacy skills of an amateur blogger (me!). They will dine and destroy a chef and think nothing of it. Leaving an anonymous critique, veiled behind a palm tree avatar photo on review websites. We all love the ten great reviews. But when the one customer leaves an unfavourable review because they couldn’t get a table, this can be the little push that sends a fragile chef over the edge.

It is a high pressure industry. I love being a chef, but it has taken me to some dark places. There have been times when even, mild mannered Brian, has needed to disappear to a walk-in fridge, for some scream therapy (it works for me). Mental health is headline news at the moment and for good reason. Chefs, work hard. My mum would say “The candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.” A simple saying all too true with restaurant staff. Let’s not add to the statistics.

I am not a doctor. I am not a psychologist. I am just a chef from the east of England who does not like seeing friends on their knees, but will do all I can to bring them back to their feet.

There are plenty of people out there who can offer better advice than I can, people more qualified. I just put it to you, as industry professionals to keep an eye out. The devil is in the details. Listen to what’s being said. 

Brian Powlett, KnifeofBrian
Brian Powlett

Knife of Brian is head chef at the Greyhound Ipswich and Knife of Brian Cookery & Catering. He supports CALM (campaign against living miserably) male suicide charity and has just finished his first pop up event at the Suffolk Show and would be a gigolo if he wasn't a chef.

For more blogs like this from Knife of Brian visit his websitewww.knifeofbrian.co.uk

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th April 2017

The elephant in the kitchen - what's killing our chefs? Blog by KnifeofBrian