“I was drinking to get really drunk. I was self-destructing and putting myself in dodgy situations.”

The  Staff Canteen

Chef Ben Watson has set himself the challenge of running a marathon in September in order to highlight industry charity, the burnt chef project, and raise awareness to break the stigma of mental health.

What started as a way to lose weight, he couldn’t run more than two minutes when he started, became a way to raise money for a project he believes should be championed. He hopes to raise £5000 for The Burnt Chef Project so they can continue to help people who are struggling and need a little bit of help.

Previously suffering with depression as a teenager, Ben didn’t confide in his parents then and when his mental health suffered again more recently, he kept it to himself again. Formerly sous chef at Core, he was set for a move to BiBi pre-pandemic that was put on hold and he decided to take a job as a private chef with a family who were regulars at Clare Smyth’s three Michelin-starred restaurant.

“It wasn’t what I planned but it’s been really good in a lot of ways – it gives me more time to think and prioritise plus the money is much better in the private sector!”

Ben's story

Ben admits he has had his own struggles but is very clear that he ‘doesn’t blame the industry’. His mental health was affected by problems within his personal life, he explained that his wife, who he met at Little Social, is from India and there were problems changing her student visa to a marital visa, she had to go back to India and Ben couldn’t go with her.

He describes the situation as ‘ugly’ as she was put in a detention centre, then she couldn’t live with Ben, and he could only visit her.

“It was pretty crazy. We were forcibly separated for over a year. I was working at Core and I was really struggling with how I was feeling about the situation.

“The whole thing was compounded by the job. In a way it distracted, but also, you’re working so hard and so long and for me I was constantly thinking about my situation. It made me feel like nothing at work was that important.”

Ben started to drink after work in order to sleep, he says his ‘mind was racing all the time’ but he never got to the point of drinking at work or when he woke up.

“I’ve seen first-hand proper alcohol abuse; it wasn’t that bad but I was getting to the stage where I needed to have a little word with myself.”

He says the biggest problem was an unhealthy ‘shift in priorities’, as a manger the duties are to upkeep the standard of the restaurant.

He said: “I found it increasingly difficult to get upset about the things you are supposed to get upset about.” He didn’t explain how he felt to any of the team, he bottled it up and continued to drink, something which was made worse on days off.

“I was drinking to get really drunk. I was self-destructing and putting myself in dodgy situations.”

He would go home to his mum’s house, he never asked his parents for help, he’d get drunk and burst into tears.

“I’ve never been that kind of person, I guess maybe I didn’t know. I’m not an emotional person normally but it would just come out.

“I feel like I know a lot of people who I’ve worked with who have been in similar situations, there’s still a stigma and most kitchens are still a masculine environment. They still say ‘man up’ and I’ve probably said it to other people.”

Ask for help

Ben realised after a year his behaviour wasn’t normal and after being in a fight while drunk and not remembering what had happened, that was the turning point for him.

“I’m lucky, I just stopped. I’m not tea total but I decided I wouldn’t drink again until I could control it.”

At that point he knew his wife was able to come back which was a huge help as a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’.

Ben explained that he was good at hiding how he was feeling at work although he says he did change from an enthusiastic and energetic chef to ‘couldn’t be bothered’. And despite people asking, ‘how are things going?’, he was pretty quick to say he was fine.

“I can’t blame people for not pushing it, it probably frustrated them. I never asked for help which was stupid in hindsight. When I was in the middle of it I knew I wasn’t feeling right, I’d encountered the proper ‘dictionary definition’ of it [depression] before but I felt this time I had a reason, as a teenager there was no reason it just felt like a black cloud. Feeling bad for no reason, that felt worse.”,

The Burnt Chef Project

He found The Burnt Chef Project after he had got himself back on track, when his mum bought him one of their hoodies. He feels mental health still needs to be spoken about more so people feel more comfortable addressing it.

Ben Watson chef
Ben and his family

“If I’d known about them [The Burnt Chef Project] at the time when I needed them I would have called them up. I just thought it was so good that there was something specific for hospitality.

“I think it is really important and the more aware people are of it, the better. For the future of the industry, I think we need to invest in resources for mental health.”

He added: “You should be able to go to your boss and say, ‘this has happened and I don’t feel ok about it’.

Mental health does seem to be coming to the forefront and it’s on a lot of people’s agendas – hopefully it’s coming from a good place and not just ‘this is a trendy thing to talk about’.

“I think this next generation of chefs are more on it, I wouldn’t want kids who are becoming chefs now to have to put up with what I put up with when I started cheffing.

“I just want the industry to be better, more decent.”

Ben says he is ready to go back into a kitchen and the dream is to have his own place with his wife, who he has since had welcomed a baby with.

“We want a small place and I want to cook in my own kitchen, I enjoy cooking and I’d be looking to employee like-minded young people.”

You can support Ben with his goal to raise £5000, and in turn The Burnt Chef Project, here: Go Fund Me

If this article has affected you in any way and you need someone to talk to, you may find the following 24/7 resources helpful:

- The Samaritans Helpline 

- The Burnt Chef Support Service

- Counselling, legal advice and support from Hospitality Action

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th July 2022

“I was drinking to get really drunk. I was self-destructing and putting myself in dodgy situations.”