'The industry as a whole has a bloomin’ habit:' Bruce Rennie on tackling chefs' drinking problem

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Alcoholism affects chefs disproportionately. It doesn't exist in isolation; used as a means of dealing with the stress of working in a kitchen, it often goes hand in hand with mental health issues and other addictions. 

When the chef owner of The Shore in Penzance, Bruce Rennie, began his career, he worked in kitchens where having the occasional drink on shift wasn't frowned upon - and having several after work was encouraged. 

Now, he works alone in a small, seasonal restaurant, with all the pressures that entails. Trying to make ends meet whilst maintaining high standards of food means that the chef finds himself at odds with having a good work-life balance, taking care of himself and nurturing relationships with his family.

We spoke to him about his experience as an industry veteran grappling with his own demons and asked him to share his thoughts on how to address the wider problem. 

"It’s a bittersweet relationship. I love what I do but sometimes it hits me into real big spirals and it can be quite incapacitating," he said. 

And while drinking is just one aspect of it, he explained, "there are occasions where it hits a big low. When you’re hit, it’s a rollercoaster of emotions - I’ll get days where I’m just down, it’s just highs and lows to a depressive point." 

Is there something about being a chef that lends itself to drinking?

While, as the chef acknowledged, some people are more susceptible to addictive personalities than others, "chefs are incredibly passionate, dedicated and very focused – to an obsessive point." 

Whether it be  the pressure that they place on themselves, or expectations - such as obtaining, or indeed maintaining accolades, he said, "alcohol is a legal coping mechanism. It’s a way to get through – plus to relax." 

Is it management's fault/responsibility? 

sat bains 1
Sat Bains, whose implementation 
of a four-day work week has been lauded 
a success 

Precisely because unhealthy behaviours like drinking are such a big part of kitchen culture, the chef thinks that management should help tackle the problem by issuing guidances and leading by example.

Just like bullying, and so-called kitchen banter, he said, "we need to get rid of these old cultures." 

"We need to nip it in the bud, we need to get rid of this acceptance of bad behaviour or unprofessional attitude."

"Let’s face it, the industry as a whole has a bloomin’ habit, but if we can tackle it and say it’s not the norm, it’s not accepted then that’s when we start making a change." 

The chef sees promise in the fact that prominent chefs like Sat Bains and Daniel Clifford have taken steps in the right direction by promoting staff welfare  -  switching to a four-day work week and encouraging chefs to take time for themselves.

"If you can financially do that as a business, then awesome," he said. 

Is the public demand for cheap food fuelling the problem? 

However this isn't possible everywhere - and least so in the chef's own case. He believes this is partly down to  a disparity between the value of food and the public's perception of it - and that poor food culture, supermarkets and restaurants using non-local veg further exacerbate the problem. 

"We need to strip it back, we need to be aware as a society what food costs to prepare.It’s all very well people saying: 'well the food is expensive but we want the chefs to have a better life and better pay.' There’s got to be a give somewhere.”

"It’s not a sole responsibility on the industry and I think somehow the public needs to be aware that often the places that are cutting the corners are giving a very false impression of what it costs to produce food therefore they’re not actually looking after the staff  in a proper way because you can’t unless you’re buying substandard produce."

Who can help? 

The chef believes that even as a cash-strapped restaurant, managers can take the incentive to look at welfare - and simple measures, like eating dinner as a team, can go a long way. 

"You just understand what it’s all about; you’re a team. Connection to other people is key to a lot of psychological issues as well."

Another route which needs to be explored in his opinion is that of an industry-wide framework to help improve staff wellbeing, which could be driven by a non-profit. 

"It would be interesting to see if anyone brings out – not for the sake of making money and riding on the back of it but for the true sake of individuals and of welfare, to provide information, to say: 'look, here’s a management structure that might work, here’s something that wouldn’t cost the earth but that you can implement,” that would be good to see."

"I know hospitality action and a few others are trying to promote these things and raise awareness but I think there’s another step that could be taken which is providing something as part of a charitable or a cheap option that won’t dissuade the industry to get it started."

Would financial support for small businesses change the game?

The complexity of the problem is such that solutions are manifold  - and government support for new restaurants could go a long way. 

"You could end up talking about taxation - incremental increases rather than a threshold – there’s so many things that would help people like myself." 

But ultimately, he explained, it can't be put down to a single person's responsibility.

"There’s a mass cultural shift that needs to be looked at. I think ultimately, it’s always going to happen to a degree," he said, but "if there’s awareness, talking, there’s facilities out there for people to easily and without stigmatism to get help or support somehow then that’s always going to help. That’s certainly a key way forward." 

bruce rennie
For Bruce Rennie, 
the responsibility of having his own restaurant
helps him get through dark days

What else can chefs do to keep their heads above the water?

In his own experience, the chef has found that removing himself from the restaurant is a good way of gaining perspective. 

"I try and enforce myself to get back out surfing; I used to surf a lot and that’s one thing that does help me calibrate my mindset a little bit, getting out in the water and just thinking. You take yourself out of the stress situation and put yourself back in a place where it’s not makes you realise what’s important and what actually is going on."

"There’s ways that work and ways to get by and that’s what you do, you work out what works for you – and try and avoid drinking, but it’s not always so easy. It’s easy to be aware of it – but to actually implement it, that’s the tricky part." 

What about just packing it in?

Asked whether he's ever considered leaving the industry, Bruce said: "Oh God yeah. Several times."

But changing careers isn't always an option - and with four children, a mortgage and a lease to pay - the chef sees anything else as a risk. "I did look at different offshoots," he said, but "If I leave, what am I going to do? What skills do I have?" 

And so, instead, the chef plods on, doing what he does best. He explained that while it's tough, his love for what he does lives strong.

"I mean seriously, the pleasure of creating something that people enjoy, it’s just amazing. That would be a hard void to fill."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 2nd August 2019

'The industry as a whole has a bloomin’ habit:' Bruce Rennie on tackling chefs' drinking problem