'We weren't the type of people you'd want to work with - we were on the edge of being lunatics'

The  Staff Canteen

Chef Luke Holder learned the hard way how important it is to nurture mental wellbeing in a brigade.

Two separate incidents which culminated in members of his team at The Lime Wood losing their lives, one through suicide and another from an overdose, forced him to re-evaluate his role in the kitchen. 

"This was over ten years ago," he explained, adding that for all of the handful of chefs still working with him today from that time, "it really resonated with us that we needed to make more effort pay attention to the subtle signs that are going off that things might not be right." 

In the penultimate episode of our series discussing mental health in the hospitality industry in collaboration with The Burnt Chef Project, Luke told us how he, The Lime Wood and Home Grown Hotels group have taken on the task of ensuring staff's general mental wellbeing - starting by owning up to his own shortcomings. 


"I used to have an attitude of "if people don't like it, there's the door, see you" and expected everybody to give up everything in their life in order to deliver food," he explained.

Having suffered the effects of so-called banter at the hands of his superiors when he was a young chef, he said: "What was ironic was that when I got into that position of head chef, I didn't quite take on board how that used to feel when it was done to me - I just reciprocated that abuse that was done to me to the staff." 

By perpetuating the idea that chefs aren't entitled to a personal life, his kitchen was chronically short of staff and turnover was huge, racking up hiring costs to the company.

"We were so tough on the standards and so ridiculously obsessed with minute details that it became an environment that people didn't want to work in," he said.  

Then, "when people were coming in for interviews, people who were working were on 90-100 hour weeks. We weren't the type of people you'd want to work with, we were on the edge of being lunatics."

At the time, the company's chairman, Robert Hutson, made a big push on staff retention, pondering what could be done to improve staff wellbeing.

Small Changes go a very long way

As a head chef, Luke realised, "yes, creating food is important," but that doesn't mean you have to make a compromise on people's wellbeing.

"Getting under the skin of the staff to get a better feeling for where they are, who they are as people and what's going on in their heads and their lives, it really resonated that I needed to do more in that area." 

"Over a period of time, all of the things have come together," he said, adding that "my consideration of people is like chalk and cheese from when I started as a head chef." 

For instance, he now writes his rota three months in advance, meaning the crew can plan what to do with their personal time. 

"People often say to me, 'well you don't know what the levels of business are next week, it's alright for you you're at a hotel with a big team' but whatever your challenges are, when it comes to rota writing, engage with your team." 

By having these conversations, he continued, you realise that "not everyone wants every weekend off," and furthermore, "you start to understand a bit more about what's going on in their life, where their priorities are, who's important to them in their life, and then all of a sudden you can start filling in the blocks." 

And even in the midst of the pandemic, which makes planning with any certitude nearby impossible, he said that "once you've got that framework, when you start realising where the gaps are - say somebody's granfather's died or somebody's gone off sick - it's actually a lot easier to backfill all those holes with the rest of your team, because your team are with you."

"They're happy to step up because they know you've got their back if that case comes round to you." 

Is it so hard to believe that chefs should eat well

Another seemingly innocuous change was to make sure that staff meals were not an afterthought but a priority.

"This is a common trait for chefs and I've absolutely been there myself - not giving two hoots about staff food, saying they should just be grateful with what they're given.

"But actually, the misery that reigned on our business with some of the crap that we've served to our staff is frankly embarrassing as people who pride themselves on being professional cooks." 

He continued: "You cannot underestimate the importance of living by your principles. If you're going to cook good food, you need to eat good food."

Rather than one or two chefs bearing the brunt of feeding the whole hotel crew, the task is divided on a section basis, and the food is the same as what is on the corporate business buffet menu.

"This doesn't give you any wriggle room," Luke smiled. "What you're serving is what you're giving to your guests." 

Not only does this reduce the pressure of mise en place, it increases retention across the whole hotel crew, creates more respect between the different teams; it gives chefs a chance to express themselves on a plate and to receive gentle feedback from their peers.

Crucially, it means that the team get to sit down as a unit, phones switched off, and bond. 

"I guarantee that you can take anyone in my kitchen and ask whether it's acceptable to serve bad staff food nowadays, they give you a very clear and direct answer. And I'm proud of that."

Get moving 

It took his own experiences of dealing with his mental health in lockdown to realise that exercise is another pillar to wellbeing. And while the chef is still figuring out how best to get his team to engage, he said: "You just need to create a culture of it," by making staff want to be part of something that makes them feel good. 

"Nobody wants to go out and do exercise. Let's just accept that - there are very few people who are totally motivated, but that's not the point. 

"The point is understanding how the equation benefits you on the other side. When you do the exercise, how you feel on the other side, the mental clarity and wellbeing far outweighs the feeling of not wanting to go and do it." 

People, Product, Profit

The chef has concluded what is dawning on many of us, which is that observing mental wellbeing requires a holistic approach - and dilligent scrutiny of people's behaviours.

What he has also come to realise is that the benefits of doing so translate to revenue gains for the business. 

He said: "The hotel chairman, Robin Hutson always says: 'People, product, then profit.'

"So if you treat people right and get that puzzle sorted, if you get the product correct, profit will come.

"If you start putting profit before everything else, or your own ego to want to achieve accolades or whatever you're trying to achieve, the casualties by the wayside are there to be seen."

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th November 2020

'We weren't the type of people you'd want to work with - we were on the edge of being lunatics'