'You've got a blank canvas going back. We can change what we do'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Has the coronavirus brought us closer to understanding the fundamentals of how to lead a healthy lifestyle?

On Wednesday, we held a live discussion with chef propietor of the nationally famous two Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains, chef owner of Hackney restaurant, Plates, and founder of the Chef's Wellness programme, Kirk Haworth, The Burnt Chef project founder Kris Hall, and actor, fitness and diet expert Tom Hopper.

We brought them together to discuss how mental wellbeing and physical fitness contribute to overall health, how it is crucial to stay on top of it when hospitality workers are operating full steam, and whether the coronavirus outbreak is the industry's chance to implement positive change. 

Sat said that when he started cooking in the late eighties, the industry "really was brutal," with "lots of drugs, lots of alcohol, lots of bullying." 

"It was a real shitty industry, you didn't have to have any intellect, you weren't employed from the neck up, you were employed from the neck down, you were there as a grafter. You did your work, went to the pub, smoked twenty fags, had four pints, went back to the split shift. But that's the mentality it was." 

But in what he called 'The Beckham era,' "when footballers really started looking after themselves, so did chefs." 

"They started looking after their diet, looking after their appearance, then the professional chef came through." 

"If you look at Ramsay and Beckham they were almost on par - it was a real twist because it was almost about health. Ramsay was doing the Iron Man and looking after himself."

Seeking the help of a nutritionist, at Restaurant Sat Bains, staff meals are developped to optimise their health benefits, getting them through service feeling energised and in high spirits. Their decision to switch to a four day working week has been followed by many others striving to provide a better work-life balance for their teams. 

But whether because of a lack of resources or out of force of habit, practices like this are far from ubiquitous, and the physical and mental health of hospitality workers is often treated like an afterthought.

Kirk, who was forced to take an extensive period of time out of work when he contracted Lyme's disease, said it took that break to realise that while his job and his passion had been food, his skills were only put to the benefit of his customers, whilst the nutritional value of his food was second to none.

He said: "People don't believe how powerful food can be."

Instead of altering their diets, people turn to their doctors who prescribe medicine, from antidepressants to pain medication. 

A mentality shift - for employers and employees

Tom, a fervent advocate of the food as medicine movement and a speaker at one of Kirk's Chef's Wellness sessions, agreed, calling on the relationship between mental health and food.

"There's a lot of evidence now typically showing that excess sugar, excess gluten in our diets, particularly processed food and additives - too much of them can throw the body completely out of whack." 

"It's past: 'people should pay more attention' - this is a must now, because we're in a situation where more and more people are becoming depressed and have mental health issues and so much of it is pointing towards out diets en masse, particularly how much processed food is available to the planet." 

Could Coronavirus take people 'back to the basics?' 

Despite the hardships and the many lives lost to the pandemic, many have spoken about how the coronavirus has helped them to get back in touch with the bare necessities of living.

For the first time in a very long time, Kris said, people have had the chance to "listen to their innate needs, and say: 'what do we need?' We need to exercise regularly, we need to eat healthily, we need to be part of a family, and what are we doing sat at home, we're getting bored so we need to be learning and we need to be developing ourselves." 

"All of a sudden when this panic period is over and you start looking at those four or five steps, you start to go: 'actually, I've been completely neglecting myself. 

It takes pain to induce change in a lot of cases, including Kirk's and Tom's, who both suffered from severe chronic pain.

But having got there, the consortium agreed, taking care of yourself can be enjoyable. 

Kris said:"Yes it does require a lot of energy but it's a minute amount of energy with maximum benefits." 

Discussing the benefits of exercise - and, in Kirk and Tom's case, of taking ice cold showers every morning - Tom said: "In this day and age people look for that short term fix, not realising the long term discomfort they're going to get from it." 

"Actually, short term discomfort tends to have much better long term benefits." 

Kris agreed, and added: "At the end of the day, we're just carbon based life forms. If we lived in the jungle, or if we lived in the desert, we'd be running, we'd be eating, we'd be huddling together for security. 

"Just because we've got all this bullshit from the outside - ultimately, strip it all back, our innate needs are quite simple." 

"If we start looking at it as animals and start focusing on those needs, you'll generally find that your life is a lot more fulfilled and happy off the back of it." 

Write a 'mise-en-place' list for life 

For Kris, the lessons we learn now can last forever, if the right approach is taken.  "If you're going to create a routine and a habit, wake up half an hour earlier. 

"It's about creating those structures. By ticking them off and writing them down, you've got a structure that you can work by and you've got a reminder of what you've achieved and what you haven't achieved. 

Is a 'return to normal' desirable? 

But while many will have gotten used to the joy of taking care of themselves, Sat believes that "it won't take long to get back to normal." 

But it doesn't have to be that way, and hospitality businesses could use the time to implement permanent changes to maximise health and wellbeing in their teams.

He said: "You've got a blank canvas going back. We can change what we do. 

"The point is, you've got to take risks. We are risk takers but we've got to make sure that the risk has got a result that is beneficial.

"As long as you have that mentality, surely you can then go back to restaurants when we reopen and say: 'all the things that I wanted to do but never had the chance because I was on this hamster wheel, now I've had the time to think: 'no, I'm going to implement this'" - from good staff food to gym memberships. 

"These are the things that are going to be positive for our industry." 

In his final word of advice, referencing Kirk's practice of expressing three things you're grateful for everyday, Sat said: "Write three things down you're not doing at your restaurant or your workplace now. 

"You've got time now to research it, implement it, resource it, and there's no excuse. 

"There's no excuse for not looking after the welfare - mental and physical wellbeing of your team and that's a fact." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 5th June 2020

'You've got a blank canvas going back. We can change what we do'