Ishwariya Rajamohan

Ishwariya Rajamohan

Other 26th July 2018


Would you agree that to get through our days in the professional kitchen, we’ve had to reject any feelings or displays of vulnerability? And it’s not just a coping mechanism because the work we do is really hard. It’s something that’s almost built into the image of a chef. But when did this way of being enter our kitchen culture?

Was it chosen by the earliest chefs to sharply distinguish our profession from ‘domestic’ cooks or our mothers who lovingly cooked for us? Or was it because we modelled our brigades on the army and the call of duty demands nothing other than expressions of strength? Perhaps it’s just been drawn in from the patriarchal culture we live in. Whatever the reason, masking our vulnerability has been doing chefs more harm than good.


To Brené Brown, one of the most widely-recognised experts on the subject, vulnerability is an ‘emotional risk’: the risk of showing up as who we really are and being honest about what we’re feeling. At the core of her research is how shame enters the picture. We feel shame when we don’t live up to the image that we want to or think we need to project. And that makes us choose invulnerability: we appear far more impressive when we’re ‘making it happen’ or ‘crushing it’, than when we’re admitting how we’re struggling with the workload.

She informs us that shame shows up in very different ways, depending on gender. Women tend to feel shame around not being good enough. For men, the shame comes from appearing weak. You can see how this plays out in our kitchens: our female chefs are constantly under pressure to prove that they’re capable, and our men have to constantly project strength, without sharing what’s really going on for them. Is it any wonder that our work culture is doing real damage to our mental and emotional wellbeing?


Expressing vulnerability won’t be easy - especially when we’re used to operating a different way. But I want to reframe it in slightly more realistic terms to suit the Hospitality industry. Because the nature of our work will continue to demand strength from us, both physically and mentally. And we’ll continue to be passionate about food and put our hearts and souls into our work.

My suggestion, instead, is for us to embrace our humanity. We can do that through the smallest of our actions: we can dare to be truthful about needing a break. We can choose being pragmatic over chasing the ideal of perfectionism. We can forgive mistakes and focus instead on the learning opportunities that arise. We can be honest about our limitations and shortcomings, which means we no longer have to fear our inadequacies. We can put aside pretence and admit when something’s not working. Finally, we can give every chef around us the space to be who they are.

And the safety for us to be true to ourselves has to come from our work environments, with the full support of our employers. Eileen Carroll, a chef from London says that we need more compassionate leaders and HR teams because there’s currently not enough support and empathy for chefs. She acknowledges that some restaurants are run by small teams. But even in those organisations someone could be trained to support a staff member who’s facing a challenge or a meltdown.

Because being human takes far more strength than it does to pretend that everything’s okay. We’re all sensing the urgency of the changes that are needed in the industry, but the truth is that we won’t get there without updating the image of a chef as it stands currently.

(Ishwariya Rajamohan founded Love Letters to Chefs, which is a platform devoted to helping chefs navigate the challenges of the profession. It's about really seeing the human being who shows up to work in a chef's jacket. The project is currently exploring how chefs can enjoy a better work-life balance.)