ABOUT MARK COMERFORD
Mark Comerford is a chef, food blogger, and founder of The Writing Room - a creative outlet for aspiring young writers and blog No Eggs, No Milk, No Problem.
OUT OF MY DEPTH; COOKING ADDICTION & MENTAL HEALTH
The narrow, bare-concrete, spiral staircase underfoot leads the way to a new chapter of my life. My feet are heavy and not just because the steel-toe-cap shoes are a size too big. I trip on a step, stumble to one knee and catch myself; the rattle of my knife case echoes, startling the HR lady, who, instinctively and with a sharp gasp, asks if she should fill out a report. I decline and nervously laugh it off. The air is heavy with embarrassment as we climb the last few steps in silence. The butterflies in my stomach turn to stampeding buffalos as I walk through the door.
I am now standing in the kitchen of one of the most prestigious hotels in the world.
In 2016, at the age of 30, I decided to go back to college. I was at a crossroads in my life, with no signs in sight; luckily, being lost was nothing new. A degree in Culinary Arts was the path I chose. I had always enjoyed cooking and this seemed like an opportunity to finally learn a tangible skill that I could parlay into a career. After the first year things were going well; exam results were good; practical classes were enjoyable; and my confidence was higher than ever. As part of the course, we were required to undertake an internship, completing 400 hours in the industry working as a chef. I was ambitious. I applied to a few places in my area, but I only ever had eyes for one.
Locally, tales of the extravagance to be found in the big house were legendary. I had to see for myself. Ireland is a small place; it’s not what you know, but who you know. One of my lecturers put me in contact with a student who had completed her internship in the hotel the previous summer. One meeting later and I was face to face with the former Sous Chef – turns out, we used to play football together. Small world. He arranged an interview with the Head Chef and I was offered a get-to-know-ya trial shift. To my ever-lasting amazement, I was hired.
I don’t know what I was expecting. But as the HR lady led me through the door, a strange sense of calm came over me. It wouldn’t last.
I was introduced to the chef who would be showing me the ropes. This was how I found out I had been posted on the pastry section. Her beautiful, big smile and positive nature was infectious and her patience, despite my clumsiness, immediately put me at ease. She oozed confidence, no matter how hectic the situation. I’m not sure I would have survived the experience without her.
The daily duties on the pastry station are daunting to say the least. Every element of every dessert for both lunch and dinner is prepared daily, or at most, every second day. Nightly, dinner service consists of no fewer than EIGHT desserts AND a cheese course. Desserts such as a dark chocolate ganache under a crispy, three-chocolate disc, topped with grated chocolate, four roasted hazelnut halves, interspersed with four dots of thick caramel and finished with a quenelle of milk sorbet. Almond sponge, topped with fresh orange segments and saffron custard, finished with a quenelle of orange sorbet, candied orange zest, roasted almonds and strands of saffron, all balanced on a paper thin disc of sugar tuile. A globe of peanut butter parfait on a bed of crushed peanuts, served with banana brûlée, roasted peanut halves and a quenelle of chocolate crémeux topped with sea salt. Compared to these, the six desserts for lunch service, including a cheese platter and a rhubarb fool, were downright mundane.
Before any of this can start, chefs must go to the amazing eight acre garden to pick all the fresh products required, such as fresh rhubarb and various flowers and leaves to be used for garnish. (This is true of all chefs, not just those on the pastry section). On top of that, there are five kinds of bread to be baked daily; post-dinner petit fours, including fresh honeycomb brittle, marshmallows, bonbons and macaroons; some of the most exploratory and outlandish pre-starter canapés made for dinner service; three kinds of cookies (shortbread, gingerbread and chocolate chip) baked fresh every day; and scones and cakes prepared on a moment’s notice should one of the guests decide to partake in afternoon tea.
On the first two nights, my participation was limited to standing, slack-jawed, trying to stay out of the way and absorbing the frantic hustle of dinner service. Expectations were high. Most busy hotels have over two hundred covers a night; at full capacity, this hotel has 44. The pressure did not come from serving as much food as possible as fast as possible, as in more traditional kitchens; here, the pressure was on the details. Everything must be perfect. Perfect.
One week into the job and I was responsible for lunch service – on my own. This meant preparing approximately 30 – 40 desserts while also busily preparing my mise-en-place for dinner service. I was given no notice; it was sprung on me without warning, which in hindsight prevented me from overthinking and overanalysing. Without the safety harness of my colleagues, there was no one there to walk me through each dish, but with the help of the one other chef in the kitchen (calmly serving lunch), I got through the service and gained immense confidence.
Just one week later, only a fortnight into the job, I was thrust into the position of running the pastry section for dinner service. I had completed just 10 dinner services to this point, but now I was alone. The intricacy of the design, the elaborate garnish and the pressure to replicate each dish with pinpoint accuracy was often too much to bear. Perfecting the one-spoon quenelle was something which caused me particular distress. This was a harrowing night, the antithesis to my experience one week prior. My confidence was shot.
I soon began to realise the extent to which I was out of my depth. It stopped being fun. Enjoyment was replaced by stress and the pressure was unbearable. I found myself overcome by anxiety on a daily basis, to the point where I was often brought to tears just thinking about going to work. There was simply no way I could go in without smoking a joint – not a chance.
Serving desserts, the pastry chefs were obviously the last to finish. The proverbial blue-balls of watching your colleagues clean down while you wait on tenterhooks for the last few covers was infuriating. As soon as the final plate was sent, there was a mad dash to clean down the section, race downstairs, get changed and clock out. Then, just before you can escape – and I use that word intentionally – you remember you have to prepare the croissants and pain-au-chocolat for the morning.
There is a long, dank tunnel from the prep kitchen to the staff car park and then a dark, winding road through the grounds of the hotel which must be negotiated before you can get to the pin-protected electric gates. My drive home through exiguous, country roads, illuminated only by moonlight was a twenty minute journey that I often managed in ten. And why was I dangerously racing home? For the comfort of a joint prepared from that morning. By now it was midnight, but the adrenalin of dinner service meant that I wouldn’t be able to sleep until 2 or 3am. So I smoked. And I smoked. And I smoked. This was my necessary decompression.
Several studies have found that those in the hospitality industry have the highest rates of substance abuse of any profession and are highly susceptible to mental-health issues, predominantly depression and anxiety.    This leads to a particularly destructive vicious circle in that substance abuse leads to mental health issues and mental health issues lead to substance abuse. It’s a multi-symptomatic problem: The hours are not just long but unsocial. Chefs are working when everyone else is partying, relaxing and blowing off steam. Family time is at a premium due to working evenings, weekends and holidays.
Many chefs suffer burnout, not just from the hours but from the intense, high-pressure environment. The industry’s proximity with alcohol and food can trigger a never-ending cycle of stressors and coping mechanisms. At its core, the hospitality industry is counterproductive to the basic requirements for good mental health, i.e. a basic routine of good sleep, exercise and mental stimulation. The fallout can lead to divorce, bankruptcy, eating disorders and even suicide.
The dark cloud of depression had been hovering over my shoulder long before I donned the chef whites. Likewise, two different eating disorders have plagued me all my life and continue to do so. But the anxiety was new. The stress of this kitchen was more than I could bear. Smoking joints after work was not merely a reward for a hard day, it was a survival technique. I contemplated quitting on a daily basis. By the end I began to fantasise about ways of getting out; I thought about dropping to the floor and pretending that I had slipped, twisted my ankle or even passed out. Once, while dicing fruit with unnecessary precision, I considered cutting off the tip of my finger.
On what was supposed to be my last day, I called in sick. The reason I gave was a lie but the fact was no less true, I was in no condition to work. I’ve never felt anything like this in any job, before or since. The things that caused me the most angst were among the most trivial – the precise uniformity demanded when slicing bread, dicing mango and spooning ice cream. I often wonder if these details are important enough to break someone’s spirit and reduce them to a snivelling mess. Or if the meticulousness required was for the benefit of the guests or the ego of the chefs.
I look back fondly on my time there, it taught me so much. I learned more there in four months than in four years of college. I have some great stories to tell and some great memories despite it all. I learned the pitfalls of self-medication; weed was a short-term fix, never the solution. I learned how far I can push myself and more importantly, I learned when to give up – it’s ok to forgive yourself, pride is overrated.
Of all the kitchens I’ve worked in and the four years spent training to work in the hospitality industry, I received training in everything from health and safety to waste management to breaking down animals. But never once was the subject of mental health discussed. Nor was substance abuse. In an industry where both crippling issues are so prevalent, this must be addressed.
Platforms such as Chef Network are uniquely placed to offer a safe space for chefs and workers across the industry to share their experiences without the worry of being judged. The industry needs to take an honest assessment of these problems, but that cannot happen until workers come forward to tell their stories. Many of us feel isolated and guilty for turning to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, but we need the validation of knowing that so many of our peers are living through the same crisis.
Workplaces need to better at recognising when employees are struggling. There are multiple tell-tale signs that people are self-medicating with both legal and illegal drugs, but owners and managers must be able to identify when their workers are suffering long before they turn to chemical dependence.
Employers may consider adopting a change of attitude regarding sick leave. An employee would never be expected to work if they were physically ill – they’d be encouraged to stay at home, in bed, and recover. Likewise, when employees are mentally unfit to work, they should a) feel safe to express this to their manager, and b) be encouraged to take a day or two off, spent meditating, practicing yoga, walking in nature, or other such mindful initiatives.
Anthony Bourdain first broached the topic 21 years ago – he killed himself 3 years ago – and still, nothing has changed.
"Gastronomy is the science of pain."
- Anthony Bourdain
 Substance Use and Substance Use Disorder by Industry; Bush & Lipari (2015)
 Dimensions of Problem Drinking among Young Adult Restaurant Workers; Moore et al. (2010)
 Hazardous drinking among restaurant workers; Norström et al. (2012)