“For me, I’m in the middle of opening a new restaurant, I’m incredibly stressed out about it, but it’s still not the same level of stress as when I was a head chef back home.” Scottish chef and restaurateur Gillian Kingstree has worked in kitchens around the world and has seen huge variations in the way that mental health issues can manifest as a result of the hospitality industry. He shares his opinion on how the industry is adapting to tackle these issues and how Vietnam compares to his past experiences.
The infamous pressures put on the mental and emotional wellbeing of chefs and restaurant staff has been well-documented, turning to alcoholism as a means of coping is by no means uncommon. The late Anthony Bourdain exposed a hedonistic response to the pressures of working in a professional kitchen with his 1999 article in The New Yorker, Don’t Eat Before Reading This, he revealed a destructive lifestyle that was necessary to survive the hectic mania of working as a line chef in New York at the tail-end of the nineties.
Kingstree’s recollection of those times are not dissimilar. “In my 20’s, when the last cheque went out, we’d have a case of beer that we’d finish in an hour, go down to the pub, get absolutely smashed, come back in the morning feeling terrible, waiters would bring us all a double espresso to keep us going through lunch service, then we’d have an hour or so break, go to the pub, smash three pints, get back into the kitchen and neck Red Bulls, finish up a little tipsy and sluggish, then go out and repeat the whole process again – you’d wait for your day off when you didn’t have to drink anymore – but some people, they’d end up drinking all the time, in and out of work.”
According to a 2017 British trade union Unite survey, 27% of chefs use alcohol to survive a shift and over half have reported suffering from depression, but that’s a stark contrast to Kingstree’s experiences in Vietnam. “I don’t see it here, they guys here don’t drink excessively after service, even when someone’s leaving or it’s a birthday, maybe they go to karaoke, but it’s not that same constant abuse to your body like the UK.” The sprawling labyrinth of London is infamous for high-pressure kitchens producing absurdly priced meals, but in recent times it’s also produced a wealth of mental health issues for those behind the meals. 69% of chefs surveyed believed the uniquely long hours in the kitchen were damaging their health, 51% suffered from depression and 41% were turning to “other stimulants” to get them through their working day. The working environment that chefs are forged in is one that Kingstree knows well and recognises the potential problems it can cause. “For a normal person, it’s extreme.”
Compared with the UK, there is a deafening silence on the topics of mental health, but Kingstree notes that the cultural and culinary variations between the two are perhaps an explanation for why he feels that life here is less stressful for a chef. “People here like stability, they’re expected to be married by 22, but you’ve got a whole generation of young people who’re seeing new things, wanting more and so a cultural shift will come, it’s happening everywhere else in Southeast Asia, but chefs throwing plates because a garnish isn’t totally right? That might take another 10 or 15 years.” It’s also something that Kingstree thinks stems from the nature of Vietnamese cuisine, no two bun cha places are the same, nobody is working from an exact recipe, “There’s a lot more leeway with the Vietnamese cuisine, a lot more variation.”
The endless quest for perfection is one that’s renowned throughout the media’s portrayal of chefs, but often the consequences of this unobtainable desire remain deliberately ignored. Kitchens in high-end restaurants are often run with the precision of nuclear submarines generating intense levels of pressure, stress and more than not, verbal abuse in the process. Speaking with the Irish Times in November last year, Ruth Hegarty, a food industry consultant and former chief executive at the Irish branch of Euro-Toques – the European community of chefs and cooks – suggested that “the tendency towards perfectionism” coupled with the long, hectic hours and high-stress environments can lead to serious issues with alcohol and substance abuse.
“If you’re sending something out to customers that you’re not completely happy with, it can follow you home and thinking about it that much can lead to problems.” Kingstree has seen extremely talented chefs fall to pieces following dark turns of self-doubt, “That stress can come out in a lot of different ways.” Details as minor as the position of a sprig of garnish, right through the length of time a meal is sat waiting to be served are flash-points for perfectionism to overspill into full-blown frenzied obsession. But here, in Vietnam where street food is the culinary champion that brings the tourists flocking, the need for perfectionism is less visible out on the plastic stools of the Old Quarter.
Kingstree notes that in restaurants here, there are five chefs working a kitchen that in London, would be lucky to have three. But the kitchens of London are far away now and although it is only recently that a national dialogue has begun on the issues of mental health, there are already campaigns aimed at tackling the issue. Just last year, Compass Group UK & Ireland – the UK’s largest food and support services firm – announced an initiative to raise awareness and destigmatise mental health issues in the workplace. London-based charity, The Benevolent, recently set up a counselling hotline that’s open seven days a week, 12 hours a day to help people cope with the stress of the hospitality industry.
“Just based on my own perception, it’s not as stressful in Vietnam. In the UK, your life falls by the wayside, but here I get up early, go to the gym, meditate and then start my working day, doing that and being here has changed my life.” While Kingstree is convinced that his life has invariably shifted pace since moving here, he remains unconvinced by the relative silence on the topic of mental health in Vietnam. “In London, if I closed my office door, I’d have an outpouring of tears, but here it’s a very different cultural outlook, I’m not saying either is better or worse, but staff in Hanoi have all just told me they’ve got to quit for a sick family member.” He went on to explain that, as an employer, he takes his staff’s word for it, but he feels that on many occasions this could be a means of covering up issues that he feels could be resolved if discussed. The stigma attached to mental health issues in Vietnamese culture are bound to prevent people from speaking out and could explain the relatively low figures reported.
The reluctance to talk about mental health issues in Vietnam has long been regarded as a combination of cultural norms and a lack of formal support mechanisms. VNExpress reported in December 2016 that approximately 13.5 million people in Vietnam suffer from mental illnesses, with 2.8% of the population suffering from depression and 2.6% living with anxiety issues – VNExpress also found that only between 20% and 30% of diagnosed patients received treatment. With the relative lack of facilities and structures in place to help people, Kingstree is taking measures into his own hands on a smaller scale – his kitchen. “We just got a HR team set up make sure people are happy – it’s not just about talking, it’s about being proactive and making sure people have the training they need, and have the environment they want.”
In spite of his predictions that Vietnam may be a long way off the plate-hurling chefs of London yet, there is no denying the fact that while London is seeking to address the issues of mental health in its hospitality industry, Vietnam remains silent on the matter. “Maybe the close-knit family units here allow people to deal with things differently, but I don’t know – it’s just so hard to cross the cultural divide on issues like this.”