“Certain players within the industry are definitely realising that the sooner they start looking after their teams and up-skilling themselves to be able to do so in creating a healthier and more sustainable culture, the more likely they are to retain those individuals and thus the recruitment crisis will hopefully start to dampen.”
Hello and welcome to The Recipe — a podcast about the new generation of restaurants and the people behind them.
I’m James Clasper, and in this episode, we will be talking about mental health and ways to improve the well-being of people in the industry.
From Instagram to Netflix, there’s no shortage of colourful content showcasing the creative side of the culinary world, but there’s precious little coverage of its darker side and the stresses and strains that all too many restaurant workers find themselves under.
In fact, from burnout to suicide, substance abuse to toxic masculinity, the restaurant industry may well have more problems than most.
And it’s a situation exacerbated, no doubt, by the pandemic and the ongoing economic turmoil.
Fortunately, however, increasing numbers of people are trying to make a difference.
From tackling taboos about mental health to creating healthier work environments, more and more restaurant owners, employees, and activists are taking well-being off the back burner and making it a vital ingredient of any gastronomic endeavour.
So in this episode of The Recipe, we’ll hear from three such individuals.
Coming up, we’ll talk to a Dutch chef who decided to get his weekends back.
Dennis Van Tintelen: “The guests are really understandable. That's the cool thing. They say, ‘Yeah, but you're closed on a Saturday’, and then we explain it, and then they said, ‘Yeah, it's really good, man.’”
And we’ll meet the founder of a social enterprise launched with the sole purpose of challenging the stigma about discussing mental health within the hospitality industry.
Kris Hall: “It's not good enough to simply put a plaster over the wound and say, well, I hope that festering wound gets better because it won’t.”
But first, we’re going to hear from a British chef in Copenhagen who’s made well-being a priority at his year-old restaurant.
Alan Bates worked at Tom Kerridge’s award-winning restaurant The Hand and Flowers before enjoying stints at The Fat Duck, El Celler de Can Roca, and Henne Kirkeby Kro.
In the summer of 2021, he launched Connection by Alan Bates — which he describes as “Copenhagen's smallest gourmet restaurant”.
Indeed, from their tiny open kitchen, Alan and his team serve an ever-changing, nine-course menu to 14 guests seated around two large tables.
Take it from me, it’s a delightful spot but forget trying to go at the weekend — because Connection is only open Tuesday through Friday.
I met up with Alan recently and asked him to explain why — and why his team’s well-being matters so much.
“My partner, Natalie, doesn't work at the weekend. So the deal going into this, not officially, was — you know, Monday to Friday, she works a lot, so Monday to Friday, I can work a lot, but I need to be home and I need to be present at the weekends and I need to have a normal life outside of this restaurant. So making the decision from the beginning not to open on the weekend, was just the way that it was going to be, and we just had to figure out how to make the business work around that. And in the beginning, Tuesdays were quite slow, but I mean, now we've reached a point where this month, Tuesday and Friday are our two busiest days. If you want to eat in a restaurant, you will eat within the options that you can. So we give very limited options. It's Tuesday to Friday, and we seat people between six and seven. We don't take anyone after seven o'clock because we have upstairs neighbours and we want to be respectful of them. So we will have the restaurant empty by 11 o'clock latest every day. This is not a bar. This is not a place to have your like post-dinner drinks. We offer one very specific experience and once it's over, it's over and that’s the end of it. And that works well because our upstairs neighbour is happy. But also, as a team, we're out of here at 11:30 at the latest, and it's something that we're never going to change. We don't open at weekends and we don't stay open late. You cannot sit here and while away two hours sipping on a glass of red wine. That’s not what we're doing. It doesn’t make the user experience any better. And it would certainly make the working experience infinitely worse. So it's not worth doing. So from the beginning, we’ve set those rules in place, and we stick to them. There’s no negotiation on them.
We're going to go to having three waiters as well. That should take us from running on the minimum number of staff to actually being slightly overstaffed. And the idea here isn't to make things more complicated, it's to reduce the workload on everyone, myself included. If I’m being completely honest, I have a life outside of this restaurant, I have a girlfriend who doesn't see me as much as she would like, and I have a dog who I love very much. You know, it's very important that I'm able to make time, or we're all able to make time for our partners and loved ones. So the idea of overstaffing is just to reduce everyone's workload. So we can reduce hours, and we can reduce the amount of work you have to do in the hours that you're here. We're going to have three waiters and three chefs to cook for 16 people as an absolute maximum, normally 14 people at night. And then that's the balancing act is how do you do that and pay people properly? And at the end of the day, have an economically viable business because profit's not a dirty word, and if it's not turning a profit, the door will close tomorrow.
I think the most important thing that we're doing is trying to foster a very positive working environment, a very psychologically safe space where people are happy to express themselves and feel comfortable doing so — and, more importantly, feel comfortable failing. Before a dish gets onto the menu or the wine pairing changes, we will have failed innumerable times, both at the dish and finding the right pairing, until we've absolutely nailed it is when it’ll make it onto the menu, and I think people have to feel safe in doing that because if they don't, they won't fail confidently and if they're not failing confidently, then they're not growing and if they're not growing, we're not improving.
All the things that we're doing in terms of trying to improve working conditions for the staff and to make it a wonderful place to be, we see that not only do they have the impact of making it a nicer place to work and make it hopefully a long-term place for people to settle down, but these positives on the people who work here, that directly correlates into a positive impact on the people who are coming in here as guests. And so the two things, it isn't sacrificing the business to make it better for the staff. The better we make it to the staff, that pays straight back into the business, and that makes the business better and stronger. The two things are in symbiosis, and we see that month after month for the last 14 months. The feedback from the guests is just getting better and better and better as we go and as we grow as a business, and that's amazing to see that it isn't one or the other.”
That was Alan Bates, owner of Connection by Alan Bates in Copenhagen.
Coming up, we’ll hear from another chef who decided to close his restaurant at the weekend— and has never looked back.
Dennis Van Tintelen: “I think there's way more important that I have a nice weekend off and then I'm ready for the new week.”
But first, we’re going to hear from Kris Hall.
Having worked within the hospitality industry for almost a decade and seen countless people struggle with mental health issues, Kris founded The Burnt Chef Project in May 2019 to raise awareness of and provide support and education around mental health and mental health issues within hospitality around the world.
According to The Burnt Chef Project, 84 percent of people in the industry have experienced at least one mental health issue during their career, yet 46 percent wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about their health concerns with colleagues.
And in a 2021 survey by the social enterprise, 40 percent of hospitality workers said they had struggled with their mental health in the previous 12 months.
So earlier this summer, I called Kris at his home in the UK and began by asking him to tell me what exactly The Burnt Chef Project does.f
Kris Hall: “We provide in-house mental health training, manager training, mental health first-aid training. We've reached 112 countries with training so far. We now have a 24-hour text-based support service in the UK that anyone can use, day or night, for free. They'll get through to a trained volunteer who will respond in less than five minutes and talk to them about their health, their well-being, and what’s on their mind. We’ve launched an app that's available all around the world in nine different languages that provides ongoing therapy with the same therapist, week-in, week-out, unlimited amount of times and conversations. And so, the Burnt Chef Project has become a market leader in focusing on creating a sustainable hospitality industry by looking after the people. And we provide all the tools and services that you need in order to be able to look after your greatest asset, the human beings at work within your business.”
Superb: So Kris, tell me, what would you say is your biggest challenge, then, in terms of making a breakthrough in how we talk about well-being in the restaurant industry? Is it the dominant kitchen culture? The stigma around discussing mental health? Or a combination of things?
Kris Hall: “Yeah, stigma plays a big part, a huge part. It is entrenched within our society, both from a male and female perspective. And so, yes, we have to fight through that first and foremost. That is then exacerbated by the fact that the Escoffier system, certainly back of house, is a military-based system that doesn't necessarily promote individuality or any sign of weakness. And even in the real good cultured kitchens, whereby that's not used as a damaging tool, you've then got that “You're all in it together, mentality”, you know? And one of the great things about hospitality is, if something happens, you get in, and you help someone out, but in the same way, if you're sick, you can't take time off because you don't want to be that weak link again. So you've got this self-fulfilling prophecy of high levels of stress, long hours, and no mitigation of stress at all within the workplace.
Then you've got the high turnover of staff, and within hospitality, turnover rates are anywhere between a hundred to 135 percent. And so we're just firing through human beings at this moment in time, which is then exacerbating the fact that if I come to you as a manager and say, "I'm not feeling quite well today, I think I might be experiencing depression”, as a young 20-year-old manager. I'm going to go, “Well, I don't know what to say about this; you'll be fine. Just crack on, and you'll get a day off in eight days. You'll be all right. Don't worry about it.” So there's that. And that's why the educational element is important as well.
Plus also, there isn't much data available for this particular subject matter, and so we're really keen on ensuring that we're working with businesses and creating strong case studies to say, “Look, if we provide you with the support, the training, the awareness, everything that we can do, then your team will be happier. They'll stay for longer. And also there'll be more effective within the workplace. Whether that's helping someone who's got an underlying mental health issue and needs a reasonable adjustment within the workplace or whether that’s better leadership skills. But most importantly, as a business owner, it means that you're more financially viable, longer-term because you're not paying hundreds of pounds in marketing costs to get hold of your next recruit with a potentially damaged brand from high turnover.”
Superb: It’s interesting that there’s a financial benefit there because I imagine there are plenty of restaurant owners for whom that’s going to be the kicker. But in any case, given the parlous state that so many restaurants are still in, are you seeing more awareness of the well-being issue and the benefits of changing the workplace and the culture of the kitchen?
Kris Hall: “Certain players within the industry are definitely realising that the sooner they start looking after their teams and up-skilling themselves to be able to do so in creating a healthier and more sustainable culture, the more likely they are to retain those individuals and thus the recruitment crisis will hopefully start to dampen. We've got some fantastic partners that we work with now who we're running out training with, but we're also building accreditation and a framework piece for them as well, so that we can say, “Look, this is how you build a psychologically safe workplace. This is how you value and look after your people. This is how you look up to that physical, mental, financial health with them, to make them feel that they are part of something, that they're heard and that they're seen." So yeah, that's very much a longer-term strategy, but those businesses who are working with us now on that will be at a stage whereby in two, three years' time, their internal teams will do the recruiting for them because they'll be like, “I've just got 45 hours a week for the last six weeks in a row and my manager, when I said to her, ‘I'm not feeling well”, said, ‘how can we help you? What can we do for you within the workplace to make this a better and more sustainable for you?’
But then there are also a lot of businesses out there who are going, “Do you know what? This whole mental health thing, it sounds like a good thing to get on; let’s tick that box and get the training done.” It's not good enough to simply put a plaster over the wound and say, “Well, I hope that festering wound gets better” because it won’t. There are going to be casualties. There are going to be businesses who haven't factored this financial element into their business plan because they've been going for 20 years, 30 years. They may not have the cash flow to be able to implement major structural changes when it comes down to company culture. But the problem is, is that in order for business owners to address this seriously, they need to take a peek behind the curtain. And that's the stumbling block that we hit all the time. It's a case of going, “Look, you’ve got some big fires in your business. You think you know where they are. We can show you where they are. We can provide you with the training and the resources to put them out. But in order for you to do that, you're going to have to acknowledge that perhaps things aren't quite right at this moment in time. That could be an underlying wave of masculinity and sexism that you just don't know about, that you're not even conscious about, an unconscious bias. That could be the fact that the resources and the training you're providing your teams, or even the interviews that you're doing aren't thorough enough to make sure that the people are the right fit for your business and you're the right fit for them. And that's where the monsters lie.” And for business owners to do that they think, “I'm going to have to put money into this, and it's going to cost me”, but in reality, there's no quick fix. And the analogy I use is — and the one that we use in hospitality — is that if you are making a loaf of bread and you mess up your ingredients, you’re not going to be able to leave the bread to prove or leave the dough approve and go, “It hasn't proved proven. Let me just pull it all apart, and I can just quickly fix this, put it all back together, and when I come back, voila, there's going to be a beautiful loaf of bread, right?” You can't do that. You have to start again from scratch, and you have to rewrite the rule book. You have to go, “Right, let’s make sure that all of the different ingredients are measured out correctly, they are put in the right order, and that the environment is conducive to letting that bread rise. And so when we look at this, it isn't a quick fix. It's never going to be a quick fix, and it's going to be — it’s going to be painful, like ripping off a plaster. But once you've done that, yes, it might cost you a bit of money. Yes, there might be a bit of investment yet. You may, even as a business owner, only break even for the next two years, but you'll still have a business in 10 years’ time. It will be more profitable than it is currently.
Superb: How optimistic are you about bringing about real change?
Kris Hall: “It’s a good question. I wouldn't do what I do if I didn't think there was any hope of changing it. And I have flashbacks to when a friend of mine, a chef who'd been in the game for 20 years, I told him about what I wanted to do, and he said to me, “You're an idiot. You can't change anything. It is the way it is." And I often joke that's what the Burnt Chef Project should be called. That's just the way it is. Just leave it alone. Save yourself. It’s broken as fuck. Don't worry about it. And if I listened to him and went, “Oh yeah. Do you know what someone else might do this later on?” We wouldn't have got to the stage where we are. We wouldn't have supported thousands of individuals. We wouldn't have saved lives. And without overdramatising it, we have saved lives. We wouldn't have been able to be at the forefront to be able to create a conversation that provides business owners with the tools to change.
But last week, I felt pessimistic. I was like, “Oh God, is this really doing it?” Then you'll get a message through from someone saying, “I've just used your service, and it's really helped me.” Or you'll have one of our partners come to us and say, “Well, we just managed to increase our wellbeing score and reduce our turnover rates by X percent.” And so it's times like that just keep me fuelled enough to be able to move forward and go, “Do you know what? We are on the right track, and the more people that we've got pushing on this, the more businesses that go through these processes and start holding their hands up and going, ‘Do you know what? Yes, we had a culture of bullying. Yes, we have not been exactly the right business that's conducive to well-being, and it has a good, strong culture in it where people want to stay, the sooner people can learn from those mistakes and adapt and become better.
Superb: A question I get asked a lot is, what can we do as diners, because it seems that if there were a good way of knowing which restaurants truly cared about the well-being of their employees, we, in turn, could choose where to spend our money.
Kris Hall: “Yeah, definitely. I think what we have to be quite conscious of is that not every diner is going to give two hoots about how their food or drink appears in front of them. We still have to acknowledge that there are people out there who just don't care. But I'm encouraged to see that the millennials, the Gen Zs, this wave of conscious thinking is coming into play. And so now we have restaurants that are vegan or organic or plastic-free or only buy sustainable meat from the right sources. We have all of these great diverse mixes of groups now, whereby people can then make a conscious decision on where they eat and my dream for the Burnt Chef Project — and we are so, so close, so close, this year close — is to launch an accreditation whereby we can actually slap a seal of approval on a business and say, “This is a great place to work because they have everything in equilibrium and they've shown that with data, they've worked with us for a period of time, so we can measure that impact.”
And so that now when you go out to dine, you can go, “I'm going to eat here. I'm going to eat at Jack's restaurant because I know seeing that logo that the people who serve me have had time off, that there are happy, that they are working in an environment that values their contribution, and that is conducive to good wellbeing. And so I do feel that there's going to be an element whereby people then can make a conscious decision. And it's going to carry further weight by the fact that a lot of people, since COVID have had an experience with poor mental health.”
Superb: And finally, if there’s anyone in the industry listening to this, maybe this is the first time they’ve heard about the Burnt Chef Project, and they want to find out more, or they’re wondering how to get help or resources, what can they do? Where can they go?
Kris Hall: So if you're a business owner, if you're a general manager, if you're housekeeping, front of house, back of house, it doesn't matter, head over to our website, which is www.theburntchefproject.com. And on there, you'll find very easy-to-navigate resources, whether that's access to our free online training, whether you want to book some training in person, or if you're struggling currently, you can contact the Burnt Chef support service in the UK. If you want to put in place mid to long-term support mechanisms for your teams, you can purchase the Thrive app on subscription. It’s like 35 pounds per person per year — it's peanuts. And you provide them with a whole load of resources and free therapy for the entire year, easily accessed, with no waiting list. No calls. There’s a lot of information and things that you can find online, so head over to us. Or have a conversation. It's always good to pick up the phone and talk. Just contact us and we can, we can have a chat and find out exactly what you need and how we best we're best able to do it.
That was Kris Hall, the founder of the Burnt Chef Project.
A little earlier, we heard from Alan Bates, the chef-owner of restaurant Connection by Alan Bates, who decided from day one that it wouldn’t be open at the weekend.
And it turns out that may be part of a growing trend.
Other restaurants that close at the weekends now include two of the world’s top 50 restaurants — Frantzén, in Stockholm, and Jordnær, just outside Copenhagen.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of restaurants — such as Ellsworth in Paris and Edinbane Lodge in Scotland — are switching to four-day weeks.
Of course, some may scoff at this trend and say the numbers don’t add up — that a restaurant can’t make it work financially.
Which is precisely what makes the mindset and perspective of our final guest today so refreshing.
Dennis Van Tintelen is the chef-owner of La Mar Chica, which he describes as an “intimate living-room restaurant” with an ever-changing menu inspired by his long experience working in Michelin-starred restaurants around Europe.
Located on the Costa Del Sol, La Mar Chica was — like most restaurants — initially open at the weekend, with Sunday and Monday offering a brief respite from the grind. Then Covid hit, the restaurant closed, and, as Dennis explains, he and his girlfriend Kikki, who’s a co-owner, had something of an epiphany.
“There's a lot of mistakes when people start a restaurant as a couple, I think. They are going to work, work, work, work, work, and they are both going to have to live from it. Luckily, Kikki still had a job. That means Monday morning starting, Friday afternoon finished, just a normal five-day-a-week job and then in the nights she worked in the restaurant. So after three o'clock or four o'clock, she raced to the restaurant, did service and went home. And at one point, it was just too much. The train hits you only so many times. And especially in the beginning, it's fine because you are setting things up. But you want to be motivated. You want to be rested. So Kikki said, “You know what, I don't want to do this anymore.” I said, “Well then, we sell it.” That’s the first thing you think about: sell it. But that's too. You're starting out. You just survived Corona. You're still trying to get over that, but at least you're positive enough to do it. So I would say, “Okay, what would it take for you to continue?” “Well, it would be nice if we could take the weekends off together, but I can also do my own thing, go diving, horseback riding, walk the dog. Just have a weekend, like normal people.
I said, “Well, then we’ll do that.” And we made the agreement that if it didn’t work, we could always open that Saturday again. We just said, “These are our winter opening hours.” That's how we started up. And now we are thinking it’s actually quite nice. And a lot of people asked us, “So you're going to be open on Saturday in the high season.” We said no. Then they say, “Why not? Aren’t you losing money?” I said, “Well, that's your opinion. If I’m losing money, maybe, maybe not. But I always think, who are you to judge if I am losing money? It should not be your problem.” But then it comes to the point — when is it only about money? I can’t speak for all other people. I can't speak for other restaurateurs, but I don't have an investor — or we don't have an investor. We do everything by ourselves, you know? Now we're doing okay, but what level do you want to be at? How much money do you want to make before you are satisfied? How many hours do you want to put in, and how much time do you have to tell yourself, "I'm going to sell because I can't do this anymore.” What is the trigger, then? What is the fun of that? So if you need that money because your investors knocking on the door, that’s a huge burden on your shoulders. But even with that, I think you can make more money with healthy people or people who want to go for it and maybe even less people because you're trimming down your opening hours, your opening days, and still get even a better product because everyone has a life, they have a family, they have maybe kids or grandparents. They don't see a lot, or the parents live a little bit further away so they can travel now.
So, money? Yeah, of course, every day you lose money, but why do you want to work seven days? You're not off. You can never spend that money. You can never have fun. So I think it’s more important that I have a nice weekend off and then I'm ready for the new week.
And then I looked back into my past and thought, I gave up so many things. There was always an excuse. Now I have to work, and I have to work, I have to work.’ And so other people were having fun at the weekends, and we had to work. So we thought, you know what, now we're going to close at the weekend. That first weekend we were off, we were like, fuck, we’re cheating, you know? We needed to get used to that being off on Saturday-Sunday. It took some time.
Now we just have two days. And that’s perfect. Kikki goes to the gym on Saturdays, and we go for lunch somewhere, or we go to a market or we go to a farmer's market. It's always nine out of 10 times still related to the restaurant business. We taste some wines, we go to a winery, we do this, but it's now more fun because you don’t have to put it all in one day, you know? And it also gives you way more breathing space. You can feel it in your body. You don't have a “stress belly” anymore. You eat properly. For sure, I'm more energetic, mentally and physically, and also creativity-wise. You need to take your rest to be creative.
The guests are really understandable. That's the cool thing. They say, “Yeah, but you're closed on a Saturday?” And then we explain it, and they say, “Yeah, it's really good, man. You have a good balance. You have a good work-life balance. We never thought about it that way." So the reactions of people were actually really positive. They were like, “Okay, now we understand. It makes sense.”
It is not so common anymore that everything happens at the weekends, to go out for dinner, to have a good meal. No, people do it on a Monday, on Tuesday, on a Wednesday, they go for lunch on a Friday, they make it the weekend, and the restaurant is closed. So I think it has to do with keeping your staff healthy mentally.”
That was Dennis Van Tintelen, the chef-owner of La Mar Chica in Spain, making a powerful case for rethinking the priorities of a restaurant.
And that brings us not only to the end of this episode but to this season of The Recipe.
I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and remember, if you haven’t listened to the entire season yet, be sure to go back and check out the previous episodes, as there are some real crackers — from Matt Orlando on the social responsibility that restaurants have, to Douglas McMaster on the problem with waste, to Magnus Nilsson on the MAD Academy’s mission to change the world of hospitality.
As ever, you can find additional information about all the guests featured in this episode over on our website.
I’ve been your host, James Clasper — many thanks for listening.