Alex Standen, Ambassador South East.
Having spent the past 20 plus years working in a large cross section of the hospitality industry I was engulfed in the macho culture around chefs; not taking time off sick regardless of how unwell you where, working all the hours under the sun and wearing it all with a proud “you can’t break me” smile.
Not until I faced my own mental health challenges did I truly start to see how bad things had got within the industry. Having the support of my wife and 2 beautiful daughters is what pulled me through. Chefs are notoriously bad at asking for support as it is still falsely seen as showing weakness. I love the Burnt Chef Project for giving people a voice and giving others like the ambassadors a platform to help wherever they can.
I’ve had a few conversations with those closest to me about whether to share this, however during my Burnt Chef Project ambassador interview I discussed the below with the Chief Ambassador who was interviewing me and I finally felt comfortable enough to talk about it with someone I’ve never met, if I can do that then I’m comfortable enough to share it here.
So, to start I’m going to say I’m new to the concept of looking after your own mental health and for far too long I believed that mental health issues were something other people had and “not me”. No, I was a chef and we are unbreakable, the harder you push us the harder we push back.
This macho outlook on mental health goes hand in hand with the phase I hate the most now, the simple but ridiculous “Man Up”. I honestly cannot stand that saying and cringe when I hear someone use it even in jest. That said, I bought into the whole lifestyle that people think chefs lead, working long hours and wearing the bags under my eyes as a badge of pride and job well done along with the inevitable burns and cuts that come from not looking after yourself properly and working when dog tired.
My own struggle with my mental health started whilst in a job I really wasn’t happy in, and I honestly think the start of the decline was not knowing what I was going to do. I didn’t feel I had been in the role long enough to resign and look for something else as that would have been an admission that something was wrong, that I wasn’t good enough rather than it just wasn’t the right fit for me.
The feeling started to slowly get stronger, and I found myself staying up later and later at night as I knew as soon as I went to sleep it would mean going into work when I woke. I like a beer as much as the next person but found that I wanted to drink more regularly, never getting to the point of getting hammered or being dependant on it but feeling like I couldn’t relax without having a pint. As time went on, I found that I was losing the spark that made me feel like me, I couldn’t find enjoyment in much and it didn’t take much to set a decent day on a downward spiral.
I was anxious all the time and every time my phone pinged it sent a sinking feeling to the bottom of my stomach as I was always thinking “what now”. At the lowest point I found myself thinking “if I crash the car on the way in then I can have the day off, maybe tomorrow too” it was around this point that I confided in my wife about how I was feeling and she didn’t judge me or tell me to “Man Up” she encouraged me to start looking for something else and helped me see that it wasn’t just about me it was about the environment I was working in and the people I was working with also.
Just having that conversation with my wife and then subsequently with a good friend meant that I started to feel less anxious, and I was able to start thinking about what comes next rather than just about the next service, the next function, the next problem. I found my next move and everything changed suddenly I felt myself again, that spark I felt I had lost was back, my love for cooking and food was back as what I also hadn’t realised was that during this time my eating habits had got to be pretty awful, takeaways, crisps, biscuits etc had become something I found happiness in or what at the time I thought was happiness anyway.
I also lost my drive to-do anything outside of work that didn’t involve sitting on the sofa watching tv or sitting at my local. All combined I gained a lot of weight and when you start to really not like the way you look as well as struggling with how you feel it was inevitable that I would turn to the wasted calories that come in a pack of cookies or a sharing bag of crisps and then the circle just continues. I’m happy to say that over the past seven months when I finally decided to do something and join slimming world, I’ve lost nearly five stone and feel better physically than I have in over a decade.
As I approach my 40th, I find that I’m in a better place mentally now than at any other point of my career, and I’m on my way to being in the best physical shape also.
I think having been through this I would recognise the triggers for me now and if I found myself heading down that rabbit hole, I know what to do and who to reach out to.
This was the major reason for wanting to become a Burnt Chef Ambassador, If I can reach just one person who is in the sort of situation I was in and I can help them get the support they need to improve their situation then I will feel like I’ve made a difference. As well as becoming a Burnt Chef ambassador I am also a Springboard ambassador and am mentoring a young student through the FutureChef competition with the final in 2 weeks’ time, so it’s been an exciting year so far and I’m hoping that it continues that way but my Burnt Chef training and my own experiences with mental health means I feel like I am so much better placed to recognise and do something about it quickly before it gets too bad.
I wanted to be as honest and open as possible, if any of you lovely lot reading this need to chat, please reach out, I can’t stress it enough start your conversation and you will see there are lots of people out there ready to listen without judgement or agenda.
If you'd like to talk to someone about your mental health, please reach out to us.
You can text BURNTCHEF to 85258 in confidence, free, 24/7 from the UK.
TEXT 𝗕𝗨𝗥𝗡𝗧𝗖𝗛𝗘𝗙 𝘁𝗼 𝟴𝟱𝟮𝟱𝟴 (𝗨𝗞)
TEXT 𝗛𝗢𝗠𝗘 𝘁𝗼 𝟳𝟰𝟭𝟳𝟰𝟭 (𝗨𝗦𝗔 & 𝗖𝗔𝗡𝗔𝗗𝗔)
𝗖ALL 𝟬𝟴𝟬𝟬 𝟵𝟭𝟱 𝟰𝟲𝟭𝟬 (𝗜𝗿𝗲𝗹𝗮𝗻𝗱)
𝗖𝗔𝗟𝗟 𝟭𝟴𝟬𝟬 𝟭𝟵𝟴 𝟯𝟭𝟯 (𝗔𝘂𝘀𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗹𝗶𝗮)
𝗖𝗔𝗟𝗟 𝟬𝟴𝟲𝟭 𝟯𝟮𝟮 𝟯𝟮𝟮 (𝗦𝗼𝘂𝘁𝗵 𝗔𝗳𝗿𝗶𝗰𝗮)
Or if you'd like to apply to be part of our international Ambassador Scheme, you can read more about it here