The White Jacket Effect: changing the drinking culture in the kitchen

My name is Amber.  I am a chef and have been in the hospitality industry for about 20 years. I believe that it takes a certain type of personality to become a chef. There is a craving for achievement, a passion for perfection and a desire to go above and beyond. Over my career I have witnessed first-hand how this drive can cause outstanding success but ironically – like a double-edged sword – the consequences can be debilitating.

Two years ago, I hit rock bottom, after many years of alcohol abuse, cleverly hidden from view. It damaged my health, ruined my relationships with boyfriends and family and destroyed my ability to function during everyday tasks without having had a drink.  

At that time of my life I was not aware of support services like Lifeline and Beyond Blue and help was certainly not something I asked for.  It was beaten into me as an apprentice that you must find a way to do things yourself and that asking for help was weak. This, unfortunately for many chefs (mainly older generations), is still just the way it is – in life – as well as at work.

The hardest thing I found, in getting back on my feet, was telling my chef friends and colleagues. Drinking is so ingrained in the culture of the kitchen that I was faced with encouragement to continue drinking, not the support I needed to stop. Consequently, I had to remove myself from those groups and slowly build the muscle to socialise again.  I am so pleased and proud to say that I am strong enough to be around alcohol without having it myself and haven’t done now for two years.

Just after Christmas, my chef mentor and best friend took his own life. He had been in the game for many years, had owned his own restaurant, been in the limelight, had what looked like ‘it all’ but underneath that was obviously not the case. He had been struggling with drug and alcohol dependency since virtually the moment he stepped into the kitchen and that, unfortunately, is the lifestyle you get handed when you enter the cheffing world.   

The package deal is a constant on-the-go existence, with busy services and a work hard, play hard mentality. Having to keep the energy up when all signs point to shutting it down. Even on days off it’s a constant search for perfection, where can you get the next best idea, quest for the perfect dish, must impress, gotta get the hats, gotta get the stars, it’s non-stop. I can only imagine its likeness to a battle field, under around-the-clock panic mode. Then, the accepted and encouraged antidote is to uncoil the pain and stress with alcohol or drugs, anything that will numb you for a while so you can take time out. I refer to this package deal chefs receive when putting on their apprentice uniforms as ‘The White Jacket Effect.’

It is unrealistic to expect to reduce the pressure in this unforgiving work environment, but I would like to step up and do something to get the topic talked about and get rid of the ‘push-on’ motto. There is certainly a shift occurring in the younger generations, but it is the older ones such as myself and Richard, that have it ingrained in our make-up.

Chefs are not invincible and I don’t want to see another brilliant life be wasted. Therefore, I am hosting the first ever White Jacket Effect Workshop in a few weeks time with 20 – 30 of my chef friends and colleagues. There will be speakers from RUOK?, Hello Sunday Morning and The Red Cross to talk about the resources and support available to people who were in the same situation as me. These guys and girls who are in the kitchen, day in and day out, will discuss the heavy topics and nut out some positive solutions together.

My vision is to develop communicative, ‘Safe House Leaders’ in the cheffing community, who are keen to:

I am committed to taking action to cause change in the culture of the kitchen and to redefine what it means to put on that white jacket.

Lifeline Australia:  24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services. Call  13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au

 

Amber, I greatly appreciate your honesty and bravery at bringing this issue to the fore. Thank you for your encouragement via this article to hang in there!

Congratulations Amber on highlighting the gnawing and prevailing cultural attitudes that keep this issue alive in the hospitality industry. It so courageous of you to initiate such and thoughtful approach to educating your colleagues around this issue.

A poignant, sensitive and beautifully written piece Amber. Please get in touch regarding Safe House Leaders.

It is like looking at a mirror in my head after reading this short article. I have to agree the choice to live this life really doesn’t make much it sense , we have to be slightly touched to wanna spend our lives in the kitchen. … thank you Ricky

Hi there, when and where will this event be held?

Your initiative is wonderful and I applaud you. My daughter had recently become involved with a chef who shows signs of excessive drinking at the age of 23.

Good on you what an inspiration you are!!!

Ypur words are so very true the industry is unrelentless the pressure immense , my husband after 30 years of restaurant manager has just left the industry he is a changed man . However at one point 2 months ago nearly lost everything due to the pressure of the industry the hidden drinking to cope with the long hours and stress of the job. We are one of the lucky families but we could have quite easily be one of the unlucky ones and nearly lost him .Thank you for your work in helping many families and colleagues out there the hospitality staff are many times forgotten and treat like slaves. You are doing an invaluable job in highlighting this cause xxx

I don’t know much about this industry, but from what I’ve heard and now read it sounds horrible. Shows like Master Chef and Gordon Ramsey only sensationalise the pressure culture..and for what, to have some idiot sitting comfortably and critiquing what you have made, all the while you’re drowning under stress in the kitchen? Geez, I though cooking was supposed to be fun. There’s something fundamentally wrong with the restaurant scene…I’d rather get in there and have a chat with the chef or help out and enjoy the food together! But I guess no one makes any money that way! Good luck with your initiative, sounds very much needed.

Such a well written article. Thank you for sharing.

Fantastic effort Laney, I have seen the effects of substance abuse on people I have met along my own journey. Go for it.

I applaud you! Wishing you the best of luck. I imagine people have been waiting for you for quite some time, and I hope you have a great turnout that inspire some lives.

Amber, this is a great article that can be related to a lot of trades and professions. Not all survive the culture of ‘toughing it out’ by trying to compete and survive continuous expectations and self-expectations of perfection and high performance day after day. Thankfully it’s people like you who can identify the unhealthy aspects of work and take action. Thank you.

Good on ya!

Thanks for sharing Amber & congrats on 2 years. Amazing achievement and what an awesome initiative the White Jacket Effect is. Nice one

Hi Amber, Richard was also a very good friend of mine and I would like extend my sincere gratitude to what you are doing. He would be happy to see someone taking a stand in his honour. Well done… Outstanding

Amber, I love the initiative you’ve shown in actually doing something, getting this off the ground. There is a group of us trying to do something similar here in Canberra. Would you be happy for us to host a “white jacket effect” event here too. When can we chat?

Amber I applaud you. I’ve been a Chef for 35 yrs (still surprised that I continue). I have seen & suffered ALLL that you mention. IF you hold a seminar here in Melbourne, I will most certainly attend. Do you have a Facebook account for this? If so please let us all know.

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