As anyone who works front of house in a busy restaurant dealing with demanding customers on a daily basis, or as a multi-tasking chef in a fast-paced kitchen, will know, the stress can be immense. The hours are long, the pay is usually pretty poor, and there’s certainly not much time for relaxing.
And that’s why Doug Sanham, a local chef. and his friend and colleague Andrew Clarke decided to set up Pilot Light, a campaign that’s focused on raising awareness about the issue of compromised mental health in the hospitality business.
The duo launched Pilot Light in 2017 with the aim of it being a ‘beacon of support’ to those working in commercial kitchens, hotels, restaurants and bars who may feel overwhelmed by the frenetic nature of their work, and are also affected by common issues such as depression and addiction.
“I had the idea for Pilot Light back in 2016,” explains Doug, who says he has also experienced his own mental health issues.
“I was Head Chef at The Beacon at the time and I could see some of my staff were suffering, but there wasn’t anything available to help them – apart from saying ‘go to the doctor’.
“I really wanted to change the way people dealt with mental health within the hospitality industry, and so Andrew and I talked extensively about what we could do before eventually setting up Pilot Light.”
In early 2017 the pair did an event at Brunswick House in London, where Andrew is Head Chef, in order to launch their scheme and embark upon a journey of raising awareness of mental health issues for chefs, waiters, kitchen porters, managers – anyone working in hospitality.
“We organised an event that was greatly supported by suppliers who donated food, and we invited people along to hear us talk – but we also encouraged them to talk.
“Essentially, we really want to try and change the industry’s attitude to dealing with various mental health issues, as many people still don’t realise how serious all this is and just how vulnerable people are.
“Hospitality is a very difficult industry to work in, and made exceptionally more so by the fact that over the past five or six years entry numbers into it have plummeted.
“The issue is, like any business, fundamentally down to money. People don’t understand how expensive a restaurant is to run – no one wants to pay the actual cost of food.
“The hours are long and the pay is low – usually the minimum wage – and that certainly doesn’t quantify the amount of work that people in the industry are doing.”
Doug says that awareness initially needs to happen at grass roots level, i.e. at catering colleges: “To be honest, a lot of those who decide to go into cheffing aren’t actually being taught properly, so the minute they get into a real kitchen they’re feeling the heat immediately.”
Doug believes that such a baptism of fire is what is leading to many hospitality employees having to battle health issues.
“We did an event at the University of West London recently, so we are trying to implement changes. We are creating tools and resources for people to use and also tailoring training packages for employers.
“The most important thing for this year will be the app we are hoping to launch, where people can access our training packages.”
Doug and Andrew have done multiple talks up and down the country since launching three years ago, and now have a couple of local events lined up, including one with The Small Holding’s Will Devlin later this year and another taking place next week at Framptons in The Pantiles :
“On February 19, Framptons’ Head Chef Rob Theron and I will be hosting a five-course meal, which will deliberately get people chatting as they have to pass around dishes and literally break bread together. The idea, of course, is to eat great food sourced from local suppliers, including Oliver Greens, Albion Fine Foods and Gunne Butchers, but to also encourage people to talk and open up the possibility of sharing their thoughts with others. It’s a fact that 80 per cent of mental health issues can be reduced by having a chat.”
The event is open to the public but there will also be some familiar faces present, including Matthew Sankey and Verdigris’s Scott Goss. Both know Doug and Rob as the pair worked together at The Beacon before Rob went to Framptons a couple of years ago.
Rob’s current employers are very keen to throw their weight behind the Pilot Light evening. Framptons’ Director Tom Walker told the Times: “Hospitality is a dynamic and fast-paced environment, but it can also be extremely demanding, and it’s essential we take the time to stop and check each other are ok.
“Due to the nature of the work, without taking some ‘time out’ to sit down and have a cup of tea and a conversation, hospitality professionals are at risk of burning out. This can result in some fantastic people being forced to cut their careers short, which can be to the detriment of their professional development and to the industry.”
Tom adds: “There is a growing conversation around mental health in a number of high-paced industries, but hospitality is often overlooked, and we very much support Pilot Light’s campaign in bringing this to the fore.”
Tickets to the Pilot Light event cost £35 per head, with a percentage donated to the organisation.