In October last year Andrew Clarke, head chef of the much-admired Brunswick House restaurant in Vauxhall, London, posted a picture of himself to Instagram. It’s in black and white. He is sitting at a table against a wall of distressed plaster, his straggly hair unsuccessfully tucked away beneath a ragged beanie hat, tattooed arms on show. In his hand is a teacup and before him, a bottle of spirits, the implication being that the contents of one are filling the other. It could have been the moody cover to one of the albums Clarke thought he would release when he was pursuing his first love, music.
The long message below tells another story. “This was me 10 months ago,” it says. “Inside I was suffering from a pain so extreme that I could barely cope … I hated who I was and wanted to kill myself every time I came home from work … I never believed in depression and only ever saw the world in a positive light. But it’s not until you experience it, that you realise just how real it is.” The message has a positive ending. With the support of family and friends Clarke is back on his feet. “Depression can happen to any one of us,” he concludes. “Don’t suffer in silence. Talk to someone. Talk to me.”
If he thought the post was going to be a minor footnote scribbled on social media’s huge wall, he was mistaken. Quickly the “likes” piled up by the hundred, many from fellow chefs who had experienced similar things, and were grateful for the opportunity to open up about the stress of cooking for a living. “Everyone needs to speak about this more,” said one cook; “If I could have read a post like this at my darkest time it would have given me a sense of the light,” wrote another. It felt like a dam-burst, the moment at which a generation of cooks finally put their hands up and announced that the job they so adored also risked destroying them.
The idea of stress in the kitchen is nothing new, but until now it has been presented as the curse of the culinary genius in pursuit of the glittering prizes; the kind who announces hyperbolically that if they don’t win a Michelin star, “I’ll blow my brains out”. (That particular chef didn’t win a star in the latest round; his brains are still intact.)