We talk with Amber Kaba, founder of The White Jacket Effect and a chef of 20 years’ experience, who has made it a personal mission to get issues such as stress, anxiety, drug abuse and alcoholism in the hospitality industry out into open communication.
This is Amber’s story:
'‘I believe that it takes a specific 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, can lead to burn-out, stress and anxiety. It’s important that we learn how to develop positive techniques to balance and keep up with this busy lifestyle.
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 everyday tasks without having had a drink.
At that time of my life, I was not aware of support services like Hello Sunday Morning and help was indeed not something I looked for. I was taught using the ‘old school’ mentality of doing things yourself, and not asking for help was drilled into me as an apprentice. It is great to see a change in modern training and attitude; however, for many older chefs, this is still the way it is, in life, as well as at work.
"The kitchen brings with it a constant on-the-go existence, with busy services and a work-hard mentality"
Just after Christmas 2018, my chef mentor and best friend Richard took his own life. He had been in the game for many years, owned his restaurant, been in the limelight; he had what looked like 'it all', but underneath that was not the case. He had been struggling with drug and alcohol dependency.
The kitchen brings with it a constant on-the-go existence, with busy services and a work-hard mentality. Even on days off, it can be a constant search for perfection, where can you get the next best idea, the quest for the perfect dish, must impress, ‘gotta get the hats, gotta get the stars’; it’s non-stop. The antidote for me was to uncoil the stress with alcohol.
Admitting it to my chef friends and colleagues was the hardest step to getting back on my feet. Drinking was ingrained in the culture of this kitchen and I was faced with encouragement to continue drinking, not the support I needed to stop. Consequently, I had to remove myself from this group and slowly build the muscle to socialise again. I am so pleased and proud to say that I am now strong enough to be around alcohol without having it myself and haven’t done for two years.
It is unrealistic to expect a reduction in pressure in this busy work environment; however, there is indeed a great shift occurring in the younger generations, where an increased understanding of mental health, and the ability to speak up when you are not okay bring a positive change to the kitchen.
As I mentioned previously, we get a package deal when putting on our uniforms as apprentice chefs. I am dedicated to shining a light on what I refer to as “The White Jacket Effect.”
The first White Jacket Effect workshop was hosted by Quay restaurant, with Peter Gilmore and the Fink Group’s full support. Thirty of my chef friends and colleagues attended. Together we discussed issues that were distinguished as ‘not working’ in the lives of the attending chefs, with solutions discussed and brainstormed together.
There were guest speakers from RUOK?, Hello Sunday Morning and The Red Cross, discussing the positive resources available, and the chefs were invited to complete a mental health first aid course.
Ultimately, they left as well-informed role models in their respective kitchens; ambassadors for The White Jacket Effect campaign; to spread the word and lead by example to others facing difficulties.
Following the event, I will again work with Chef Works to communicate the collective solutions from the workshop.
My vision is to develop ‘Safe House Leaders’ in the cheffing community, whose collective mission is to:
Let’s work together to deal powerfully with The White Jacket Effect."
Please share to spread chef Amber's inspirational message.
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The Change to Cooking In Childcare. Stress! Yes!
6 June 2019
Firstly, thanks for sharing your story and giving your support to so many. I've been a qualified chef for 28 years. My sous chef job ended in redundancy after 11 years. I started work as a chef in childcare 3 years ago. The hours are good. However, I am the whole kitchen brigade by myself. The work is simple and can be done. The problem is the time to do it. My colleagues around me are lovely, but they are not chefs or cooks. It is hard to vent to someone that doesn't fully understand the issue. I throw a tantrum at least twice a week and speak honestly about what concerns me. My different working environment is very corporate and I have to be careful with my words. I really feel for the less experienced chefs and cooks in other centres. It is a tough job to do alone. The stress part isn't talked about much. My experience gets me through it, but, how do others cope?
6 June 2019
What an inspiring young lady.
To have the intestinal fortitude to recover from what must have been such a dark place, is inspiring to all, whether you are a Chef or not.
Well done and congratulations, Amber.
Congratulations also to chef's such as Peter Gilmore and Neil Perry for recognising the good that can come from getting on board with issues such as this.
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