Amber Kaba has had her own struggles with alcoholism, but it was after the recent suicide of her mentor that she fully realised how debilitating the mental health crisis in the hospitality industry was.
Ms Kaba has worked in the industry for the past 15 years, having completed her apprenticeship at Quay in Sydney before moving to London and working in Michelin-starred restaurants.
She fell in love with cooking and welcomed the “pressure, the fast pace and the want for perfection”, though it came with its challenges.
“When I came back to Australia, I took up catering which was just as hard and strenuous,” she shared with Region Media. “I eased that stress with drinking alcohol and I didn’t think it was a problem for many, many years because it was so accepted in the culture of the kitchen.
“I eventually took myself to a hypnotist which was successful and I haven’t had a drink in two years. It wasn’t easy at all and telling my friends at work that I stopped drinking was really awkward and I was encouraged to keep drinking.
“One day, my chef mentor, whom I get along with like a house on fire, reached out to me and asked my advice on how to stop drinking. But I didn’t really have any knowledge about where to send him for help.
“A little while later, he took his own life.
“I felt so helpless that I wasn’t educated enough to guide him to where he needed to go to get help. That’s when I decided I wanted to empower the hospitality industry and launch the White Jacket Effect campaign three months ago.”
In partnership with restaurants in Sydney, Noosa, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra, Ms Kaba is starting a conversation about mental health and the services available to hospitality staff.
“What I have found during my quest for knowledge is that there are a lot of really reputable and professional organisations to seek help from,” she said.
“We just need to bridge the gap to let staff and chefs and everyone in the hospitality industry know what they are and normalise the process of reaching out.
“It is quite ingrained in the culture that we just push on, especially in the older generation. It can be quite debilitating sometimes because it turns into self-medicating with alcohol and drugs.
“It can destroy relationships and people’s lives.”
Alex Piris, owner of Fox and Bow in Farrer, said the high profile deaths of celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain, Jeremy Strode and Justin Bull, have cast the light on mental health struggles in the industry, causing a group of local chefs and staff to gather to talk about their struggles.
“At the start of this year, I talked to a bunch of chefs and people that I had worked with and invited them to a meal to talk and see why this is happening in our industry,” he said. “In the first meeting there was about 10 of us and that little group of us has kept meeting.
“The industry has always had long hours, hot kitchens, pressure and stress. Normal knock-off times for the rest of the world might be 5’oclock but for us it’s midnight. There might be alcohol or drugs involved, and the cycle continues.
“We don’t have the answers but we are concerned about our industry and we would like to see a better support network put in place. A lot of staff are coming to owners, like myself, and leaving the industry, citing mental health as a reason.
“So when we saw Amber’s initiative in Sydney we thought that was something we could get behind.”
Amber Kaba will share her story over lunch at the Boat House on the 22 July, and hear from staff across the industry as they share their personal struggles.
To find out more about The White Jacket Effect, click here.
The White Jacket Effect Workshop Day
10 am – 2 pm, 22 July
The Boat House