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Drink and drug addiction: The battle goes on

17 July 2008

We know it goes on, but most of us pretend it's not happening. However, two of the industry's most high-profile chefs, Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal, along with dependency education service the Ark Foundation, have had to face up to heavy consumption of drink and drugs among their staff. Here they talk to Ark founder Peter Kay about problems they've encountered

Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver are both honorary vice-chairmen of the Ark Foundation which, as part of Hospitality Action, aims to educate and support people in the industry with addiction problems relating to alcohol, gambling or drugs.

Jamie Oliver: Temptation in the way of young chefs

Peter Kay The Ark has been involved with Fifteen since its conception. What does it bring to the programme?

Jamie Oliver I would go as far as saying that we wouldn't be able to do Fifteen without Ark. We had a break in the relationship, which I regret, but my hands were tied. Now they're not, and I've really learnt my lesson - I'll never put myself in a position again with Fifteen where I can't decide the outcome. Fifteen is my baby, my nemesis and my Achilles' heel, of which I will always be a part.

The work of the Ark at Fifteen in supporting and educating the students is as important as Genaro [Contaldo] delivering his classes on pasta-making to the intake there. At Fifteen we want to attract people from disadvantaged backgrounds who need a chance, and I realise that many of them will have experience of alcohol and other drugs.

You taught me this: the fact that statistically a percentage, and in our situation at Fifteen a higher percentage, will have problems which need addressing. That's why we're so proactive in their support and education. What we would have done without you I have no idea, and that's why I want you involved in our selection process and as a part of the curriculum.

PK What was it about the Ark that made you want to include it in the Fifteen programme?

JO Without doubt it was when I heard you speaking at an educational seminar in Hammersmith in 2003. It was your honesty, and the fact that you gave out your number at the end and said, "phone me any time you like if you want to talk, get help or just need to be heard. But never ever ring me drunk or stoned". I thought, here's a bloke who really cares, and cares for the right reasons.

When I started Fifteen I was naïve. I thought that if I showed them a beautiful organic aubergine, courgette and some cherry tomatoes and made a ratatouille with some fresh herbs picked from the garden that morning, they would be inspired and forget all that drinking and drugs business. In fairness, a couple did. But you taught me that addiction isn't a moral failing but a disease. I just hadn't really seen it or experienced it till I heard you talk, but that blew me away and opened my eyes.

Fifteen will be cooking at that dinner you're organising in November at South Downs College to raise funds for the Ark, and I'm looking forward to doing it with Heston [Blumenthal] and Marcus [Wareing].

PK Chris Mordue, one of your former managers at Fifteen, came to us at the Ark with his drink and drug addiction. He works with me now at Sporting Chance. What changes have you seen in him since he sought help?

JO Chris is a wonderful man and his partner Athena is great too. Some of the stories she told me about what he did sent shivers down my spine. I have to be honest, I never saw it coming. I feel embarrassed to say that, but you taught me how deceitful and plausible addicts can be. But you only have to look at the great work he's doing by drawing on his own experiences now. When he came back from your clinic we were all so proud of him.

When Chris was working for us I wanted to support his business venture under the umbrella of Fifteen but the timing wasn't right. I'm sad about that but since then we've addressed those hurdles.

Now we want to support the Fifteen graduates and set them up with professional support and financial backing for their own business ventures. They in turn could employ students from the Fifteen programme. We would feed them, and then feed off them too. We can give help, guidance and support under our umbrella and I'm really excited about that.

Chris would have been perfect for this but it wasn't to be, and now look what he's doing, working with footballers and helping them with addiction issues, and working alongside you at Fifteen supporting students. There are no coincidences in life, are there? If the business venture had gone through then he wouldn't be doing this.

PK Fifteen is now a big worldwide business. Where does it go from here?

JO Well, we take over £10m across the globe, with all the profits going back to supporting the students. We've produced a consistent structure which manages three other properties and all the students, so we're doing something right. We'd like to be greener, but it's a journey and we're evolving.

I've now got the right people in place and there's a buzz about Fifteen again which has been missing for a few years. I've got a new human resources person who is doing great work, a new chief executive too, a great head chef and a fantastic team behind him. And then there's you and Chris with the Ark. It's like putting into place standing orders so that consistency is achieved and there are results every day. We're not perfect in any sense, but we aim to be good employers: responsible, understanding and supportive. We don't achieve this all the time, far from it, but we're big enough and honest enough to admit our failings and try to change them.

I've made tons of mistakes, and with hindsight would have done certain things differently but then again we all have to learn, don't we? Look at you and your life. If you don't mind me saying so, you messed up royally but you learnt from it and didn't repeat the mistakes. You learnt about your condition and you learnt of a way of dealing with it by getting support and help.

PK Does it bother you that you're not recognised as a proper chef?

JO Not at all - it doesn't annoy me one bit.

PK In my experience that means it bothers you a lot.

JO Look, the fact is that to get to where we are today we've needed tunnel vision. The customers are my judge and jury. We're full and getting more full, and the food is consistently of a high standard. Do I want a Michelin star? Well, I don't think Jamie Oliver would ever get one, but I do think Fifteen is consistently cooking and serving food of that Michelin quality.

I seldom cook at Fifteen, but I do feel a little aggrieved that the chef and his team don't get the accolades they deserve because it wouldn't be cool to acknowledge that Fifteen produces great, fresh Anglo-Italian rustic cuisine. I don't need the industry or my peers to accept or acknowledge me - I'm happy with what I do. But I would like Fifteen to be recognised.

Heston Blumenthal: The pressures of Michelin-starred cooking

Peter Kay You're honorary vice-chairman of the Ark, like Jamie. Does that mean you see each other a lot?

Heston Blumenthal Not as much as I'd wish. When we do I always leave thinking we should do it more often. Time is a factor. He's busier than me, which is saying something. He'll be with Fifteen cooking at the Ark dinner at South Downs College at the end of the year and if filming commitments allow it then we'll both be there.

People don't always realise the time it takes to make one episode of a show. I'm committed with Channel 4 for two series this year. As for Jamie, I'm sure he wouldn't hesitate in backing an initiative if he believed in it. What you see with Jamie is exactly what you get. There's no side to him, no front.

PK Although Fifteen is vastly different to your two operations in Bray, you both utilise the Ark. What does it provide for you as an organisation?

HB What you and the Ark give our staff is education on the effects of alcohol and other drugs on behaviour, thought patterns and performance. We benefit from a highly committed staff in Bray, but they're not immune to dealing with stress and pressure by increasing alcohol intake. I think at one time or another we've all done that.

Like many chefs I know, there have been times when I've gone through stages of overdoing the drinking.

Nowadays I use the gym as my escape, which is a much better option. But your work and the way you carry it out provides people with a secure, confidential outlet for them to discuss and share what's happening for them. Although you do keep your cards close to your chest some staff members have shared with me how you've helped. We try to be sympathetic and diligent employers and this is a further strand we can offer. Let's face it, the standards we have to achieve every day at the Fat Duck will inevitably take it out of people after a while.

PK Although you haven't experienced too many issues with staff and alcohol and drugs in Bray, do you feel it is a problem within the industry?

HB I've learnt over the years through listening to you and people like you that addiction is an issue in all industries. Look at the footballers you've introduced me to. They're top-class Premiership superstars on the television each week, yet they've been afflicted by a condition they had no power over.

I've learnt that addiction is not a moral issue rather it's like a disease. You show them a way of arresting that disease one day at a time. That's why I'm so happy to be associated with your work, and to promote the Ark whenever I can. In many ways the problems you've encountered in your life are alien to me, but I recognise that this is not the same for all, and in that way I've been lucky.

People like me within the industry have an obligation to raise these issues and talk about them. I realise that the Ark is made up of only a handful of good individuals, which limits your work. But I've seen the benefit and the life-changing way that people have developed as a result of your help.

PK Do you sense apathy within the industry regarding addiction issues?

HB You know full well that I do! It's not surprising that the people who don't support you are often the ones with most to lose. Caterer's initiative this year on alcohol and other drug awareness is commendable. But then again I read a letter you wrote to Caterer a few months ago and there was no response whatsoever from anyone in the industry. You wrote about the lack of support from a five-star hotel for one particular employee. I remember reading it and then phoning you to say that all hell would be let loose next week. Next week came and there was nothing.

The industry must realise that this is not an issue which will go away, and if the stories I've heard are true - or even 20% of them are true - then we need to take action now.

PK Do you think that alcohol and drug education should be part of the catering college syllabus?

HB In some very good colleges that I'm familiar with, addiction issues don't play a part. But I fail to see why any college or employer wouldn't add this as part of their education as it's integral to society in general, let alone the catering industry. David Boland from Bournemouth & Poole, Gary Hunter from Westminster, Professor David Foskett from Thames Valley University and Gerry Shurman from South Downs have all relayed back to me how effective and necessary your work is.

We try hard to work alongside colleges and the Hinds Head in particular benefits greatly from staff recruitment via these colleges. Realistically, therefore, I can't complain about them. I think that rather than criticise from the outside it's better to be involved with the colleges, perhaps offering alternatives and additions to the curriculum.

We had a dinner at South Downs last year and those students were totally immersed in the day. They asked mature questions about the food and the preparation. Two of the students did a stage at the Fat Duck and Iain Baillie, the head chef at the college, last week completed a week's work experience there. The staff are totally professional and committed, the students a testimony to all that's good in the industry. The dining room there would not be out of place in London's West End.

How can you criticise that, or the efforts of people like Dave Boland and the course he runs for specialised chefs alongside the Academy of Culinary Arts? I'm a member of the academy and proud of the course they support there.

PK For months here at the Fat Duck people have been talking about the book due out in the autumn. How's it going?

HB Sometimes I wonder why I ever started it, but then again next to the opening of the Fat Duck it's by far the most important project I've ever been involved in.

It's a fabulous project, the drawings are incredible, the photography just out of this world - I'm so proud of it. But our recipes don't translate too easily and it's taken up countless hours. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, which doesn't bode well when dealing with deadlines.

Peter Kay's view

Jamie Oliver knew from the start at Fifteen that some of his students would come with baggage that included experience of alcohol and other drugs. Rather than shy away from the issue, several people from Fifteen have sought mentoring and support from the Ark.

Chris Mordue who was a manager at Fifteen, decided to seek help for his alcohol and drug addiction after I delivered an education seminar, and he has now been clean and sober for four years. He works part-time for the Ark and also for the Sporting Chance clinic. It was with Jamie's support that he was able to combat his problems.

Others have changed their lives around as a result of this proactive approach. Heston has experience of staff afflicted with addiction issues including, when the restaurant first opened, a manager who was too drunk to serve customers.

"I know that the industry in general has issues and that I believe we have an obligation to educate and support at all levels," Heston says.

Follow Caterer's Be Award campaign at www.caterersearch.com/beaware

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