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The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Johnnie Mountain

15 June 2012 by
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Johnnie Mountain

After walking out of this year's Great British Menu, Johnnie Mountain, chef-patron of the English Pig in London, spent five days in bed with his old bedfellow, depression, before "coming out" about his struggles in a blog. One of only a handful of hospitality professionals to talk frankly about mental illness, he explains to Emily Manson what living with depression is like and why the kitchen is a hot house for breeding mental health problems

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Johnnie Mountain
Johnnie Mountain
Why is talking about mental health such a taboo in hospitality? It's passed over within our industry because of sensitivities that are already in the kitchen. There's a humongous pressure that feeds from the top, especially from the desire for accolades.

I've seen chefs screamed at in service because a slither of food wasn't in the right place. It's not just the person that's screamed at who's affected, it also gets to the rest of the brigade. It's torture to watch, gives you mental anguish which has to be suppressed more and more and that makes you feel sick.

What is it about hospitality that creates this behaviour? It's a vicious circle. The kitchen perpetuates repeat behaviour with the head chef bullying the sous, the sous the chef de partie - eventually the sous becomes head and bullies his new sous chef and the shit carries on rolling downhill. But it's time to stop and man up and say it's not acceptable.

Being behind closed doors - and 95% of kitchens are hidden from public view - gives chefs the feeling that it's OK as it's all hidden. You'd never get away with it in an office.

All the kitchens I've built are open plan, not because I want to show off but because I want to break down barriers, physically and mentally.

Has there not been any improvement? There has been some improvement across the board. I know within my own business I'm a goodish boy these days - but there's still the pressure on the 5% at the top and the 5% at the bottom and they're stuck in the cycle.

How much are competitions and stars to blame? There's always going to be heat and testosterone in kitchens, but if these accolades weren't dangled in front of the chefs in the first place, then pushing in kitchens would only be for business success and financial reward. But these carrots are a massive material reason for the shit that goes on in kitchens.

Big financial backers also want to see a return and the bullying comes when the person running the ship is under pressure to hit targets - be they financial or accolades. They need to push their team as hard as they can to get those results.

Is it possible to change this pressure in kitchens? I've changed my business because the financial pressures in my swanky new place were humongous and I've had to sit down and open up to my landlord and say "I'm not breaking even". They want a couple of grand a week for rent so they have two choices: I go or they help me. I was lucky: they said they wanted me to succeed and are on my side now, which has taken the pressure off me personally.

What triggered your first bout of depression? The first time I was genuinely depressed I was 25. I'd just moved back up north from London to new premises with my first wife. I had massive financial burdens, the relationship was falling apart. I was working longer and longer hours and drinking more and more and I just fell into a depression.

Because I wasn't physically sick I didn't want to burden the GP with my personal problems as I saw them. I thought you should go to doctors for materially serious issues, not mentally serious ones - but actually those are more important.

What does it feel like? Expectations are the problem. Whatever level you're at, it becomes a burden. You wake up with it, it's always there, and you become weighted down with it. The easiest thing is to medicate yourself with drink, drugs, sex or whatever but it becomes claustrophobic to the point it goes all dark around you and you can't get out of bed, breathe, walk or talk for the weight of the burden.

So you wake up and drink a can of Stella, watch Jeremy Kyle, miss a day's work, and so it goes on. It's like a drowning man with concrete boots on. It's desperately difficult to get out of and I can't do it by myself. I'm lucky, in December during filming of Great British Menu] I had a loving wife, two kids and a dog who kept jumping on me and wanting to be taken to the park. At first I wanted them to all leave me alone, but after day five, it was the thing that cracked me.

Have you ever sought medical help for you depression? I had a couple of sessions with a psychiatrist to ensure I wasn't going to do anything foolish, but I never sought long-term medical advice. I quit booze without help and I feel I am strong enough to deal with this, along with the support from my wife and kids, on my own.

Do you think chefs are prone to mental illness? Chefs don't have many or any friends as they don't have time. It's the hours they work and the fact that many are young and away from home. It's very easy to become a solitary person and isolated. Your family become the people in the kitchen but they're not, it's just a job. The people in the kitchen say they care about you but when you're on your back they're carrying on with service.

Depression is always there and part of someone's personality make up. It just needs something to trigger it. I masked it for years by alcohol abuse and I feel that a lot of chefs in London are addicts of something, whether it is drink, drugs, sex, gambling or fitness.

How do you deal with it now? I work sensible hours and spend time with my precious family. I no longer work my fingers to the bone and I keep in touch with reality.

I want to be there for my family on a daily basis and have a proper home life and not be too tired to walk the dog with the wife at 9am on a Saturday because I've been working all week. The most important thing is balance. There should be balance of work, life, sadness and happiness.

Do you have it all now then? I believe in my life right now. I'm in this junction of life where I've got everything I could ever wish for. Two beautiful kids both inside and outside, a great wife, a beautiful business and a really nice house with sensible mortgage and a nice car. We've not got millions, but I've got my utopia.

You opened up about your depression for the first time on The Chef Hermes Blog, following your appearance on the BBC's Great British Menu (see extract on page 22). Tell us about it? Not enough men show enough emotion. It's a very male-dominated industry and the kitchen is the worst. Men tend to bottle it all up and then explode. We don't go round to our mate's house and chat properly about emotions and inner feelings, we just drink and then fight. It's not really moved on from the Neanderthal scale as there's a fear of exposing ourselves because we think talking about emotions exposes our weaknesses when actually it's completely the opposite.

What's your advice to people on the edge or those in the middle of suffering? You need to tell someone about it. If you feel those dark days coming then phone your dad, mum, mate, the Samaritans, whoever, just speak to someone. It's such a cliché but a problem shared is a problem halved. My post on The Chef Hermes Blog got shared and retweeted by thousands and it got a lot off my chest.


EXTRACT FROM THE CHEF HERMES BLOG, 11 MAY

By Johnnie Mountain Depression: this "thing" affects all of us in different ways. It's an emotion that is hugely influencing on the way we think, breathe, walk, talk, and generally survive. The emotion of depression is a reaction we have towards an outcome that we expected to be different. If the results fail your expectations then your mood will change… depression sets in and everything goes dark.

When GBM got in touch, the challenge was set. I started learning more and more about "molecular gastronomy". I know it has been going for years, but to me, it was new. I wanted to win [GBM], get the Michelin star, open one more [business], then sell up in five years, go to Australia and live my life simply with my lovely wife and kids. I walked into the studios and was very excited at the fact that I, Johnnie Mountain, was up against one of the true heavyweights in the business: Simon Rogan. I thought, I'm going to beat this guy, it's in the bag, I know the format, I know what the judges are looking for, I fucking know everything! How little I knew…

The first score knocked me for six, the second hurt. Really hurt. I couldn't think, breathe, walk or talk. I left quietly.

When I went back I felt "different", I went through the day in a complete daze. And when went I went back to work, I screamed, slammed and walked out. I couldn't communicate, I couldn't breathe. For a brief moment in time, I thought about suicide. But killing yourself is for those that are not as fortunate as me. I have a wife who loves me, I have kids that worship me, I have a business that needs me. I am the luckiest man alive.

Depression is no joke, it's a killer…

www.chefhermes.com


Mind's view
Beth Murphy, head of information at Mind, provides the following advice for anyone who has experienced similar issues to Johnnie Mountain

Create a supportive environment: In an industry where daily work can run at a frenzied pace, it's easy to ignore the signs if colleagues aren't acting themselves. However, in a mentally healthy workplace, the little things like asking if someone's OK, making time to talk, or giving them five minutes to take a break, are essential. Be aware of your colleagues and take the small steps needed to support them where possible.

Get support: Every year, one in four people experience a mental health problem so you are not alone - however, it can feel that way when nobody talks about it. Opening up about how you feel can be incredibly daunting, but is the key to getting support and you may be surprised to find those around you have been through similar experiences. It you don't feel comfortable speaking to your boss, chat with friends, family, call the Mind infoline in confidence (03001 233393) or speak to your GP.

Relieve stress… healthily. We can all experience stress at work and it's important to find a healthy way to manage it. While alcohol, cigarettes or coffee may seem like the answer, in fact they are more likely to lower your mood. Research shows outdoor exercise can be more effective than anti-depressants in treating mild to moderate anxiety and depression. So find time to get outside, even if it's only a walk round the block during your break, to give you time away from the pressures you're feeling at work and an opportunity to release tension in a healthy way.

Connect: You spend every day with your colleagues, but in a busy working environment it's easy to keep your head down - and not connect with those around you. Strong evidence shows feeling close and valued by others is a fundamental human need and that social relationships are critical for promoting wellbeing and acting as a buffer against mental ill-health. Try and make the contact you have with colleagues positive, show them they are valued and important members of the team.

www.mind.org.uk

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