ACF Chefs offer ways to manage mental health during tough times

Simple tips to minimize stress and anxiety.

By Liz Barrett Foster

Over the past year, those working in the restaurant industry have persevered through layoffs, transitions of business models, dining room closures, stricter health guidelines, risks to their health, and — for some — business losses or even permanent closures caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. After surveying 6,000 restaurant owners, the National Restaurant Association Research Group estimated as of Dec. 2, 2020, roughly 110,000 eating and drinking establishments were completely closed, either temporarily or permanently.

Lisa Dorfman
Chef Lisa Dorfman, The Running Nutritionist

For many chefs and hospitality workers, stress begins the moment they open their eyes in the morning. In an industry that prides itself on taking care of others, those on the front lines often forget to take care of themselves. “Chefs have a tendency to feel lost when they aren’t pleasing someone,” says The Running Nutritionist Lisa Dorfman, a licensed mental health counselor, educator, author and chef. “Chefs need the satisfaction that comes from feeding others.”

The pandemic has exacerbated anxiety, leading to the formation of hospitality-specific help groups such as “I Got Your Back” and “Restaurant After Hours.” Both projects are aimed at helping chefs, servers and others in the hospitality industry who may be struggling during the pandemic.

Beyond collaborating with peers, creating a routine for sleep, mindful breathing, nutrition, movement and meditation is more important than ever. Read on for simple ways to alleviate the compounding stresses of life in the kitchen.

1. Increase Your Zzzs

According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those who sleep less than seven hours per night reported higher incidences of 10 chronic health conditions, including depression, diabetes and arthritis. Short sleepers were also more prone to obesity, habitual smoking and getting less activity.

Getting more sleep may seem impossible at first for those working long or odd hours, but you can take small steps toward your goal. Start by winding down before bed, and avoid caffeine, large meals and electronics prior to bedtime. Create a comfortable sleep environment with soft bedding and a sleep sound machine. Slowly train yourself to go to bed 15 minutes earlier each night. Before you know it, you’ll be sleeping more and feeling better.

2. Take Control of Your Breathing

Nalini Mehta
Chef Nalini Mehta

One of the easiest ways to immediately reduce the feeling of stress in your body is to notice — and correct — how you’re breathing. According to Ayurvedic Chef Nalini Mehta, our brain registers short bursts of breath as anger and frustration, and long, deep inhalations as relaxation. “Think of how you feel when you’re in a beautiful place,” Chef Mehta says. “You take a deep breath and breathe it in.” She says the human respiratory system is the only system in the body that is both involuntary and voluntary — meaning, unlike the heart, we can control respiration. Next time you notice that you are feeling frustrated or stressed, or are taking short breaths, stop and take a few deep breaths, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth (you should feel your stomach rising and falling, not your chest). Imagine you’re on a beach and breathing in the ocean air. Chef Mehta says you can also try alternate- nostril breathing, where you breath in one nostril and out the other.

3. Feed Your Body and Mind

Chefs love to feed people. However, when it comes to feeding themselves, many chefs grab unhealthy snacks throughout the day while working, eat just one “family meal” with the staff, or skip meals altogether.

Art Ledda
Chef Art Ledda

Studies have shown our brain is directly affected by the food we put in our belly. Those who follow a traditional Mediterranean diet, which replaces highly processed foods with healthy fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish, reportedly have 25% to 35% less risk of developing depression. Dorfman says it’s important to slow down and eat mindfully. “Get consistent meals and snacks, drink more water, and introduce more colors to your plate,” she says.

Chef Art Ledda, a Food Fanatic chef for US Foods, says, “Eating foods that are high in protein and have healthy fats, nutrients, vitamins and minerals is key to maintaining the level of energy that one needs throughout their day in the kitchen.”

According to Chef Mehta, it takes discipline to eat right, but once you begin to feel more energized from the foods that nourish you, you can be better equipped to nourish others. “It’s about the ritual of cooking, eating and taking care of yourself,” she says.

4. Make Time for Movement

When it seems there’s never enough time in the day, exercise may be the last thing on your mind. But just 15 to 20 minutes of regular activity has been shown to improve anxiety and stress. Whether you choose to walk around the block or sweep the front sidewalk, the benefits of moving your body and distracting your mind from work remain the same.

Chef Ledda says he works out in the morning to help set the tone for the day, create focus, get the blood flowing and establish a positive mindset for the rest of the day. “Exercise provides an outlet, [a method] to de-stress and a way to disconnect from the issues of the day, and helps inspire a healthier lifestyle,” Chef Ledda says. “Taking time out of the day is key, whether it’s for an hour-long workout or a 20-minute walk.”

5. Try a Simple Meditation

If you’ve never meditated before, it can feel awkward the first time you try it. However, if you’re the type that has a million things racing through your mind, meditation is a useful tool for finally calming those thoughts.

You can start slowly, with one or two minutes as you’re falling asleep or right when you wake up. Just close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing. The more you’re able to focus on your breathing instead of random thoughts, the calmer you’ll become. Once you get the hang of it, you can use meditation as a daily tool, or whenever you become overly stressed. “We must take control of our mental hygiene in the same way we take care of our dental hygiene,” says Chef Mehta, who recently began an online program to help chefs meditate called “The Happy Chef Project.”

The bottom line: You can control the levels of your stress and anxiety to some degree, using the tools you already have at your disposal. And, at the end of the day, Chef Ledda says, “It’s OK to not be OK. Chefs should not be afraid of ‘the mental health monster,’ but rather recognize it, welcome it and address it, with a therapist, if needed.”

Avoid placing unnecessary stigmas on mental health, and let someone know if you’re in distress. “We have to have more dialogue, support and understanding that mental health is a real concern for our industry and our world as a whole,” he adds. “Seek the help. We are in this together.”