WHEN Mal Meiers was a finalist in a coveted Australian chef's competition, his approach was singular.
Not content with letting his skills shine, Meiers threw himself into learning ceramics so he could make his own serving plates.
"I couldn't believe I could beat these guys just in cooking, I wanted to give myself a head start," he recalls of the moment, about four years ago. "If I psycho-analyse myself, it was like a total lack of belief."
Now head chef at hatted Newcastle West restaurant Subo, Meiers has every reason to be confident and will marry his long-term partner Kate Christiansen, a sommelier at Subo, at Easter.
Yet not so long ago things were particularly bleak for the 32-year-old.
No stranger to anxiety and depression, Meiers is open about the years he intermittently self-medicated with alcohol and drugs to deal with the stress of the kitchen that scorched his personal life.
"As a chef you are thrown into a hot, sharp and sticky environment and you may be straight out of home without friends, and you are in a pressure cooker and you don't even know how to walk and they are are expecting you to debone 50 quails in a short amount of time for service," he says.
"Chefs forget what it's like to be a young chef - you barely know how to hold yourself let alone deal with all the feelings you feel."
Meiers didn't claim the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence young chef of the year prize but his passion for clay would become a part of of his tool kit to curb his self-destructive behaviour and pull himself back from the brink of suicide.
He dedicates one day per week to hand-making an array of plates that he fires in a kiln in the Mayfield home he shares with Christiansen and their adopted greyhound, Sally.
Meiers is enthusiastic about his plans to expand his Food For Thought charity dinners, which are supported by key hospitality figures and unite chefs to cook dinners to raise money for mental health charities including Lifeline and R U OK [Meiers is an ambassador for both].
Updates on his social media of his passion for the fresh produce he works with at Subo and his ceramics progress at home come thick and fast.
"I went to the Bogey Hole on a forage and went away and said 'f**k, I want to make something shaped like that, so my Bogey Hole dish is kind of oval and the plan is we'll serve a seafood dish in it and I'll change the concept," he says of one of his creations.
"I sit in my spare room and get dirty. Pottery to me is like meditation. I reset myself after a busy week and give myself a bit of medication. I don't take medication anymore because [when I did]I was in a cloud and couldn't interact with my partner. I'm not interested in drinking."
Hospitality has in recent years taken a savage toll on its brightest stars, from high-profile chef, author and TV star Anthony Bourdain to Sydney chefs Jeremy Strode and Justin Bull. Closer to home, in 2017 Newcastle East pub The Grain Store lost its young head chef to suicide and quickly swung behind the man's family via an annual fund-raising event.
A survey of Australian hospitality workers commissioned by R U OK? in late 2018 revealed that 80 per cent of hospitality workers agreed that mental health issues - feeling depressed, anxious or manic - are a challenge for those in the industry.
Fatigue was the number one issue, more so in those aged 45 to 64, while younger workers cited unsocial work hours, dealing with difficult customers and pay challenges as the main stress points.
The majority said they felt they had access to support from colleagues, not just family and friends, if they needed it. And 50 per cent of them said they had been asked in the past 12 months if they were ok when they really needed it.
RUOK chief executive Brendan Maher says the organisation has teamed up with hospitality training provider Allara Learning to develop a short, interactive course designed to help people notice the signs someone may be struggling, how to find the right space and time to ask the question, and how to navigate a conversation if someone says, “No, I’m not ok.”
Notwithstanding the high pressure, long hours and stress, Mr Maher cites the "undeniable kind of portrayed glamour" attached to the higher-end of hospitality.
"But you have to work very, very hard to get to the top because there is a lot of competition," he points out.
Tim Montgomery, co-owner of city burger joint Rascal and former head chef at hatted restaurant Baccus, agrees.
"It appeals to the rebel, the marginalised, the punk, the kid who was too creative for a trade and couldn't face the prospect of a standard career - it's a bit rock'n' roll," says the veteran industry player.
"The industry presents extremes in emotion, highs and adrenalin, a sense of cameraderie and accomplishment."
Montgomery reckons there is a cohort of workers who are drawn to hospitality for the same reason those with depression or anxiety are drawn to substance abuse. And he notes that the nocturnal aspect of the industry means these workers can quickly feel at odds with life.
"I remember sitting in the Pyrmont Bridge Hotel on several occasions watching 'normal' people head to work on a Monday morning while we were still intoxicated," he says.
Montgomery endured in the late 90s and early 2000s at times a "military brutalisation" where there were fights in the kitchen between sleepless zombies who partied after service to let of steam.
"It was almost like there was a sense among management that they tried to keep a level of disharmony because it kept everyone on their toes," he recalls.
Working in a two-hat restaurant in Sydney, more than 100 chefs walked out in one year because they couldn't stand the heat and often quit mid-service.
"The chef was trying to break me and rostered me on for 19 days in a row of doubles, and I was absolutely destroyed because I was not taking care of myself, going out partying, and that is actually how I earnt my stripes," he says, explaining that a double shift was meant to be one split shift but more often meant working 7am until midnight, sometimes without a proper meal break.
Rebecca Mitchell, conjoint professor at the University of Newcastle's Health Services Research Centre, points to a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management to emphasise the extent of "significant distress" in a restaurant kitchen.
A survey of close to 100 chefs based in Central Queensland found that, when looking at rank within the kitchen hierarchy, common chefs and line cooks, particularly men, were significantly more aggressive than other ranks within the kitchen.
Professor Mitchell says while many hospitality workers faced high emotional labour dealing with customers, those in the kitchen often struggled in a hyper-masculine setting.
"I don't mean to criticise the kitchens, that's just the way they are, and substance abuse is linked and condoned and facilitated in some ways so what you have is this combination of a very difficult balance of work and outside life. I have worked in kitchens, it rings true to me."
Montgomery says change is happening to soften the work hard-play hard mentality, but believes more needs to be done.
"There is a culture, and I have heard it is there among surgeons too where you can't show weakness, flaws or chinks in the armour no matter how stressed you are or how little sleep you have had, and I think that's really detrimental for those with mental health problems because that pressure manifests itself in something else, whether that is substance abuse or self harm," he says.
There are, he points out, many positives to be gained in the kitchen in a familial team environment which encourages a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
"I have seen many kids respond to that and there is one guy working with us at the moment who had massive drug and mental health issues and through a sense of camaraderie and positive role models he is doing well, has no dramas with substances, goes to the gym and is leading a positive life."
Professor Mitchell points to a pilot trial of intervention in 2013 that targeted a group of TAFE apprentice chefs considered "high-risk" for alcohol and other drug harm and poor psychological wellbeing.
After receiving face-to-face support and monitoring in the first two weeks of training, then at four months, the group reduced their "risky" alcohol use, could talk to their supervisors about work issues and better cope with work stress and verbal abuse.
Just as companies have strategies in place dealing with bullying and sexual harrassment, Montgomery believes change is needed at a management level to have in place strategies for those facing personal crisis.
"As trades people, we are not educated to deal with interpersonal problems and complex relationships. I remember Anthony Bourdain saying as a chef you are a counsellor, priest and doctor," he says.
Aware of his own weaknesses and a family history of substance abuse, Montgomery works hard to balance work and life. He keeps fit through boxing and cherishes time with his wife and daughter.
"I've been exposed to a lot of drugs and it's something I am conscious of and battle with - what people in non-hospitality jobs don't recognise or understand is that you are constantly surrounded by it," he says.
He estimates that 80 per cent of his staff smoked cigarettes when Rascal opened in 2017, that figure has dropped to zero.
"At the moment we have a thing when we finish and go to the gym or some of the guys will run together ... it's a changing consciousness that is happening through the industry but the healthy lifestyle is preferred rather than just abusing yourself, and it all ties in with self esteem."
READ MORE: How The Newcastle Herald reviewed Eat Rascal
Meiers doesn't link his past struggles with any moment in his working-class childhood in Caloundra. Rather it was aspects of his hectic chef life that made his friendships and support base often transient.
When his plans to become a vet stalled after he was feint-hearted in the operating theatre, he went to hotel school in Sydney and eventually started an apprenticeship at the Courthouse hotel in Darlinghurst.
"From there it was like hospitality has you and never lets you go," he recalls.
When he began working in the restaurant and bar at Cruise Bar, now the Overseas Passenger Terminal, as a second-year chef, he never wanted to do anything else.
"I just threw everything at it at the expense of everything else - relationships, friendships," he says.
Meiers was working as a third-year apprentice at a one-hat Sydney restaurant when his anxiety became "rife".
"I had experienced it earlier but it was more like in my personal life, but I was making the worst of a situation and I was paranoid I wasn't good enough and setting unrealistic goals - I was competent but doubted myself to the point of making myself sick," he says.
With his relationship of the time crumbling, Meiers felt isolated from friends and went drinking after work, getting home at 4am and heading back to the kitchen within hours.
"By that stage my body was able to tolerate it or I thought I could, my work suffered but it was because of my job that I was in the state of 'it's all that I have'," he says.
Simon Pertot, a psychologist at Newcastle business Newpsych, says the fact hospitality workers find it hard to maintain important social connections can lead to isolation and loneliness.
"Social connection and relationships are what sustain us and these shift workers miss out that [crucial] time", he notes.
Moving to Melbourne to work at Bistro Guillaume, Meiers met Subo founder Beau Vincent and after a certain nocturnal bender received empathy and a "massive wake-up call" from Vincent.
Living in a new city, his anxiety got "completely out of control" then abated as he began to form friendships. But then he fell off the rails again within a "toxic" relationship that led him to London.
Working in a notorious kitchen where "you got screamed at, broken down, a lot of macho, shouting and mean pranks and sabotage", Meiers lost his passion for cooking and returned to Melbourne in a dejected state.
"Work or a relationship is how I valued myself, and if I didn't have either I didn't have much value," he said.
Alone and in a bleak mental space one night, he called a friend who fortunately answered.
"I scared the shit out of myself and for some reason my friend answered at a time he usually didn't," says Meiers, whose friend called his father and got the chef on a plane back home.
Meiers began taking anti-depressants and seeing a psychologist and gained relief.
"I was always worried about talking to someone, about being judged, I didn't think what I was going through was normal," he says.
Newly aware of the options of support that he had, Meiers wanted to do something to help others in his predicament.
"I thought for f**k's sake, I was so far in it that I couldn't find things for myself," he explains.
READ MORE: Vale Jeremy Strode, "a chef's chef".
By 2014 working at one-hatted Melbourne restaurant Tonka, he gathered some co-workers and came up with the concept for Food For Thought.
Rallying some of Melbourne's most promising young chefs and begging for donated produce and beverages, he staged the first pop-up dinner at Beer DeLuxe restaurant in Federation Square in Melbourne for 34 people.
"I was a complete mess," he laughs.
"I wasn't ready to talk about [my experience] so I spoke about every course."
Food For Thought has grown in size each year - last year it raised $55,000 in four dinners in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Meiers aspires to take it national this year.
"After I started sharing my story I felt a bit more empowered, I didn't feel like a prisoner to it, strangled or bound by it," he says.
"The more I started sharing, people would say 'I have felt the same way at different times and never said anything'. It dawned on me that it's something someone will deal with in their life - anxiety, a breakdown - and it's like having that ability that you can talk to someone."
Meiers' passion and talent for ceramics continues to flourish. If he's nocturnal, it's for all the right reasons.
"Without consciously knowing it I started to go out less, I slowed down my drinking and partying - I got hard on myself if I was hungover because I couldn't be as creative," he said.
"Being covered in mud, making something malleable, I was open to that experience and it became a habit. It felt good."
Feeling more relaxed being in a seaside setting akin to his childhood, Meiers is committed to yoga, cycling and walking Sally. His tools to deal with anxiety include circulatory breathing exercises.
He is strict about his staff not arriving at work early and encourages them to find hobbies that provide balance.
"When I was younger I always tried to make myself the best chef possible - going in early, on my days off - because I thought it would make me a better chef, but ultimately all it did by the time I got to work was mean I was mentally cooked. With hindsight, that's one of the things that contributed to my downfall."
Jacqueline Brown, with husband Tom a chef and co-owner of Newcastle's Crown and Anchor pub, is conscious of the mental health of her team. She tries to be present for those who fall into tough times and encourages her staff to have a laugh at work.
Brown says the toughest part of her role is the time she has missed with her school-aged daughters, but she now ensures she has regular days off with them.
From a management perspective, she laments the common hospitality complaint of the stress of securing reliable employees, particularly when many are casual.
"I believe I work hard but I can't be everywhere, I rely on staff that sometimes don't show up to work or quit with no notice so you struggle to find a replacement as quick as you can," she says.
When a chef opens a restaurant "with good intentions" to work hard and make enough money to pay bills, staff and finally their family, she says, a bad review can be devastating.
"I have had a review or times where someone has emailed us directly and I will be honest, it can break you to pieces. I can be a very strong person but some of the things people have said take it too far," she says.
So why be a chef when the knives so often seem out?
"I love cooking for people, it's a really simple, silly answer but I get pleasure from pleasing people with food," Montgomery says.
"And I get a buzz from instilling that in younger chefs and trying to give them that sense of humility in wanting to serve and please, as well as the confidence that comes with doing it well."
Meiers believes there should be changes at a curriculum level to ensure chefs receive broader training.
"It's fine to teach the history of French cookery but other than making a lasagna for a staff meal I've made one Bechamel in five years," he says.
"More onus should be on teaching chefs how to be managers, not just about how to deal with food costs and service."
He continues to share his story in the hope of inspiring others to reach out for support.
"What I want to avoid is anyone getting to my point before they asked for help."
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