The Craft Guild of Chef’s new wellness ambassador, Andy Aston reveals why this role is so vital for our industry

This article was originally published by The Craft Guild of Chefs, and is shared here with kind permission of the interviewee. The original article was written by Edward Waddell.

Why did you decide to take on this role for the Craft Guild of Chefs?

I felt that this was a great platform for me to share my experiences but also help create a new culture within our industry, to change the way we talk, the way we help each other and the way we communicate.

Over the last 14 years I have been on my own personal mental health journey and have suffered from depression to the point where I had to take myself out of the industry for over a year to focus on myself and getting well. It was hard, as I had to cut contact with many friends and work colleagues due to how I was feeling and because I felt like I was letting them down by not coming to work. This time out allowed me to reinvent myself and discover who Andy really is!

I’d like to use my own experience to help others; to support our chefs to know it’s Okay to admit you aren’t feeling alright. The old Andy did not really know how to talk to people about how he was feeling, but once I did open up, my life changed for the better.

I am now head of wellness & nutrition for BaxterStorey which is amazing, and I’ll be using all of my own personal experience to support the members of The Craft Guild of Chefs.

Why do you think there is such a big issue with mental health in hospitality?

Although we are seeing a real effort to change the culture, we still have a long way to go to normalise mental health. When I think back to my own journey, both personally and professionally, it is difficult to pin down having conversations about your feelings; if you did say something you were most probably told to stop being silly and just get on with it.

I had a difficult childhood that saw our family moving quite often, so we never seemed to put down any roots and this had a huge impact on me. I had a real feeling of being loved but very lost. Trying to fit in was difficult and I feel this impacted my own early career.

Up until about 10 years ago, I was moving around different jobs, moving demographically, missing out on family special occasions and friend’s birthdays. Basically, I was putting everything into my work and not really thinking about the damage to my mental health later down the line.

In hospitality we do work very hard, sometimes long days, and we are constantly under pressure to deliver a great experience. That’s why we love the industry. However, if we don’t have an outlet for how we are feeling, it all gets bottled up and this is going to cause some chefs to struggle.

I do believe the culture is changing though and over recent years, we have seen some big names in the chef world talk about their feelings which is brilliant, but we need to continue to do more for ourselves and actively encourage each other to start the conversation.

We are now much better at checking in on our colleagues and more of us are becoming aware of the signs or changes in behaviour in ourselves and in our colleagues, which gives us an opportunity to take action.

Which initiatives will you be working on in your role?

So, my first job was to create a small committee to support my work as it’s a big task and working together we can achieve so much more. We aim to collaborate with as many universities and colleges as possible to deliver a health food experience that is supported by a talk on mental health.

This gives us a great platform to speak to those chefs at the start of their journey. We hope to deliver sessions right across the UK to get everyone talking. Our message will be authentic and will highlight the importance of food and the role it plays in our overall wellbeing, both mentally and physically.

The committee will also be visible at trade shows once they re-start, so our work is seen by as many chefs and friends as possible. We would love chefs to feel they can just come and talk to us about how they are feeling, food has the power to initiate a conversation.

We’ll also be working closely with our charity partners including Kelly’s Case, The Burnt Chef Project, the Beyond Food Foundation and others in the industry. We are planning a number of events to bring chefs together, to share their experiences, and help each other through dinners and sporting activities.

What advice do you have for chefs who want to improve their mental health?

Take a step back where you can and ask yourself the questions - how do I really feel? What can I change in my life that is maybe making me feel low and unhappy?

Create a healthy routine with a good balanced diet, get some exercise but most importantly invest some time in YOU, do something that you love outside of work and make time to bring it to life. Invest time in your relationships too, they are special.

Set yourself a challenge, a goal. Maybe there is something that you have always wanted to do but put it off because of work. Having a goal and then putting in a few steps around how you are going to complete it can do wonders for your mind and will inspire you.

Be your authentic self and learn to love you!

What’s your goal for the next year?

If we take small steps and continue to collaborate with each other, then I’d hope that we have started to create a culture that is positive, energetic, mindful, and inclusive for all our members, business partners, charities and friends.