Too many of our friends and colleagues are lost to drink and drug related issues, blog by Emma Underwood

The Staff Canteen

At the end of last year I received a very sad text message from a close friend of mine. We had met as waitresses in the same restaurant eight years ago, and as so many of us do, formed an intensely close bond that has remained for the many years since.

Our friendship has helped us to survive many of the perils that your twenties bring - fallings out with friends, endings of relationships, changes in jobs, moves around the country  - all tackled with hours of phone calls and WhatsApp messages.

But last year brought us a new challenge: the death of a former colleague.

He was a couple of years younger than me, with a young family. Extremely talented and passionate, one of the first people I met my own age that was properly engaged with the industry and saw it as a rewarding career path.

He went on to become a very successful chef, and although we didn’t keep in regular touch, we often met up when I was back in the area. His death was, and still is, a huge shock to us all.

For the first week, the details of his passing were not released, but it later transpired that it was due to an overdose.

Particularly sad, as my friend reminded me that when we worked together he wouldn’t even take paracetamol. He is a huge loss, and it’s a huge shame.

Ten years ago I worked in a restaurant near to my parents’ during summers and Christmases home from University.

Every Sunday evening we were closed, so we’d all have a couple of pints after lunch time shift. One such Sunday I was offered a lift from one of the chefs, I declined as I was staying on a bit longer.

He went on to crash into a tree outside the turning to my house and died after a coma a few weeks later. We found out just before a busy Sunday lunch, and then had to go through service as normal. We threw a huge wake at the restaurant for him. He was, again, incredibly talented with a young family, and a massive loss.

These incidents clearly have things in common: chefs dying young from drink and drug related issues. I hoped that my experiences were unusual, that I just happened to have had two colleagues die.

However, my chef friend Simon Ulph posted a video on Instagram about a month ago talking about one of his chefs.

Apparently he had been late to work, and when Simon asked him why he explained it was because he’d been taking Valium to help him sleep as a chef friend of his had just died, the second one he’d known in the course of his career.

In fact, so many of us have these stories, stories of chefs and people working in hospitality struggling with drink and drugs, stories of colleagues suffering from depression and anxiety. It’s clear that we all need to start properly recognising and addressing what is happening to the people that are working in our restaurants.

I’m lucky to have a very strong network of friends within hospitality, those that can thoroughly understand when I’m going through a difficult time and know how to advise and help me through it.

Simon and myself have been discussing how much we find solace in exercise, how physical health and fitness is key to mental health. However, many don’t have this making it hard to find that essential help.

The message needs to be made clearer that there is always help out there, and it can often come from places you don’t expect. One of the most wonderful things about this industry is how close of a network it is, and I only hope that it can become closer and start preventing these incidents from being so common.

*If you have been affected by this story please contact Hospitality Action or The Samaritans  

About Emma

Emma Underwood is the General Manager of Robin Gill's latest venture, Darby's restaurant. Formerly  the restaurant manager of Stem in Mayfair, Emma previously worked at Where the Light Gets In in Stockport and Gary Usher's Burnt Truffle in Heswall.

Emma started working with Gary in 2012 when she joined the Sticky Walnut team as a waitress before moving to the sister restaurant, Burnt Truffle as the general manager.

Emma is also part of the TMRW Project along with food writer Anna Sulan Masing  which was set up in 2015.

The project acts as a platform for people starting out early in their career to help them grow, learn and connect with each other. It hosts the Chefs of Tomorrow Dinners, the front of house initiative The Switch, and a series of talks and panel discussions.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th March 2019

Too many of our friends and colleagues are lost to drink and drug related issues, blog by Emma Underwood