Helping busy, stressed chefs to avoid burnout

Being a chef is a tough job — physically and mentally, says KATE RYAN who talks to one man working to improve their health
Helping busy, stressed chefs to avoid burnout

Cameron Higgs, founder of Chef Fit.

IT isn’t new news that life as a chef is hard — hot, regimented, pulse-racing, stressful.

A kitchen with a two-service schedule is like gearing up and going to war twice a day, every day, six days a week.

It’s an industry with a long history of expecting kitchen brigades to toughen up, get the work done, and if at the end of it all you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

A recent study in the UK by Big Hospitality showed that on average 20,000 chefs leave the profession every year. In Ireland, the deficit runs at about 7,500 per year.

Tough working conditions, low pay, and physical and mental exhaustion all lead to the paradox that Ireland’s lauded dining out scene struggles to attract talent.

Substance misuse, mental health issues and suicide are not uncommon in the industry. It is an employers’ duty of care to ensure their employees return home after a day’s work in as good health as they arrived. Yet a chef is expected to sacrifice everything to serve up a perfect plate of food.

Chef Fit is an online fitness and coaching programme established to work directly with chefs to improve their physical and mental resilience and, in doing so, empower them to make positive and sustainable change for themselves and their workplace.

Cameron Higgs, founder of Chef Fit, originally from Greystones, Co Wicklow, comes from a family with a passion for hospitality, and catering running through their veins. His father worked as a restaurant manager, and two older brothers, Keelan and Aaron Higgs, are the duo behind Michelin-starred Variety Jones in Dublin.

Cameron followed in his family’s footsteps, specialising in mixology, bartending, catering and front of house until, at 21 years of age, he realised his life was spinning out of control.

Cameron Higgs, founder of Chef Fit in the gym.
Cameron Higgs, founder of Chef Fit in the gym.

“Food has always been a way of telling my family’s story, something that was part and parcel of our home. I worked in the industry for years, working an extreme amount of hours, and fell into a very negative and unhealthy lifestyle: alcohol and drug use, bad food habits; late nights, working every weekend, and the go-go-go mentality.

“I ended up in one of the darkest places I’ve ever been, hiding the fact that I was extremely depressed, unhappy and very anxious going into work every day.

“I was someone who had been an athlete, I have a background in rugby and was health and lifestyle conscious, but even so, I still fell into the same trap that many others in the industry fall into.”

Cameron finally left the industry at 22 to pursue a career in fitness and coaching. His career in rugby included working as a personal trainer, a tutor, a strength and fitness coach, providing a solid foundation to qualify quickly and start out on his own.

“I qualified over the course of five years and started to help chefs I used to work with. My brother, Keelan, has worked in restaurants at Michelin level from the age of 21, consistently working 80-hour weeks minimum for most of his adult life.

“He came to me and sought my help when he was 30 years old. He said he didn’t want to still be out drinking every night after service and stuck in an unhealthy negative cycle when he was 40. He knew he needed to change.

“Working with him, I realised that people who work in hospitality don’t have the headspace or time for complication. Healthy lifestyle and being a chef are total opposites — it can be difficult for a chef to put organisation into their life outside of the kitchen.

“With Keelan, I kept everything simple and I saw what happened to him: not only a physical change, but also a massive mental change, and basically shifted the trajectory of his life. If you were to meet him today, you would never think that he was in that place five years ago,” said Cameron.

“Two other chefs that I used to work with came to me for coaching, and that was my lightbulb moment when I realised that there was something to this. The impact simple lifestyle changes had on them, turning their lives around completely and arriving at a point where they were a healthier version of themselves and determined to actively live their lives in a healthier way. I correlated their experiences with my own experience of working in the industry and being in a really bad place and I thought, how many other chefs are going through the same thing?”

Cameron took his lightbulb moment and developed the concepts and principles behind his fitness and coaching programme, Chef Fit.

Cameron Higgs, founder of Chef Fit.
Cameron Higgs, founder of Chef Fit.

From the get-go, the ambition was not just about the physical changes that happen from improving nutrition and physical fitness, but to help people achieve lifelong transformation — and that starts with working to build mental resilience.

“The problem about mental health, and the stigma it has in the hospitality industry, is that no-one talks about it; no-one opens up. It is getting better and conversations are starting to happen, but the majority still don’t speak about what they go through. I knew I had to do something: I had a skillset that I knew I could use to impact people in a really powerful way, and I didn’t see anyone else offering a solution. That was when the idea for Chef Fit was born.

“Initially, I started taking chefs in groups for eight weeks, training them, they’d come into the gym a couple of times a week. But I realised doing something like this in person is not the best way when someone works to a hectic hospitality schedule. Making time in the middle of the day is just not an option, so in 2017 I decided Chef Fit needed to be something delivered online.”

Cameron added: “I started researching and learned there was a serious epidemic in hospitality. There are many amazing things about this industry, and so many people who are passionate about it the way I was, but there is also a problem that needs to be addressed.

“A recent UK survey found 80% of chefs have experienced serious mental health problems as a result of their job — that’s a scary statistic. I realised there is a problem here that I can help fix, and that’s what the idea for Chef Fit is all about: I can help change the unhealthy negative narrative chefs have about their lifestyle and the things they believe about themselves, and create a positive impact.”

Cameron launched Chef Fit in 2018. Three years later, he and his team have helped hundreds of chefs through the programme and turned around the lives of many in Ireland and the UK.

But despite its success, the question that continues to niggle at Cameron is: why does Chef Fit have to exist in the first place? What is it about the environment chefs work in that creates a perfect storm of issues requiring such specific help? The environment is the key.

Cameron Higgs, with some of his clients, pre-lockdown.
Cameron Higgs, with some of his clients, pre-lockdown.

Cameron explains: “Since the 1800s, professional kitchens have been based on the Escoffier system, a brigade system of running a kitchen with a hierarchy, like an army.

“The result produces incredible chefs and incredible food, but the negative aspect is that stiff upper lip mentality. Chefs become hardened and are well known for their toughness, but the reality is that work conditions are extremely challenging.

“A lot of chefs end up working long hours and are conditioned to make that sacrifice willingly, and no-one questions it because this is what chefs have been doing for two centuries.

“Chefs sacrifice themselves for the good of the service, for the good of the job; the all-in mentality of doing 16-hour days, the stress and pressure of constantly maintaining a high standard. My own experience, and that of many chefs, is picking up negative habits to cope: smoking a lot of cigarettes, alcohol becomes a big thing, drug use in some cases; not having the time to eat so drinking eight coffees a day just to sustain your energy levels, or picking at something quick or convenient.

“Things are starting to move in the right direction, but this is why the industry is the way it is. The result is chefs with very negative lifestyles leading them into a bad place physically and, if unchecked, a bad place mentally, in an environment where speaking up and speaking out isn’t encouraged or looked well upon, even when behind the scenes you can be crumbling inside.

“Physically, chefs can end up overweight or seriously underweight, with no self-confidence, burnt out and no energy; mentally, chefs are dealing with anxiety and depression — and there is no positive outlet from all that, except for your vices.”

Chef Fit provides that much-needed positive outlet for chefs. A six-month programme working holistically on nutrition, fitness and mental resilience online with one-to-one mentoring sessions and a community of chefs who support each other via an app accessible on a phone or tablet.

“Chef Fit is not an easy programme — it is not a quick fix: it’s not about chefs doing some jumping jacks and eating a salad. If you’re coming in with a lot of problems and issues to fix, it’s going to take six months of consistent work not only to achieve results, but to establish the habits, routines, rituals and resilience to carry that forward.

“If I’ve done my job correctly, you will be equipped with new, healthier habits that are sustainable. My goal is to not change you physically, it is to shift identity; and everything you are doing, I am doing myself too.”

After six months, some clients go their own way, but many liken Chef Fit to an extended family.

“We’re very tight knit group and people become connected to that. There is an extremely supportive and motivating network, something a chef can latch onto outside of work — a positive outlet. It’s creates accountability, too: doing this with a group of people who are like you, ultimately people remain committed and they will change their life,” said Cameron.

The programme starts with an over-the-phone consultation to determine if the programme and person are a good fit.

Cameron Higgs, giving a talk.
Cameron Higgs, giving a talk.

Secondly, Cameron and his team work to restructure everything to do with someone’s lifestyle with simple and streamlined routines around nutrition, exercise and even organising the day.

Thirdly, the team tackle the environment, creating the community and leading a tribe of chefs to support each other through the programme.

“We lay out the path, we lay out the structure, we set your goals and get clarity on your problems so you’re motivated and driven to do it. We then take that structure and apply it within a group. We have multiple coaching calls in a week, exercise calendars mapped out, and every day in the group we keep ourselves accountable. It’s a very positive environment and chefs are encouraged to share as much as they can. It’s empowering for chefs to share their experiences and all move in the same direction. We can relate to each other.”

During Covid lockdown, many chefs found themselves without their kitchen brigade, without the daily grind. Suddenly there was time for themselves, for reflection. Chef Fit experienced a bit of a boom time, Cameron explained. “Lockdown allowed chefs to properly decompress for the first time in their lives. It was a period of reflection, going from doing insane levels of work under extreme stress to being quiet at home.

“Lockdown has been some of Chef Fit’s best times. Chefs finally had time to work on themselves, and became an opportunity to make a change — a mentality gain happening across the industry. They had time to spend with their family, realising how important that is and what they’ve missed out on. Time to work on their health, lifestyle and how much better they feel — something maybe neglected for most of their adult life.

“Chefs will be very busy as they go back to work, but I would like to think that the mentality has slightly changed; that chefs are slowly changing their mindset and starting to know they can put themselves first, that they don’t have to sacrifice absolutely everything just to cook. You can do both. My goal was always to change the industry from the inside out, and if chefs are starting to have these realisations, maybe work conditions will stop being so unforgiving and improve.”

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