‘I’m not a grieving widow, I’m a seething widow’

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Jeremy Strode had just enjoyed the gastronomic trip of a lifetime. It was July 2017 and the executive chef and founder of Sydney restaurant Bistrode CBD had spent 10 days sampling the finest bistros of Paris and London. Taste testing alongside him was Nathan Johnson, head chef of the Sydney brasserie Felix. Dispatched by Merivale, the parent company of their two restaurants, the aim was to fire up their imaginations and inspire fresh platefuls of brilliance back home.

As such, they were obliged to eat with gusto: two lunches a day plus dinner, preferably squeezing a cheese shop or patisserie in between. Strode, a lightly bearded Englishman with an easy grin, was determined to enjoy the opportunity. “He told me he just had the best time,” says his wife, Jane.

Five days after his return, on the Sunday night, Jane went to bed, leaving her husband and the father of their two children on a sofa in the lounge of their north shore Sydney home. Still a little jet-lagged, Strode was quietly watching TV and drinking a Scotch. That was the last time she saw him alive.

After staying up all night, at about 5am, Jeremy Strode took off his watch and left it on a table, along with his wallet and keys. Then, stepping into the mild winter’s morning, he walked to the nearest station and jumped into the path of a moving train. It was the week before his 54th birthday.

Cradling a coffee, Jane Strode, 44, sits at the kitchen table of her high-rise apartment in North Sydney. The outlook sweeps from Centrepoint Tower in the city to the Blue Mountains out west, the scale of the view somehow fitting for one still grasping for perspective on such an unfathomable event. Jane only moved into this apartment a week ago with her sons Hunter, now 14, and Nathaniel, 10. As a result, the walls are still bare and boxes remain unpacked. It’s a snapshot of a life in the tentative stages of rebuilding.

Her platinum hair is carefully blow-dried, but Jane’s hands are notched with burns and knife scars from her years as a pastry chef. Having run restaurants with her husband – the pair opened the first incarnation of Bistrode together in an old butcher’s shop in Surry Hills in 2005 – she understood his world on multiple levels. Yet Jane remains bewildered by his death. “I’m not a grieving widow, I’m a seething widow,” she says simply.

Jane recalls how when Strode lost his brother-in-law to a heart attack a few years earlier, he was distraught at the funeral that his niece and nephew would now grow up without their father. “And yet, he’s done that to his own children,” Jane says. “It’s very hard to wrap my head around.” (Strode also has another son, Max, 26, from his first marriage.)

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But she also understands that her husband did not lead an easy life. Among chefs, he was known as “The Truth” for his honest, fad-free approach to cooking that allowed every ingredient to shine. His modern British fare won regular chef hats at Bistrode, and in 2012 he opened The Fish Shop in Potts Point, a popular seafood joint with a beach-shack vibe that elevated chip-shop classics. He and Jane became recipe columnists for The Sydney Morning Herald, and published two cookbooks together. Things were looking good. “I know the hospitality industry is gruelling and hard and you’re working when everyone else is playing,” Jane says. “But also – for me and Jez and a lot of other people – it’s a calling.”

Yet beneath his chef’s whites, Strode was wrestling bipolar disorder, the brain condition characterised by roller-coaster mood swings. Jane noticed something wasn’t quite right when she first met her future husband in 2000. The pair had just started working together at Langton’s, a well-regarded fine diner in Flinders Lane, Melbourne. As the newly appointed head chef, Strode was charged with maintaining the three hats it had garnered under the leadership of industry legend Philippe Mouchel. “Jez walked around like he was asleep,” Jane recalls. “I kept saying to someone: ‘What’s his deal? He’s got to get fired up! This is massive!’ And she said: ‘Oh, wait ’til you see him when he’s fired up, he’s in your face, he wants to know everything, he wants to read every recipe. It’s intense.’ And I knew straight away that he had bipolar.”

Strode was plagued by bouts of depression followed by manic periods in which he struggled with insomnia. “He was a different person then. He’d get very agitated and angry and couldn’t stay to finish a job – he totally destabilised everybody,” Jane says. When she began mapping out her husband’s mood swings, she noticed the manic spells tended to flare up when reviewers were due to descend.

Bipolar disorder is a tough burden for anyone to manage. But Strode had to contend with it in a notoriously demanding profession, one in which the creative pressure is unrelenting and brutal hours the norm. Jane is intimately familiar with the physical demands of the trade, having apprenticed at Sydney’s Rockpool in the late 1990s: “Back then, if you weren’t giving 80 hours a week, and sleeping in your car between shifts, then you weren’t working hard enough.” Strode, too, was moulded by the compulsive work ethic of that era. “[Work] totally consumed him,” Jane says. He routinely put in 12-hour shifts and, even in his downtime, obsessively scrutinised the competition at restaurants all over the world.

“I really just think he was exhausted,” she says of the period leading up to his death. “And he got to that point where he just let the disease – or whatever you want to call it – get the job done.”

Strode is among a number of chefs whose untimely deaths have rocked the restaurant world in recent years. The month before Strode’s suicide, celebrity chef Darren Simpson from Ready Steady Cook died of a heart attack following a lengthy battle with alcoholism. Earlier this year, Justin Bull – a one-time personal chef for Russell Crowe and James Packer – took his life in Huxton’s, his upmarket cafe in Sydney’s beachside Bronte. Overseas in 2016, the Michelin-starred Swiss chef Benoît Violier, and another Michelin-star winner, Chicago chef Homaro Cantu, both took their own lives. Then there was the widely publicised suicide of Anthony Bourdain, the TV presenter, author and chef, who died last June.

This body count has provoked much industry soul-searching. Why are so many chefs being driven to such desperate measures? “It’s like there’s this sort of epidemic,” says MasterChef host George Calombaris. “And there’s a lot of other chefs that we don’t hear about, too.”

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Strode was grimly aware of the industry’s destructive potential. After he opened his first restaurant, Pomme, in Melbourne in 1998, an apprentice chef on his team took his own life. “That really, really shook Jez,” says Jane, “Because he’d been to those dark places so many times himself.” He repeatedly assured her he’d never take his own life, though she now suspects he must have pondered it. “He’d made all these little flippant comments over the years. He’d say: ‘I’m not going to walk under a train.'” Two years before his death, Strode became an ambassador for suicide-prevention charity R U OK?, organising a charity dinner with a stellar line-up of chefs to support the cause. Speaking to publicise the event, he openly acknowledged the challenges of his beloved vocation.

“The hospitality industry is renowned for its unforgiving nature, adding pressure personally and on our relationships,” Strode said. “Having the foresight and taking the time to have a conversation with someone you may or may not know and asking if they’re okay is a wonderful thing.”

Jeremy Strode at his highly regarded Bistrode restaurant in Sydney in 2012.

Jeremy Strode at his highly regarded Bistrode restaurant in Sydney in 2012.Credit: Louise Kennerley

Behind the linen tablecloths and degustation menus, that “unforgiving nature” has long prevailed. In 1671, Francois Vatel, the maître d’ for the Prince of Condé, was instructed to arrange three days of feasts for King Louis XIV and hundreds of nobles. After working for 12 days straight with barely any sleep, Vatel was horrified to discover he wouldn’t have enough fish to cover the festivities. He promptly retired to his quarters and stabbed himself to death. The fish deliveries arrived shortly afterwards.

Kitchen memoirs invariably glorify the craziness and trauma of restaurant life. In 1933, recalling his stint as a Parisian kitchen-hand in Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell described “an atmosphere of muddle, petty spite and exasperation” in which the chef would suffer crise de nerfs at 11am, 6pm and 9pm. More than 70 years later, in White Slave, top British chef Marco Pierre White boasted of reducing his soon-to-be-famous protégé, Gordon Ramsay, to a sobbing wreck on the kitchen floor with the ferocity of one of his “bollockings”. As Anthony Bourdain would admit in the New Yorker essay that would evolve into his bestselling memoir Kitchen Confidential, “it’s a life that grinds you down”.

There’s no shortage of statistics showcasing why. In an R U OK? survey of Australian hospitality workers last year, 80 per cent agreed that mental health issues, such as feeling depressed, anxious or manic, “were a challenge facing those in the industry”. The biggest reported issue was fatigue – a symptom of the monster shifts the industry has long demanded. When Unite, the UK’s biggest union, conducted a 2017 survey of professional chefs in London, it found almost half worked between 48 and 60 hours each week, with 14 per cent working even longer.

“Working unsociable hours is a big risk factor for people with mental ill-health because it disrupts their social networks, so they don’t get to see their friends or loved ones,” says Amanda Martin, professorial research fellow in mental health at Tasmania’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research. Not only are these hours physically demanding – chefs are always on their feet – they’re also intense. “There are micro deadlines all the time, because that’s the nature of service.”

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The restaurant business is also inherently precarious. Many chefs dream of running their own place but the reality is tough: Australian Bureau of Statistics data show that of the food and beverage businesses trading in 2010, just 52 per cent had survived four years later. “When it comes to risk factors for suicide that relate to work, we know that work insecurity and financial stress are the two big ones,” Martin says.

To decompress, a work hard, play hard mentality is baked into the business. Booze is readily available, fomenting a culture of knock-off drinks, and drugs are prevalent, too. The most recent figures are in a 2008 report from Flinders University, which found that 32 per cent of hospitality workers took illegal drugs – the highest tally of any industry in the Australian workforce.

Such occupational hazards conspire to form an environment that, if not inherently dangerous, can easily compound any external problems a worker is facing. “It would be difficult to make it a health-promoting job,” Martin concedes. “But other ‘hard’ industries like the police and emergency services are starting to make real inroads. So it can be done.” A number of industry leaders are now determined to ensure that happens, among them TV chef and restaurateur George Calombaris.

George Calombaris: "It was like I'd just scalded my hand on the hotpot and then stuck it in ice water and gone 'Ahhh'. That's what meditation was like for me."

George Calombaris: “It was like I’d just scalded my hand on the hotpot and then stuck it in ice water and gone ‘Ahhh’. That’s what meditation was like for me.” Credit:Kristoffer Paulsen

In a brightly lit room in Melbourne’s leafy suburb of Kew, 60 people are sitting on hard-backed chairs concentrating on their breathing. They’re listening to the words of meditation teacher Jonni Pollard, who’s guiding them through a step-by-step process to “still the mind”. At the end of the third row sits Calombaris. With his eyes shut, he looks very different to the slightly intimidating presence he has on MasterChef. For now, his fireball passion is hidden behind a mask of calm as he retreats into a quieter zone of consciousness.

The meditation class is taking place at Calombaris’s Hellenic Republic restaurant, and the crowd is a mix of chefs, waiters and front-of-house staff from across his business. He’s invited them here at 9am on a Thursday because, during the last couple of years, Calombaris has become evangelical about meditation. “It saved me at a point in my life where I hit darkness,” he explains before the session. “But it was a shit-storm that needed to happen, because I don’t want to be a Jeremy [Strode].”

That aforementioned storm occurred in 2017, when Calombaris was rocked by two scandals in quick succession. In April, there were the revelations that his restaurants had underpaid 162 staff by $2.6 million over multiple years (on July 18 this year he conceded the amount was in fact $7.83 million in underpayed wages to 515 current and former employees of his Made Establishment Group. In an unprecedented action, the Fair Work Ombudsman slapped Calombaris with a $200,000 “contrition payment” and ordered him to make a series of public statements to promote compliance with the Fair Work Act). Then in May 2017, Calombaris was charged with assault after video footage emerged of him shoving a 19-year-old man who abused him at the A-League soccer grand final.

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He later won an appeal against his conviction, and said he’d paid back his staff entitlements in full, but the backlash was forceful and swift. Within two days of the A-League incident being televised, Calombaris lost a $250,000 deal with Bulla Dairy and almost $500,000 a year from the motor group ULR. Getting hammered in the press, he struggled to cope. “I was sleep-deprived, resorting to alcohol, erratic, not ‘present’ at home,” he says now. “I didn’t know how to deal with it.”

Then his wife Natalie Tricarico introduced him to Pollard. Originally from Sydney, the 43-year-old Pollard is creator of the 1 Giant Mind meditation app and teaching academy, and travels the world as a meditation teacher to the rich and famous. Non-disclosure agreements prevent Pollard from revealing many of his high-profile clients, but they include former Swisse CEO Radek Sali and California Governor Gavin Newsom, while online you can find pics of him locked in a smiling embrace with Richard Branson.

Previously, Calombaris had no interest in meditation. “I was like, ‘Leave me alone. I’m busy! I’ve got stuff to do!'” But when he finally gave in, it had an instant effect. “It was like I’d just scalded my hand on the hotpot and then stuck it in ice water and gone ‘Ahhh‘,” he says. “That’s what meditation was like for me.”

In the privacy of his Toorak mansion, Calombaris began taking regular one-on-one sessions with Pollard. The effects nudged him into what now sounds like an epiphany. The single-minded drive that had propelled his success, he realised, had pushed him dangerously close to burnout. He had only just turned 40, but already had varicose veins and was struggling with spinal-cord nerve damage from years spent hunched over a bench. “And this is all from this intense craziness in the kitchen. We’re not MMA fighters, we’re chefs!”

Calombaris began to reflect. From his humble upbringing in Mulgrave in outer Melbourne, he’d worked unceasingly from the kitchen floor up to build a restaurant empire that today comprises 20 venues. He still took a hands-on role, tweaking menus, sourcing produce and getting into the kitchen whenever possible. In addition, he was filming 80-plus episodes of MasterChef and its various spin-offs each year, and had two young children. Calombaris is not a man who likes to sit still. But he started to question the long-term feasibility of his way of life.

“I’m from the world of Jeremy, you know? That world of hospitality where you just worked. You put your head down and the only thing that mattered was the plate of food that you gave to your consumer. But during those extreme tough times [in 2017] I was like, ‘You know what? I need to make some changes mentally or I’m going to freaking cook myself.'”

Working closely with Pollard, the focus soon expanded from a self-help exercise into a program designed to introduce a softer dynamic to his restaurants. “It’s about re-humanising the kitchen,” says Pollard, a sharply dressed bald guy with a quiet charisma and ready smile. “Every industry needs some of that, but we’re starting here because it’s the one that’s on fire.”

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George Calombaris' meditation teacher, Jonni Pollard, is creator of the 1 Giant Mind app and travels the world as a meditation teacher to the rich and famous.

George Calombaris’ meditation teacher, Jonni Pollard, is creator of the 1 Giant Mind app and travels the world as a meditation teacher to the rich and famous. Credit:Simon Schluter

Employees at Calombaris’ Made Establishment Group now have their working hours formally restricted to 40 a week. “We don’t stick animals into fluorescent light boxes for 14 hours a day,” says Calombaris, who reasons productivity needn’t suffer if chefs push hard for the duration of their shift. “That 40 hours has to be intense.” The number of emails they send is also limited in order to encourage more face-to-face interaction. The leadership team, meanwhile, is instructed to keep a close eye on the personal welfare of their teams. “I grew up as a chef in an environment where you never got asked, ‘How’s everything at home?'” Calombaris says.

Further changes are required as a result of the four-year Fair Work Ombudsman investigation, which uncovered a raft of breaches including a failure to pay minimum award rates, penalty rates, casual loadings, overtime rates, split-shift allowances and annual leave loadings; and a failure to keep records of the hours worked by staff on annualised salaries, some of whom were also denied accrued overtime and penalty rates. As part of the Ombudsman’s finding, Calombaris has agreed to implement new payroll and compliance systems across his stable of restaurants, which must be independently audited for the next three years, while workplace relations training will be provided to all staff with responsibility for human resources, payroll and on-site management.

Pollard’s meditation courses remain a central focus. Calombaris intends to offer all team members the opportunity to learn how to meditate. (“I can’t force them because it’s not legal,” he says with just a hint of regret.)

Today’s session was a quick refresher for staff who’d already completed a three-day course at the start of the year. The precise roll-out of the scheme is still hazy – Pollard continues to travel a lot to see clients – but more sessions are promised in the coming months. “I want every single team member to be able to meditate so they can handle pressure better and whatever life throws at them,” Calombaris says. “I want to empower them with a backpack of tools that they can grab on to, especially in times of need.”

It’s about re-humanising the kitchen.

Meditation teacher, Jonni Pollard

Sceptics might question if all this is a PR move from a man whose public image is still tarnished. But Calombaris – not someone who tends to do anything half-cocked – comes across like a man on a mission. He speaks of Pollard with genuine awe (“He’s a beautiful man”) and has even got his kids, now aged seven and four, meditating: his son uses it to control his phobia of lifts. Fuelling his meditation zeal is a belated recognition that the old ways of running a restaurant are defunct. “There’s all this chatter in the industry about the sustainability of food,” Calombaris says. “For me, this is about the sustainability of our industry. It’s about the sustainability of the people who work in it.”

Newcastle head chef Mal Meiers wants to show that kitchens can run efficiently while nurturing workers.

Newcastle head chef Mal Meiers wants to show that kitchens can run efficiently while nurturing workers.Credit:Zoe Lonergan 

A thousand-odd kilometres away in the Newcastle suburb of Mayfield, Mal Meiers seems to have got the sustainability memo. His home is crowded with handmade passion projects. The coffee table in his living room is, in fact, a working kiln, and piles of pottery vessels are huddled everywhere in teetering stacks. In the shadow of a vat of fermenting pear cider, his wife’s homemade loom sits next to punnets of broad beans that he recently planted. It’s raining too hard to go outside, but in the garden, Meiers assures me, he’s growing everything from finger limes to kumquats.

These extracurricular pursuits are not accidental. They’re a very conscious addition to his life as head chef of Newcastle restaurant Subo. “I stop myself from the bad behaviours that I fell into in the past by investing in myself,” says Meiers, a lean, tattooed figure in a black hoodie. More specifically, the 33-year-old is careful to ensure the kitchen no longer monopolises his every waking hour. “I can tell you first hand that’s important,” Meiers says. “Because not having that almost drove me to take my own life.”

Meiers became familiar with anxiety early in his career. As a 23-year-old young chef at Bistro Guillaume in Melbourne, he’d get overwhelmed with nerves in the build-up to his busiest weekend shifts. “I’d have to go throw up before service,” he recalls. “I’d just get so churned up because there is no margin for error.” Like most chefs, Meiers kept his head down and pushed on through. In the process, he carved out a career at some of Australia’s best restaurants including Bennelong (Sydney), Franklin (Hobart) and Tonka (Melbourne).

Some experiences were more difficult than others. In London, he worked at Michelin-starred restaurant The Square, enduring 17-hour shifts and a militaristic culture that almost broke him. “There was a lot of yelling and a lot of belittling – that was when my anxiety was probably the worst,” he says. “I just started hating cooking.” Once again, Meiers gritted his teeth and clung on. “You just get on with it,” he says with a shrug. That suck-it-up stoicism might still persist, had it not been for a life-changing incident six years ago.

By this stage, Meiers was back in Melbourne, working at a restaurant whose name he’s unwilling to divulge, but which he really didn’t enjoy. Aggravating this professional rut, life was also tricky at home, where he found himself in a rocky patch with his then girlfriend.

To deal with his woes, Meiers began drinking harder. “If I had a bad day I’d go have a drink. Then one turns into two, turns into three and you’re out until 3am. Next thing, you’re back in the restaurant at 9am with a hangover. It becomes a really vicious cycle.”

Increasingly exhausted, he tried to muddle on until the summer night that took him to the brink. He can only recollect what happened in hazy fragments. After work there were drinks in the city that got messy. He ended up at a club in Prahran. Took some ecstasy. There were more drinks. At some stage Meiers blacked out …

He came to sitting alone on St Kilda beach, staring at the ocean. “All of a sudden this darkness just hit me. I thought to myself: ‘I’m just so tired. Nothing’s going right in my life. I should just put myself to rest.'” Sitting there, Meiers resolved to take his own life. On a whim, at 4am he rang his best mate back in his hometown of Caloundra, Queensland. “I told him I was just going to end it,” Meiers says. Luckily, his friend managed to talk him down. “He told me everything was going to be okay. He told me that I just needed to come home.”

Meiers took his advice. He quit his job, moved back home for three weeks and regrouped. He started talking to a psychologist and underwent a brief course of antidepressants. He got fit and stopped drinking so savagely. He discovered a love of pottery that offered a positive release away from the kitchen. Plus, he met Kate Christensen, a sommelier and yoga teacher whom he married earlier this year.

Reflecting on his lucky escape, in 2014 Meiers started Food For Thought, a charity dinner aimed at improving mental health in the food industry. Thirty-five people turned up to the first degustation event at Beer DeLuxe in Melbourne’s Federation Square. The initiative now extends to multiple events across the country and raises tens of thousands of dollars for mental health charities, including R U OK? and Lifeline.

“The idea was really to raise awareness of the support services out there,” Meiers explains. “I didn’t see them before because I was so trapped in my own little world; I was just so snowed under with work.”

Meiers moved to Newcastle to start at the hatted Subo last October. It’s his first role as a head chef and, as such, represents an opportunity for him to implement his belief that a kitchen can still run efficiently with a more nurturing culture. His style of management highlights the shifting mindset of the new generation of chefs.

“You don’t have to manipulate people with fear and negativity,” he insists. “As a head chef you’ve got to find a better way.” Suffice to say, Meiers does not take the Marco Pierre White approach to kitchen bollockings; he also points out that young chefs today are unlikely to tolerate them, either. Instead, if one of his chefs seems flustered and is making mistakes, Meiers will quietly take them aside and talk them through a circular-breathing exercise in order to help them re-centre.

You don’t have to manipulate people with fear and negativity. As a head chef you’ve got to find a better way.

Mal Meiers

As well as limiting his chefs’ shifts to a maximum of eight hours, Meiers strives to kindle a sense of connection with his staff. He’s currently training with one of his chefs to run Sydney’s City2Surf, and encourages group foraging trips to source local ingredients like rosemary flowers and beach mustard. When he discovered another of his colleagues was an amateur brewer, he sought a way to incorporate his passion into the menu (there’s now a Jerusalem artichoke and brown-ale sorbet on the dessert menu). “I had to go through all that darkness, all those kitchens full of yelling and fear,” he says. “But all that led me to be the chef that I am now.”

That chef has certainly rediscovered his mojo. Driving to his restaurant through the pouring rain, Meiers chatters about a dish on today’s menu that involves shaved noodles of cuttlefish topped with a smoked hazelnut crumb and served with heavily charred hispi cabbage folded together with beurre blanc. His passion for cooking appears to have returned. In front of the restaurant we get out of the car, Meiers laden with a box full of monstrous purple cauliflowers that he bought at a local farm.

As the rain pelts down, a passing taxi zips through a puddle and drenches us. Meiers – hand-knitted beanie on head, arms full of organic veg – simply laughs and walks off towards Subo. Those cuttlefish won’t noodle themselves. While the restaurant world continues to mourn so many tragic losses, even in the downpour, the future looks a little bit brighter.

Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Beyond Blue 1300 224 636; R U OK?.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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