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The White Jacket Effect: Canberra’s chefs are fed up

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Hospitality is a tough gig – marked by long hours, pressure, social isolation, alcohol and drug abuse and low wages.

Not to mention, everyone’s a critic when it comes to your work. In Canberra, a group of industry insiders are reaching out to support those for whom the pressure becomes too much.

Amber Kaba (pictured above, bottom right) is spearheading The White Jacket Effect. She wants chefs who don their trademark white jacket to take on responsibility for changing the prevailing kitchen culture and to provide a beacon of easily identifiable hope within the hot-house environment of a busy meal service.

Amber has fallen prey to the devastating realities of a life dedicated to hospitality.

Having been a chef for more than 20 years, earning her credentials at Sydney’s Quay before working in several Michelin-starred restaurants in London, Amber learned early on that she needed to be tough to survive and succeed.

Like so many of her colleagues, Amber pushed through the inherent competitiveness of the industry to make her mark. She endured the ridiculous hours, pressure-cooker environment and loss of connection to family and friends in the name of perfection on a plate. But it was not without cost. Those late-night come-downs after a big dinner service usually ended in drinking. And after a while, alcohol became an emotional crutch that she leaned on every day.

Two years ago, Amber hit rock bottom, acknowledging that her alcohol abuse, which she had cleverly disguised for so long, was controlling her.

“I tried three times to give up. And none of those times I ever thought to reach out to discuss my problems with anyone. It was drummed into me during my training that you didn’t ask for help because it was a sign of weakness.”

Added to that was the prevailing drinking culture in the kitchen which saw many colleagues encourage her to keep drinking even when they could see the personal toll it was taking.

But somehow, two years ago, Amber found the inner strength to turn away from the bottle. And she has resolved to stay sober, even when alcohol regularly flows around her in her workplace.

She remembers discussing her battles with her mentor, chef Richard Moyser, a well-credentialed British-born Sydney food identity.

It absolutely knocked Amber for six when Moyser took his own life at the start of this year.

She thought he had it all—his own restaurant, great reviews, a place in the limelight. But he was beholden to addictions to drugs and alcohol which began at literally the same time his career started. Amber was beyond devastated.

Since then she has been on a mission, attempting to establish the White Jacket Effect as a culture-breaking cause for good across the country.

A high-profile launch at Quay alongside industry stars Peter Gilmore and Neil Perry took place in April.

Amber has also recently launched in Melbourne, Queensland and Canberra, hoping to raise awareness of the inherent negative consequences of an industry that, despite it all, she clearly adores.

Amber didn’t have to convince Alex Piris (pictured above, bottom left), owner of Farrer’s Fox and Bow and Phillip’s Manolo’s, that movement needed to happen in Canberra. He immediately put the call out to a number of local industry heavyweights to support the cause.

A Facebook page, What’s on Your Plate, is open to local hospo workers and Alex posts some of the increasing media coverage which considers the unfair burden placed on those who serve others, as well as thought-provoking pieces on work/life balance and mental health in general.

Alex will also be one of the speakers at The White Jacket Effect’s Workshop Day, which will take place at The Boat House next Monday 22 July from 10 am – 2 pm.

Hospitality workers from front of house to kitchen staff are all invited, in fact, anyone involved in any way with the hospitality is welcome to attend, including educators, industry leaders and service providers.

The day will encompass talks from Amber and Alex, as well as other Canberra hospitality luminaries like Ben Willis of Aubergine and Temporada, Vanessa Scanes, Director of Nourish, Kurt Neumann of Grazing, Louis Couttoupes, formerly of Bar Rochford, and Angus Mackie of ONA Coffee.

There will also be the chance for attendees and anyone who can’t make it to the event to gather on the front lawn of Parliament House at 3.45 pm for a group photoshoot, which Alex says will be a chance for the group to take a public stand.

“I want this to be an opportunity for people to see what we’re doing and realise that there’s an issue that needs to be addressed. This is us taking a stand against what’s going wrong in our industry–an industry we love,” says Alex. “We want to make things better for our generation, and the ones to come. The change starts with us and the change starts here.”

“Even if you can’t make it to the workshop day, come along to stand with us at the photo shoot and help us create more awareness of The White Jacket Effect. The more hospitality staff talking about what’s happening with them and their mental health, the better.”

the essentials

What: The White Jacket Effect Workshop Day
When: Monday 22 July from 10 am – 2 pm
Where: The Boat House, Grevillea Place, Parkes
Cost: $35, includes lunch and refreshments
More information/tickets: See Eventbrite

What: The White Jacket Effect photoshoot (everyone welcome) at 3.45pm out the front of Parliament House)
When: Monday 22 July at 3.45 pm
Where: The front lawn of New Parliament House
More information: Facebook

Photography: Tim Bean Photography

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