Why are commercial kitchens and stress so often mentioned in the same sentence? What is it about commercial kitchens that can raise blood pressure while just thinking about them? Perhaps it is because in any given day in a commercial kitchen, chefs may experience some or all of the following, extreme heat – hob, fryer, grill, hotplate, ovens; extreme cold- walk in freezer, walk in cold room, standing out the back for a cigarette/ air break/ coffee break; extreme behaviour- bad tempered colleagues, delivery guys, disorganised / hysterical front of house staff, customer demands verging on the impossible; colleague absence or total disappearance; broken/inefficient/poor quality equipment and just for the craic throw in an inspector or two such as our fondly regarded E.H.O or Fire Officer.

What other work places combine such a heady mix of potentially explosive stress triggers? There are some, no doubt. However, in this pot of potential stress soup, there will be those who remain calm, focused, even good humoured. There will be owners who face with equanimity enough kitchen stress to flatten a rhino and chefs who breeze through an intense and frantic service with the serenity of the Dalai Lama.

Whichever way it is viewed, commercial kitchens are potentially challenging places where an individual’s tetchy response to normal demands can skew the entire atmosphere from one of relative calm to, knife edged tension. It only takes one person whose stress triggers are being continuously activated to turn a harmonious atmosphere into a deeply distressing one for all concerned.

What is Stress?

‘What is often experienced and given the name of stress, from an evolutionary point of view, is an ancient biologically meaningful, reflex mechanism known as the fight or flight response. . When danger looms, humans adapt quickly to strain and challenges by harnessing the organism’s capacity for both responses. Stress is not always harmful as long as periods of stress are followed by phases of relaxation. Stress has become a problem in modern times in humans because it is triggered many times a day by a multitude of stimuli, and the physical effects of the stress reaction are not resolved in either the fight or flight response… There are no stimuli in themselves that are stress triggers. Rather the way someone perceives them determines if they are stressful or not’ Ulla Franken.

Thus, it is not the situation we are faced with that is stressful but our response to it. How then, in a busy kitchen, perhaps faced with multiple demands from multiple angles, can a person face a potential stressor – be that a situation or a colleague- without those stress responses being needlessly activated over and over?

Once we become aware of our habitual ways of reacting (on automatic pilot) rather than responding to situations by finding a nanosecond to hit the ‘pause’ button, it is then possible to regain a sense of emotional balance. For instance, someone has once again left the delivery at the back door and no sign of it being stored, decanted, rotated with current stock. Is the habitual reaction to yell, stomp, scream and then do it yourself anyway? Or, a waiter has brought back a plate of food with a customer complaint … what is the habitual, instantaneous reaction? Are these reactions helpful, healthy, good for us? Or, an habitually bad tempered colleague who has a depressing effect on the team is given free rein to infect the kitchen with toxicity?

Once we understand that by taking a ‘time out’ 30/60 or 120 second breathing space, we can change entirely our own experience of those three situations, we then have the potential to surf the waves of stress rather than ‘drowning’ in them.

It might be useful to try this ‘3 Step Breathing Space’ initially with a small irritation to become familiar with it and ‘test’ it out. When a ‘stress trigger’ enters our awareness,

  • Dropping into the physical body, wherever you are.
    • What is going on in the body?
    • What physical sensations are there? Is there tightness, tension, clenched hands, jaw, face? Is there tension in the back, chest or abdomen? Is there tension, pain in the shoulders, arms?
    • Do a quick scan of the experience in the body in that moment.
    • Mentally note these sensations, perhaps saying ( internally) ‘Ahh, I notice tension there, OK I see that now, I acknowledge that it is here now’
  • What is going on in the mind right now? What thoughts are here? Noting those as mental events?
    • We have now stepped out of Automatic Pilot.
    • What feelings/ emotions are here now? Noting them ‘OK, there is anger here’ ‘There’s frustration’. Noting that. That is what is here now.
  • Now, focusing on a single point of focus – the movements of the breath.
    •  Focusing on the rise and fall of the abdomen, staying with the breath.. moving in and moving out. Using the breath as an anchor to the present. As you breathe, the breath gradually dampens down the flow of stress hormones allowing you to tune into the underlying state of calm beneath.
    • Allowing the awareness to expand to the whole body and the space we are currently in and continuing to use the anchor of the breath to ground ourselves

Like honing any skill, the skill of stepping out of Automatic Pilot to catch the mind before it hijacks us into full blown stress, takes practice. With practice, that busy frantic kitchen becomes a place of job satisfaction rather than multiple stress points.

Based on the work of Jon Kabat Zinn
Jon Kabat-Zinn is an American professor emeritus of medicine and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. 

Boiling Over – How to Handle Stress in Kitchens