Hospitality can be a glorious career choice. Many young people are attracted to the hospitality world for the sense of family and belonging that it can provide. However, when restaurants and customers fail to deliver, these young employees can find themselves working within a dysfunctional hospitality family. Richard Mitchell of Otago Polytechnic shares his thoughts on a wicked solution…


The art of true hospitality is giving part of oneself to provide food, drink and shelter to nourish others physically, psychologically and spiritually. I am often humbled by those in the industry who genuinely believe that it is their true calling and passion to make others feel welcome, embraced and happy.

Sadly, this often means that many give too much of themselves at the expense of their own well-being and nourishment. When we consider the unyielding pressures of making a meagre living from this most noble of professions, it is not surprising that we are seeing a rise in the incidence of physical and mental breakdowns among chefs, service staff and hospitality business owners.

This is a ‘wicked problem’ – a problem so complex that fixing part of the problem can, and often does, lead to more problems in other areas. For example, simply saying that chefs need to work less and have more free time for regeneration, can lead to more stress for those responsible for recruiting, rostering and managing staff (often the same chefs who are closest to breaking point). I know many head chefs and owners doing amazing things for their staff, but at the expense of their own health.

What is needed is a ‘wicked solution’– an entire culture shift across both the industry and the dining public and this is going to take some time.

From a consumer’s perspective, we need to expect less, pay more (yes, eating out is far too cheap) and be more hospitable to our hosts. Hospitality is predicated on the notion of reciprocity – the ‘gift’ of food, drink and shelter is to be reciprocated with thanks, praise and warmth, but we have substituted this with money and forgotten to be grateful. The rise of the everyday critic and the open platforms for broadcasting negative sentiment are undoubtedly contributing to the angst of chefs and service staff. When you criticise the dish or service, most hospitable people see that as a criticism of them. They feel that they are less worthy because their gift was not well received.

Hospitality has become transactional and our hosts have been reduced to cogs in the machine of production. As a result, consumers confuse service with servility and hospitableness is reciprocated with hostility; the human cost on the industry is immeasurable. I always personally thank the kitchen staff whenever I eat out and the look of surprise and delight from the chefs speaks volumes about how important a simple act of gratitude can be.

The culture shift in the industry is beginning to happen as we recognise the human toll of more than a century of neglect of the core asset of hospitality – its people. Leading chefs like Rene Redzepi and Ben Shewry are publicly exposing the problem and changing their practices. However, trickle-down is slow and there are limited resources available to the industry to help them with this complex problem, not to mention the difficulty of overcoming the masculine resistance to what fundamentally needs to be a more thoughtful approach to the care of oneself and others.

AT OTAGO POLYTECHNIC, we have recently begun to equip our Bachelor of Culinary Arts students with tools to help them manage their own well-being, and while it is early days we are seeing a lot of positive results. We are educating the whole person and not just making them into another cog in the machine. This includes learning on self-care, resilience and how to continue to learn and grow beyond the classroom. And, yes, we know that many will say they just need to learn to ‘harden up’ but look at where a century or so of that has gotten us.

We believe that learning about how we tick and how to care for ourselves at work is fundamental to a meaningful and rewarding career. While we have only recently implemented this on campus, we have seen the transformational power of self-discovery and self-awareness in the dozens of experienced practitioners who have graduated from a one-year version of the Bachelor of Culinary Arts where chefs and other food professionals deeply reflect on their career. Once they understand themselves they are liberated and take control of their life. They go for that promotion or job that they never felt worthy of, they take responsibility for their work-life balance or they believe in their own self-worth.

It is by no means the only solution, but we believe that a key ingredient is to make hospitality more human again and to help those amazing people among us who love giving the gift of hospitality to feel that they are truly valued.

RICHARD MITCHELL Professor in Food Design, Food Design Institute, Otago Polytechnic