Food for thought

Top chef Andrew Clarke turned his battle with depression into a positive by launching a campaign to help others suffering in similar ways

Food and Drink 15 Feb 2019

Illustration by Jack Hudson

Illustration by Jack Hudson

‘Depression wasn’t something I believed in before it hit me,’ admits chef Andrew Clarke. ‘I’d always put it down to people in the West being miserable and not being grateful for what we’ve got. There are a lot of things that get us down; a lot of pressures.’ Clarke – who opened fire and ice-themed restaurant St Leonards in Shoreditch last June alongside Jackson Boxer – is not the first chef to reveal a struggle with his mental health. Last year, celebrated gourmand Anthony Bourdain took his own life, and in a recent worldwide survey by Unilever Food Services, a staggering 63 per cent of chefs reported that they suffered from depression.

In 2016, when Clarke was through the worst of his mental-health issues, he started a campaign – Pilot Light – after revealing his battle to his followers on Instagram: ‘I was overwhelmed by the response I got,’ he says.

‘I wrote the post to recognise World Mental Health Day, finally as a believer. I went to bed and thought nothing of it, then woke up the next morning to hundreds of likes and messages saying, “You’ve said something we can’t say”. I knew there and then, I had to do something.’

The responses Clarke received surprised him: ‘There were messages from people I know really well saying, “I know what you’re going through, I’ve been through it too”. I would never have known that if I hadn’t spoken out.’ Pilot Light, which officially launches a website in March, aims to open up the conversation about mental health by encouraging people working in the hospitality industry to talk about their experiences with mental health, bullying and addiction.

While the industry does not necessarily cause mental health issues, it can have an adverse effect. For Clarke, working in a kitchen actually helped him out of his depression, but he recognises that there are still many people suffering as a result of the pressures of the job. ‘The restaurant industry is not easy; it’s a hard environment and not everyone is comfortable with that,’ admits Clarke. ‘Bullying exists. Long hours exist.’ Yet Clarke believes things are changing. ‘We’re entering a new positive era in the industry, but there are a lot of things still wrong and Pilot Light wants to reach out to anyone struggling with that.’

When you meet a successful person like Clarke, with his friendly optimism and huge talent, it’s easy to forget that there can be hidden vulnerabilities, but he is keen to assert that ‘even a big guy who looks like me’ (Clarke has long hair, a long plaited beard and tattoos decorating both of his arms) can feel the effects of mental illness. When Clarke’s bid to become a musician didn’t go to plan in his twenties, he started to drink and use drugs. ‘I was very destructive,’ he admits. The catalyst for depression came after a break-up in his thirties. ‘It’s more than just being sad, it’s the physical manifestation; you just can’t function. I was suicidal. Most days of the week I was empty, numb. I was running on nervous energy and couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t about the girl leaving, it was that I’d put all my happiness in someone, and that was wrong. I realised I had to focus on me and making myself happy.’

‘I was very outspoken about how I was feeling, which meant I had incredible support from the people around me. I’m very, very thankful for that. There is no weakness in talking about or going through mental illness, it can happen to anyone. Only talking about it and encouraging others to talk is going to break the stigma and make it easier for people to get help.’

In the 18 months since starting the campaign, Clarke has been working with a variety of charities including Time to Change (, which works to end mental-health discrimination. Industry power players such as Wagamama and Soho House are also keen to be involved, and while Clarke maintains it ‘made sense’ for him to focus on the hospitality industry for Pilot Light, he hopes one day it will reach out to all.

Now Clarke ensures both his food and his staff at St Leonards are sustainable. ‘I don’t overwork them,’ he says. ‘If we have a tricky week, the hours are there if anyone wants them but there’s no pressure.’ He is also writing a book: ‘It’s about using minimal meat to make a dish that can feed a lot of people,’ he explains. It’s also one of the ways Clarke is looking after himself, ‘I’ve been enjoying writing for a few years and I do it for my sanity, I guess,’ he says. ‘It’s just nice to get thoughts out of your head.’ Clarke still plays in a band and hopes to release an album this year.

‘I’m grateful I came through depression unharmed,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t want to go through it again, however I’m glad I did because it’s made me a stronger person and hopefully I can help a lot of people on that journey.’

For more information on Pilot Light, visit Read Brummell’s review of St Leonards here.