Back in 2016, award-winning chef and musician Andrew Clarke had been struggling with depression and addiction. To make a change, he knew he needed to speak out. So, on World Mental Health Day, Clarke laid bare his thoughts and experience in a very real Instagram post. The post had a huge response and became an unexpected catalyst for change in his life. Here, to once again mark World Mental Health Day, he talks to T.M.Lewin about his journey through addiction, Pilot Light, the initiative he set up to raise awareness of mental health, his love of cooking, and how he finds his purpose in life by showing up for other people.
I can talk all day long. I’m not an expert in anything, but I can always talk about my lived experience, and this is where I was going with Pilot Light (the campaign Clarke launched with his friend and fellow award-winning chef Doug Sanham to raise awareness of mental health, specifically in the hospitality sector). I have a voice, I can talk, and I can just share what I’ve been through. If what I say resonates with someone and helps them find their voice, then hopefully they can find comfort in talking and pass that on.
For Pilot Light, by the time I’d met Doug and set this up, we wanted to raise awareness of mental health, and it made sense for us to do it from a hospitality point of view because we knew there were a lot of tortured souls having a hard time, whether they were at the top of their game or just coming into the industry. We didn’t want to go too deep with it; we just wanted to raise awareness.
The whole concept had never been more relevant than during the pandemic, which taught us all so much about focusing on our own mental health. Suddenly, there were so many initiatives, charities, and support groups doing a lot of good things. We felt like we’d done what we’d set out to do after the pandemic and decided we wanted to evolve our work with helping others beyond raising awareness, so we moved on from Pilot Light.
After the pandemic, I wanted to understand a bit more about my own mental health. Doug and I host a podcast together called Skull Session, where we continue the conversation about mental health and wellbeing by talking about how to bring good things into our lives. We explore all the small things we can do to support ourselves and discuss how we can do things for our mental health that we are not getting told about in the mainstream.
It's particularly difficult for men. There is a kind of macho bravado in society. Men are afraid that speaking out will be seen as a weakness. Luckily, thanks to initiatives like Pilot Light and strong male role models such as Tyson Fury speaking out to say that if you don’t look after yourself, your mental health can suffer, many more people are talking about it now. It doesn’t matter who you are; anxiety and stress are all part of everyday human life, and you really need to check in with yourself. It’s important to ask, ‘How am I feeling?’ internally. Notice those little anxieties, those worries, and if they’re there, just be aware of them—that is the first step.
For me, the way I start my day is essential to how the rest of it pans out. Quite often, I turn to meditation. Meditation translates to ‘to know oneself'; that’s the whole meaning of it. When you are alone with your thoughts, it’s a good time to check in. Often, I just sit at the edge of the bed and make space for myself. You don’t need any specialist equipment; you certainly don’t need an app. You can just close your eyes, use breathwork, and allow your mind to clear. In the mornings, I visualise my day—not in a scheduling way; that’s just clutter. I think about what I want from the day and how I want to feel. Our mind is so powerful at helping us on a positive path. It can be anything from five to 20 minutes just focusing on myself and my day; it’s a moment of connection.
Trouble is, for a lot of us, our routine is to get up, have a coffee, look at the news, and look at our phones. These are really unhealthy habits; we’re letting negativity straight into our lives, and there’s very little good to come from that. If you are going to have a coffee or read the paper, do it later. Make sure you’re connecting with yourself first.
I’ve recently found another way to direct my purpose for helping others as part of a community of healers and shamans. We hold ceremonies to help people come and work with medicine. Before I went on this path, I felt quite empty, and I didn’t feel like I had a purpose; I was just living a very mundane existence. Before the pandemic, I had successful restaurants, and I love cooking and creating food, but it wasn’t the restaurants that were really making me happy. Now I have had a spiritual awakening through these shamanic ceremonies, and I feel very good when I hold space for others, and I feel like that is the purpose of life. There’s a selfish aspect to that, but if I’m going to feel good by helping others, it’s kind of a selfish paradox: people are going to benefit from me making myself feel good. I believe in energy; in order for you to take, you have to give back somewhere. If I want things to go well, I’ve got to pay that forward. It’s about finding that balance.
Acme Fire Cult
After the first lockdown, my business partner Daniel Watkins and I ran some events in a carpark in London Fields, embracing the live fire cooking I’d done at St Leonards restaurant in Shoreditch before lockdown. This is where the concept of Acme Fire Cult really started. We wanted to pick up where St Leonards left off and, with lockdown meaning people could only really eat outside, it went well with the spirit of the outdoors I like to live by. The focus was plant-based in reaction to the trends at the time and the goal was to do really good vegetables over fire – there were a lot of calls for it. Everything was saying to me, trust the plants. That’s where I got the inspiration for the menu.
I wanted a brand name that celebrated fire, food, and outdoor living. I came up with Acme (meaning something at its highest point), which links to the live fire element of our cooking but also the Loony Toons brand, where everything is made by Acme Corporation. It meant we wouldn’t be a restaurant but a brand, with sauces, T-shirts, events, anything really. Now, 18 months after opening Acme Fire Cult in Dalston, it has really found its feet to become the restaurant that it is. We’re getting back on track to do the things we want to do. We really want to encourage people to cook outside all year and sit outside at the restaurant at Acme; it’s really a lifestyle thing.
The great outdoors
We’ve been cooped up inside for so long, and it’s so healthy to be outside, like our ancestors once were. Being indoors all the time is not healthy. I just felt like there was a lot the pandemic was telling us about improving health. And while Acme is plant-based, we still serve meat and fish. My view is that if we are going to serve meat, we should serve the best meat we can find from regenerative farms, and we should support fishing where fish are hook and line, not mass trawled. We like to ask ourselves: What is our impact? We’re quite heavy on our zero waste, using by-products from the brewery and the bakery next door and our own by-products; we’re just trying to be more conscientious. And it’s always been important, but this time it’s an opportunity to go even deeper with it.
Away from the restaurant, I like writing. Journaling is a good practice: putting our thoughts down, getting things out of our heads. I find it very cathartic just decluttering my head. Anything from writing lists, ideas, recipes, getting stuff out to make space for other things.
It’s so important to take the necessary steps to look after ourselves. We have ourselves for the rest of our lives, so we should be the most important person in our lives. I say that because how can we show up for others if we’re not showing up for ourselves? It’s not selfish.
It’s also important to have boundaries. I learned a long time ago that being too eager to please doesn’t serve me in any way; it’s about finding a balance. If I want to feel good about helping other people, I’ve got to tell myself, ‘I can only help this amount of people’ because when I do more than that, I’ll start getting negative about it, worrying about whether I should have said no to that kind of thing.
The best self-care is to eat well, make sure you’re getting some good rest, and keep moving. Get down to the gym. Do those things, and you can worry about the other bits. That’s the thing about self-care; it’s essential. Putting yourself first is not selfish. It’s necessary.
Andrew Clarke is an award-winning chef best known for Brunswick House at St. Leonards restaurants. He co-founded the mental health campaign Pilot Light, and his latest venture, Acme Fire Cult, celebrates live fire cooking and outdoor living and can be found at Abbot St., London, E8 3DP; chefandrewclarke.com
The wellness podcast edit
In light of promoting mental health awareness, we've curated a collection of the best podcast conversations surrounding the topic on our Spotify channel.