Last year, Castle Cary-man, Kris Hall was furloughed. But instead of growing courgettes and playing quizzes he used the time to further spread his message about how the industry overlooks its workers’ mental health – as well as seeing his non-profit grow by 700% through the sale of statement merch. Here’s what happened…

Bath-based 2014 Masterchef winner, Ping Coombes, photographed by Kris Hall

When Lockdown 1.0 kicked in, Kris Hall knew what to do. Sitting at home with furlough-time at his fingertips, he set about accelerating the non-profit company he’d set up just a year previously. “It allowed me to really invest my time and energy to take this ahead to two years ahead of where it should have been” he says on the phone from his office in Castle Cary, Somerset.

Kris Hall, the man behind the super-successful non-profit The Burnt Chef Project. He is based in Castle Cary

The “this” Kris is talking about, is his breathtakingly successful social enterprise, The Burnt Chef Project, which raises awareness about the severity of mental health problems within the hospitality industry. Kris spread the word through interviews and social media and has created an impressive line of branded merchandise, from beanies to bespoke journals, which he sells through his website www.burntchefproject.com.  All the profits then fund mental health training for volunteers working within the industry – sort of Guardian Angels for food. The idea is that these ‘ambassadors’ help struggling colleagues manage the tough environment of catering, primarily through talking,  before they reach crisis point. They are still one of the team, much like a medical first-aider.

One of The Burnt Chef Project’s mental health awareness ambassadors

He’s struck gold. In less than a year, Kris has increased revenue dramatically and has seen the growth of sales and social media following increase by an incredible 700% growth since he begun pushing in March. All the profits go to training which costs around £400 per person.

What inspired him to start? During nine years working in wholesale food sales in the South West, 33 year old Kris had access to many professional kitchens, their staff and the owners. “There was (and still is) a mass exodus of people leaving the trade,” he remembers,  “no-one knew why or how that was happening, but through conversations it was apparent it was a tough industry to work in – no work-life balance, no decent pay, high stress levels.”  A survey he conducted himself earlier this year, found that only 35% of the 1,300 asked would recommend working in this industry.

So in May 2019 he formulated a plan. He’s also a freelance commercial photographer and natural marketeer and “thought it would be would be a nice thing to do to raise awareness for mental health issues around hospitality to take black and white portraits of chefs and staff.” He gambled that as “chefs are creative and passionate with strong egos” they “would share their images on social media and raise awareness of the topic and his platform. He was right. A year and a half later The Burnt Chef Project has over 10,000 followers on Instagram and has photographed many faces in hospitality, from all areas of the industry, including that of 2014 Masterchef winner, Ping Coombes and Bruton’s latest star chef, Merlin Johnson from Osip.

Yet, while he was taking the photos, a funny thing happened. As Kris raced in and out of restaurants, shooting black-and-white portraits, half-face and half-shadow style, ( a method that meant he only needed minimal equipment and that also lent itself to the serious nature of the topic), people began to talk to him about their mental health and specifically about the harshness of the hospitality. It was “red rag to a bull” he remembers, “an opportunity for me to make a change.” He developed the idea into a talking event in October 2019. It was an instant hit. 25 chefs were invited, but on the day 65 queued outside the venue, the Terrior restaurant in Bournemouth, eager to participate in conversations led by charities Mind and Kelly’s Cause Foundation, the latter of which now train the ambassadors in what they describe as “mental health first aid”. Kris raised over £2,000 in ticket and raffle sales which was reinvested into the first training.

But just why is hospitality so stressful?

“It’s an industry based on stoicsm, about getting on with it and not letting other team members down,” explains Kris. “You can’t show any weakness and it’s very hierarchical.” The Escoffier system, which kitchens traditionally use is based on a military structure. “With that in mind, people tend to run it in a similar fashion. These people [employed in it] are also working anywhere from between 50-80 hours a week, during unsociable hours with limited access to natural daylight.” It’s hot, there are rigid time pressures and they are surrounded by drugs and alcohol. Kris describes how common it used to be for staff to be “punched in the storecupboard” although he does think there is less of that now.

Chef Merlin Johnson, from Osip in Bruton lent his face to the campaign

Inspired by how much he could help, Kris committed to his new project, the name of which came about through conversations with a chef friend, who was suffering physical and emotional exhaustion one Christmas. His friend described himself as a “burnt chef.” Eureka! Kris designed a simple but striking logo of a black and white brain and started branding products, initially starting with “a few t-shirts and some leather wristbands.” But the pandemic meant he found himself working from home in Castle Cary, where he lives with this wife, Martina, of five years (they’ve been together for ten) and their two young children. Martina used to work for Lodestone Property. He went into overdrive, writing press releases, creating products, creating a website and taking part in podcasts and Insta chats (most notably one where he talked alongside actor Tom Hooper from The Umbrella Academy). He worked at home, helped by Martina, who packed boxes in the evening after her day job until pretty quickly the business needed more space. So Kris moved into an office in Castle Cary, Somerset around the time he gave up his full-time job in October 2020.

A branded chef’s jacket from The Burnt Chef Project

Like many small business-owners and entrepreneurs, Kris’ passion spurs him on. But as well as being moved by the plight of the people whose photos he first took, there was a personal motivation to spearhead this project. “It’s no secret – I have spoken about it enough times in public – but I have had my own issues – depression, anxiety,” he reveals, describing his first bout of serious depression at 17, when he was “bed-ridden” and then another when he was 29. That time he suffered “a sort of mid-life crisis, a personality crisis. I didn’t know who I was, I felt I didn’t have any value.” But with the help of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) he recovered. And that is what’s key to the message of The Burnt Chef.  You can get better.

“Just because you have suffered from depression or you have had anxiety or panic attacks, this does not mean that you will be suffering from that for the rest of your life.” He explains. “People who are mentally unwell do get better, but they are also in a unique position that they can identify mental health. That’s where my ambassadors are really good because a lot of them have suffered themselves.” He goes quiet for a moment, reflecting on why he finds The Burnt Chef so rewarding, then adds  “it gives me the ability to put food on the table, while helping others but it has also helped my mental health massively –  is the ability be able to be in control of my own destiny, be constantly challenging myself and be creative. We’re only on the planet for a short time after all.”

So let’s make the most of it.

By Cath Rapley

For more info about The Burnt Chef Project please see here

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