Q&A with Chef Hilary Ambrose from Catch NYC on Mental Health

Chef Hilary Ambrose

Chef Hilary Ambrose does not shy away from a good conversation, thank you for having this much-needed talk about mental health. He is the executive chef for the Catch hospitality group; son, father, brother, and friend. For him, being a father is priority number one and the rest falls into place. He has been a professional chef for 14 years and unprofessionally all his life.

Born in the Caribbean, his family had a bread shop, a fishing village next door, the farm down the block. So being a chef was a logical step for him. In his words, ‘it was a perfect life’. Now Chef Hilary Ambrose is heading into his 14th professional year as a chef in one of the most culinary demanding cities in America, New York City.

Have you ever had a mental breakdown through your journey?

Chef H: A lot of those moments, but I have never let them break me down. But daily, I do think about what is next, how can I become a better leader? That inner critic starts speaking that negative talk, but you have to have emotional awareness to recognize that these are the moments that define who you will become.

Knowledge drop: “If I can teach any young chef or cook one thing; it would be not to create any stories in your head.” As a chef, you have to own your mistakes and not blame others or the world for it. You live by the sword and you die by the sword.

How do you keep yourself from creating THE STORY?

Chef H: Our business is tough, it is not all glitz and glamour, you don’t get paid well until you make it to a certain rank. For a long period of time, you are going to be broke, you are going to wish you were someone else. You will think that you got passed over because of the skin color you have or due to friendship. Sometimes that could be the case, but if there is no concrete proof of this you should not be creating the story. At this point is where your mental health could be affected.

MY THOUGHTS: I want to interject some thoughts here. Creating a structure in the beginning is very important for your mental health. Some of the techniques could be as simple as journaling your day, creating a schedule of your workday, setting 3 achievable goals on a routine. Those are actionable items that you could commit to and have a better mental space.

What was the moment that you realized you were in control of your mental health?

Chef H: The moment I found myself was when I decided that my story was my own. It is easier said than done, you have to go through a lot of moments to get to that point. But please be present, do this for yourself.

The holiday season is here, reservations are increasing, work hours on the rise, stress levels are going up, and the team is being pushed. Knowing that this is coming, how do you prepare yourself and the team?

Chef H: I deal with it the same way I deal with the slow days. I am very fortunate that I work with a company that recognizes that family matters. Currently, I have 21 chefs under me in the entire group. Two months out, I send out an email blast that announces the season is coming and you need to put your request for what day you want off. It is a first come first serve basis, so my email does get filled pretty quickly. The beauty of it is that everyone has different religious backgrounds and preferences and balances scheduling the team. I have built a great culture here over the years, and it is something that I don’t worry about. We love this season, it is an opportunity to showcase our talents.

Side comment: Chef Hilary dropped an amazing gem during this part of the interview, “You care for others before you care for yourself.” Meaning that the team gets rewarded first before I receive my recognition.

I noticed that you are a Servant Leader, tell me a little bit about it?

Chef H: The owners have mentored me, they gave me a life coach. The last 4 years, I have grown in ways that have made me a servant leader. Now is night and day from what it used to be, the lines of communication are open. I have literally shed a tear with every single chef here, and that changes things.

From the moment I got here and until now, everyone is heads-down focused on their prep work, energy is high, and the smells are beautiful. How did you get to this point?

Chef H: When you realize everyone is following your every move, they imitate you. The teams’ demeanor has changed into a state where everyone will do what needs to get done; they want to achieve greatness. But the proudest part of my mental health is creating a culture where everyone is happy and content.

What do you credit your great mental health state to?

Chef H: It comes from the people who hired me, we are not who we are without the leadership from the top. They gave me a platform to be myself. I can operate in a manner that I am not worried about the next dollar being made, working set hours, being yelled at, etc… My only focus is to create a great workplace and make good food.

A lot of chefs out there feel this immense pressure of fear, doubt and disappointment, which is really unfortunate. My mental state is good, I am in a situation where I don’t have to worry about those things. We have transparency here.

What can one do to sustain a healthy headspace?

Chef H: Find something or someone to love, this gives you purpose and something to look forward to. Having someone in your corner to share your life with creates such a beautiful space in your head. That communication is important, it gives you daily purpose.

Let’s wrap this up:

Our talk was amazing, I always love talking to Chef Hilary. A chef and man I respect a lot, not only for his craft but also for his truthfulness. We peeled a lot of layers here that unfortunately could not be shared.

The purpose of this month’s article was to bring up a topic that is often shamed by many. Mental health is one of the key ingredients in the kitchen, it needs to stay fresh at all times and that starts from leadership at the top.

Go visit Chef Hilary Ambrose at Catch located on 21 Ninth Avenue, New York, NY 10004 and give him a hug. Happy Holidays!

Ronaldo Linares is CEO of Ronaldo Linares LLC, an Empowerment Coach for restaurant owners. Ronaldo empowers entrepreneurs by addressing their health through proper nutrition while growing their business in the food industry. Ronaldo has showcased his Cuban-inspired, passion-infused culinary style on Food Network’s Chopped, BBC America’s cross-country chef competition “Chef Race,” appearances on Better TV, Fox News and Telemundo, along with being a featured chef and speaker at live events including the Food Network’s “Food & Wine Festival”, and industry conferences. Ronaldo can be reached at ronaldoscocina@gmail.com or by visiting ronaldolinares.com