Head chef Luke Robinson doesn’t take much time off work. The last time he had a spontaneous morning out of the kitchen – after four months of working seven-day-weeks – he turned up to see food critic AA Gill sitting at the bar. “You always know if you have time off someone important is going to come in. It’s pretty peak stress,” he tells HuffPost UK.
The 34-year-old from Sheffield was one of the first graduates under Jamie Oliver’s ‘Fifteen’ apprenticeship scheme, which took disadvantaged young people and trained them to cook. He went on to work at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray, and then as a private chef in Umbria, Italy.
He started his latest gig, running 15-seat restaurant Evelyn’s Table in Soho, in February this year and has spent the last six months trying to establish a better work-life balance, reduce his high stress levels, and manage periods of depression, which he has suffered from for decades.
“Since the opening we’ve been working a 16 hour day minimum – when you’re in charge of something if it goes wrong, you pick up the slack,” Robinson explains over the phone at the end of a mid-week lunch service.
This time he is a little older and wiser than the 21-year-old apprentice he once was. Instead of fostering ever-increasing levels of mental strain, and pushing himself towards depression – which he acknowledges for him, is intrinsically tied to stress levels – Robinson has vowed to return to a pastime he’s had a lifelong affair with: Muay Thai boxing.
“Depression is something I’ve had for a long time but it comes and goes. Stress feeds into it and makes it more of an issue, maybe if I wasn’t stressed I’d have a couple of bad days but be able to pick myself up, but when it’s a lot happening to me and around me, I find it’s much harder to cope with the depression. It becomes difficult, let’s just say that.”
You don’t have time to think about everything else…”
The Sheffield native started the sport – a form of mixed martial arts focusing on striking with the knees and elbows – in his hometown aged just 15 after being introduced by a friend (who now fights professionally in Australia).
Practicing at a small gym on the ‘Wicker’, a former-industrial area in the city hemmed in by a dual carriageway, Robinson found the sport a way to channel physical and mental energy in a positive way.
He was an active teen, but while other sports have fallen by the wayside, his commitment to martial arts has endured. “I used to play football on Sundays too, and rugby or cricket at school, but this was always the thing that has continued my fitness,” he says.
Almost two decades later, after periods of stop-start involvement in Muay Thai because of work pressures – “With my job it’s difficult to allocate time to do anything,” he says – he’s trying to maintain a steadier routine and go to his local gym in Hammersmith, London, once a week.
Robinson either goes alone or, despite his attempts to get out of the office, persuades one of the other chefs to come with him. “It’s good team building at the same time,” he laughs.
While fighting a colleague might seem like a HR disaster waiting to happen, Robinson insists that the amount of sparring and combat involved in the classes is actually very minimal. “You start with circuits, then some pad work, then bag work and then at the very end you can spar.”
By this point, after an hour-long session, of course everyone is physically exhausted and far less likely to do any damage to their opponent. “You can hardly keep your hands above your head by that point,” says Robinson.
He says the physical demands of the sport mean it’s so good for combating stress. “You don’t have time to think about everything else. It improves the mood, even though you’re tired physically your body feels a lot stronger afterwards.”
In fact, he is such an advocate of the rejuvenating virtues of Muay Thai that he often used to pop to his gym for a quick session between services. “I’d do lunch and then go train and go back for evening service. It sounds counterintuitive to go and do more [when you’re tired], but it does wake you up.”
For others who are interested in trying the sport, he wants to reiterate that they shouldn’t be intimidated: “Every single place I’ve been everyone has been very welcoming and make everyone feel comfortable,” adding, “it’s the best training I’ve ever done in terms of time spent versus results.”
Although he’s getting better, he’s still not immune to work pressures that keep him away from his Muay Thai. As we finish our conversation we talk about his next session. He concedes: “This week is almost impossible.”