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Hong Kong chef Nate Green opens up about his depression as Movember winds down

Movember draws to a close this week in Hong Kong with a Mo Party at Beef Liberty in Lan Kwai Fong, with men having their moustaches shaved off – and at least one woman showing support by having her legs shaved.

Started in Hong Kong in 2012, the month-long event encourages men to grow facial hair to talk about men’s health, prostate and testicular cancer in particular. This year the global theme also focuses on mental illness and suicide prevention.

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It’s an issue Rhoda chef-owner Nate Green is comfortable talking about, having wrestled with his demons for many years.

“Being a chef you feel you have to be macho, but chefs are very prone to depression because it’s a profession that’s constantly judged. One day might be good, another day bad. But likewise, it’s also a very male thing, men suffer more.”

The 34-year-old says when Rhoda opened in Sai Ying Pun earlier this year, he was sick with flu for a month, his wife was 32 weeks pregnant, and they had just been married. Nevertheless, he’s been able to take things in his stride. Green puts it down to his decision to step away from fine dining 4½ years ago.

When he was younger and working in Britain, Green was determined to become a top chef, obsessed with Michelin stars and worked very hard – going to bed at 1am and waking up at 6am to go back to work. His schedule, combined with resentment of seeing others being promoted, fuelled an explosive temper.

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“When I was 27, 28 years old, I was uncompromising, and that’s the way I was trained. If you didn’t do something right, you had a pan thrown at you or were shouted at.”

At the same time, his impulsiveness led him to seek instant gratification through shopping, resulting in debts of £30,000 (HK$288,000). Green eventually had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t function – even a part-time job was too much for him to handle.

“By the time I was 31 years old I had a bad reputation in the industry. Headhunters would ask me if I’d calmed down.”

He thanks celebrity chef Jason Atherton for helping him get back on his feet, literally, by giving him a job to cook at 22 Ships in Hong Kong. Green used the opportunity to pay off his debts, and afterwards learned tattooing and travelled around Asia learning martial arts.

He soon found his place in the trendy Wan Chai restaurant, creating simple tapas-style dishes that gave Green confidence. Along the way he met his future wife, Kos, then along came a baby girl, Lily, and the joys of fatherhood.

Nevertheless, Green is aware that depression will always be with him, and it’s important to know how to handle it.

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“Dealing with my depression is dealing with situations, making hard decisions. Sometimes it’s upsetting people, whether it’s firing someone, of just something annoying you and having to say something. All these things can bring you down, and I feel like I’m not dealing with it. It [depression] never leaves you, no matter how happy you are, you’re still stuck with it.”

Talking about it or writing it down in a journal helps Green. Drawing for a few hours helps him think more clearly, as does an hour lifting weights at the gym.

“It can take just one trigger, which is why I don’t put expectations on myself,” he says, meaning a chase for Michelin stars or restaurant awards. “I just care if the guests enjoy their meal, and if not, how I can make it better.”

He knows several people, or their fathers, who have committed suicide, and while some describe it as a selfish act, Green disagrees.

“When you’re depressed, you just don’t know how to deal with anything … You’re not even thinking about how [suicide] will affect your family and friends. You just can’t cope anymore. I’ve had times where I just want to curl up in a ball and want people to leave me alone. That’s why a lot stems from dealing with emotion. I’m an emotional person. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I do that on purpose now, because if I bottle it up that’s when I get sad and angry.”

Green feels he missed out on his entire 20s, being depressed, in debt and unable to cope. But in the last few years, he says, he has grown up.

“Now when I see my staff not working properly, before I criticise them, I ask, ‘Is everything OK? Is everything OK at home?’ So many chefs will not tell me. I remember shouting at some guy at work, and then finding his mum had cancer and he just found out. And likewise, ‘Why don’t you just tell us? I would have sent you home’.”

Green says depression isn’t understood enough. But at the same time, he believes life is too short to be depressed. “I want to spend it with my daughter and wife. I’m happy with myself now. Ultimately we have to do what makes us happy.”

The End of Mo’ Party x Beef Liberty, November 30, 7pm.

Beef Liberty, 3/F, California Tower, Lan Kwai Fong. Go to hk.movember.com for more details.