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Being Open About Mental Health Working In The Challenging Food & Beverage Industry

By Seven Million Bikes

Edited by Chelsea Gallagher

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Jovel Chan has made a big impression in Saigon in a short time, but she is no overnight success, having worked in the food and beverage industry since she was 14. It is her passion and her life and it shines through.

Jovel is a food marketer, writer and industry speaker who has a decade of working, living and eating across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. She has held the head of marketing roles in more than 50 restaurants across 10 countries.

Today, she is the founder of Vietnam’s only-dedicated F&B industry blog and podcast, is regularly featured in the media and speaks at industry conferences and workshops.

Her blog (www.jovelchan.com) has blown up quickly in Saigon after a flurry of engaging articles about the local scene. She shares the latest industry news and happenings, trends, opinions and interviews with key opinion leaders from places like Mondelez Kinh Do, Unilever Food Solutions and BAEMIN.

Her words have been featured in Vietcetera, Vietnam Plus, e27 and Destinations of the World News and she can often be seen speaking at industry conferences (Reimagine: Halal in Asia 2020 APAC) and universities (National Economics University and VinUniversity in Vietnam) or conducting industry workshops and webinars in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

For anyone who follows Jovel on social media you will know how candid she is about her mental health and how she deals with this. Jovel’s openness to breaking down stigmas around mental health is refreshing. She has come a long way on her journey and speaks candidly with her followers about how she went from seeing herself as “the crazy lady on the train” to an empowered mental health advocate.

This episode dives further into her daily health practices, how she got into the industry and what’s next in the Saigon food and beverage scene after a grueling lockdown.

www.jovelchan.com

Having worked in the restaurant industry, host Niall Mackay understands the draw and “cult” of the service industry that attracts people to this lifestyle.

The first question Niall wanted to ask though, is how has she managed 50 restaurants and still keeping a youthful appearance.

“A lot of my career was spent in the Middle East. I was able to move roles between restaurant groups until I became Head of Marketing. This was the peak of my career and the position covered nearly 28 restaurants in eight countries. In the years since I’ve managed other marketing departments that included 10 or 6 locations. In total it was about 50 restaurants.”

Jovel has worked hard to get to where she is; going to night school while working and studying and that led to her being able to take opportunities available to her.

When she first moved to the Middle East she wasn’t making much money so she applied to be a writer for a well-known food blog there, “I said, I want to write for you because I want to eat at nice restaurants.”

Because of this expertise Jovel looks at the food and beverage industry very differently to many people. Assessing it from further back and above to see the whole market, what drives it and what changes it.   

“So when I look at the food industry and what I usually look at in my life, especially in Vietnam during a pandemic is how people are eating. You can tell a lot about how they are feeling and what that might mean for the industry. So for example during the pandemic, 39% of Vietnamese people actually stopped eating raw meat. You ask, why is it so high in Vietnam?”

This relates to food safety and a distrust of their own goods – which Jovel shares that research shows is related to a history of conflicts in Vietnam.

The conversation moves on to a pertinent topic at the moment in Saigon as we come out of months of lockdown – how have those restaurants that have survived even been able to do so?

Jovel thinks that they need to have enough capital flow to survive and a lot of businesses haven’t been able to.

The current situation is still as difficult for restaurants, many of who have decided not to reopen yet, or delaying the process. Jovel adds her take, “If you ask any restaurant owner right now, that’s just open for delivery or takeaway and are having to pay for all the staff to be fully vaccinated and pay for all the staff to have COVID testing every two or three days. They’re not making money. They’re just trying to not be forgotten.”

Thanks to the growing skill of local chefs and the influx of returning Vietnamese, they are showing that it is more than just street food and deserves respect. It is fascinating to hear about how the technical and traditional techniques of Vietnamese cooking of dishes like Bún bò Huế and even the ubiquitous phở isn’t looked on with as much reverence as local dishes in countries like Japan and Korea. Jovel believes this is changing and this new breed of chefs are showcasing the amazing ingredients that Vietnam has and cooking techniques in new and modern ways.

“I think that in the next couple of years we’re going to see a lot more media attention on this particular segment of the F&B industry, particularly on Vietnamese cuisine, Vietnamese spirits, and the Vietnamese beverage industry,” Jovel adds with excitement.

This seems to be a growing trend that Niall has recently discussed with Tracey Nguyen Mang on how the Vietnamese diaspora is going through a renaissance post war, worldwide and showcasing their talents in more ways than just street food.

This constant comparison back to cheap street food, and even being inferior in taste, can hold back these chefs from innovating Vietnamese cuisine. When you can get a delicious bowl of Bún bò Huế for 30,000đ, it is difficult to accept paying 200,000đ, even though the ingredients and food hygiene justify the cost.

“It’s very hard for them to innovate within Vietnamese cuisine or to serve Vietnamese cuisine, because it will always be compared to street food and the thing that you don’t want is Vietnamese chefs, opening restaurants, and making French food.”

It may come as a surprise to learn that Jovel actually came to Vietnam, not to work as a food marketer, but to open a fitness studio!

She was burnt out from her previous job at an airline, which had been exacerbated by the pandemic, “it was a very anxiety inducing period.” This then leads to a discussion on Jovel’s mental health and how honest she is on the topic.

“I’ve had anxiety for almost a decade. I remember when I had my first panic attack. How painful it was, and I’m not sure if anybody here has ever had a panic attack or an anxiety attack before but it was one of the most scary things I think I’ve ever gone through.”

If you have seen her stories, Jovel shares about her use of medication to manage her health and what her anxiety looks like. This is a conscious attempt to normalise this and break the taboo around it.

“I still get on with my day, I am still able to do and achieve great things. I’m still able to be in a loving relationship. I want to talk about these things because I just want to normalize it because when you normalize it, it makes people want to talk about it more.”

This takes a lot of bravery but is so important in changing perceptions on mental health and how people can deal with their own health. As Jovel points out, if she had known her anxiety attack was not unusual or what the symptoms were it would have been less scary and so want others to know that too.

She is also candid about the medication she takes for it too, “there’s no shame in taking medication.”

For anyone, whether they suffer from anxiety or not, lockdown presents it’s own challenges for everyone’s mental health, and while Niall does not regularly suffer from anxiety or panic attacks he admits it’s been the most challenging period of his life.

He agrees too that talking to family and friends and admitting when he’s having a tough day has been hugely beneficial, whereas before he would have put on an overly false pretence. There is a fine balance between being positive and realistic.

This pandemic has been the toughest time in living memory for many people around the world. Whether you are in the food and beverage industry trying to stay afloat, or stuck at home missing your favourite food and the sense of community that comes from meeting friends for a drink or a meal. If you are reading this and have been struggling with mental health then know you are not alone, and it is not abnormal to feel this way. Phone a friend or loved one, do something that makes you happy, take a deep breath and know that things will get better. And if you need it then please don’t be afraid to seek professional help. If your bike needs to run better, you take it to a mechanic. Treat your own health the same way. Stay strong Saigon, and everyone around the world who is enduring the myriad of difficulties from a once in a lifetime event, on top of the ups and downs of our normal daily life.

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Many people struggle to find English entertainment in Vietnam. Seven Million Bikes hosts the popular show A Vietnam Podcast, stand-up comedy and events. Have fun, connect with others and share experiences of Vietnam.