From precocious kid to sous chef at Attica Summer Camp, George Wintle has seen everything a kitchen can offer. In partnership with WorkSafe Victoria, we talk to Wintle about the challenges he’s faced and lessons he’s learned– from being a Masterchef contestant to creating cultures of workplace safety – to where he feels he’s at in his career now.
George Wintle has been working with professional chefs for over a decade. Which is remarkable when you consider he’s just 23 years of age.
A contestant on Junior Masterchef in 2010 when he was just 13, Wintle has worked through the ranks to now be a sous chef at the prestigious Attica Summer Camp, where he’s managing a new level of pressure and responsibility.
We asked Wintle about navigating life as a junior in hospitality, his current role at Attica Summer Camp, and what he’s learnt about workplace health and safety in the industry – and who from.
First roles and early challenges
In 2010 when Wintle was just an 11-year old budding home cook, he secretly entered into the first season of Junior Masterchef with a little help from his older sister. He was accepted. He didn’t win, but the experience encouraged him to pursue work experience at restaurants when he reached high school.
Chefs are known for working long hours in fast-paced, high-pressure environments. Despite being a junior it was no different for Wintle.
“You face general cooking challenges of how to operate a section and how to do ordering,” he says. “Juggling all of that can be quite stressful [but] I don’t necessarily think in a bad way. A certain level of stress is good – it keeps us on our toes, it keeps us evolving.” There’s a difference between urgency and adrenaline in the kitchen and burnout, though. It’s a balance that can be managed by the leaders in your team.
Mentors and training
For Wintle, most of the lessons he takes with him were instilled by his mentors at trade school, then reinforced working under senior chefs in the workplace. In his case, health and safety lessons were mostly practical - how to stay safe despite the stress and pressure - but constantly hammered home as a trainee.
“At trade school you’re shown the safest ways to do things,” says Wintle. “With regards to health and safety - you need to be aware that if you’re near something hot, you need to make sure you’re heatproof or wearing heat gloves.”
It was only once he left trade school and entered the workforce that Wintle saw how a workplace’s mental health strategy was important as well.
Fortunately he found some mentors early – like Matt Stone and Jo Barrett at Oakridge Estate – who helped him navigate his own stress, by establishing open, healthy working environments that helped him settle into the kitchen and giving him the tools to create positive, healthy environments in his own workplaces since.
“[Stone and Barrett] are really good to go to with regards to mental health and how to look after yourself,” says Wintle. The duo used a consultative leadership style and endeavoured to provide flexibility to staff where possible, which indicated that the wellbeing of their employees was at forefront of their minds.
The biggest impact the duo had was reinforcing the importance of effective communication when it comes to mental health issues in the workplace, regardless of job title or experience. By fostering a culture of support and encouraging open and respectful workplace relationships, staff felt more comfortable discussing sensitive matters.
“It’s always daunting [to discuss],” says Wintle. “[But] I think you have to prioritise what’s important, and that is mental health.” He adds that for employees who are struggling, it’s good to know that “it’s okay to not be okay” and that talking to a boss can alleviate a good deal of their workplace stress.
Moving on and up
In early 2021 Wintle began as sous chef Attica Summer Camp, the Yarra Valley pop-outpost of Ben Shewry’s award-winning CBD diner. The move meant Wintle now has more responsibility and more pressure to contend with in his work day.
A day in his life now goes something like this: prep, service, ordering for the restaurant, timesheets, payroll, rostering and invoices. On top of that, he’s working in a new venue that was an immediate hit with diners when it opened in December 2020.
“In the early days of Summer Camp we had a big influx of people,” says Wintle. “We were doing 400 people a day in the first few weekends.”
It could have been a recipe for burnout.
“I definitely lose myself in my work,” says Wintle. “I tell myself that’s where I’m happiest and where I distract myself, but I definitely found myself getting into a bad routine. Once things started quietening down, I made sure I was taking both my days off to myself and not going into work. I just had to make sure I was preparing and organising myself adequately in the hours I was at work so that when I wasn’t there I didn’t have to think about it.” Work-life balance is an inherent challenge for those working in hospitality and especially busy kitchens, but not unachievable with the support of leadership and a good roster system.
For Wintle, the biggest lesson he’s learned is making sure that time spent outside work is truly detached from work, and it’s a message he passes on to his colleagues now.
“Definitely making sure in the time you’re not at work, as big or little as that may be, you do keep that for yourself and do utilise that time wisely and make sure you’re doing something that is going to make you happy in the long run.”
Passing on lessons
Though still young, Wintle’s experience with mentorship and learning healthy workplace practises has put him in the position of being able to mentor his own staff.
It’s an approach that’s become routine.
He creates opportunities for regular staff check-in and debriefs, and he “always likes people to speak up whenever they’re concerned or have any questions,” says Wintle. “Especially with mental health. If I notice a change in someone’s persona at work … I’ll always pull them aside and be like, ‘What’s going on for you?’”. Then I make sure, as best I can, that they are supported at work.”
This story is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with WorkSafe Victoria. WorkSafe Victoria has resources to support employers building safe and mentally healthy workplaces, and provides advice for employees on their rights. For step-by-step advice for preventing mental injury check out WorkSafe’s WorkWell Toolkit.
Photography: Jake Roden