Kirk Haworth was a healthy and active 24-year old, determinedly working his way up the Michelin-starred restaurant scene with the revered title of head chef in his sights, when he was bitten by what was assumed to be a spider on a trip to Australia. The swelling went down after a seven-day course of antibiotics, but the list of health issues only went up: sickness, persistent headaches, dehydration, gut issues, body aches, fainting, seizures—an expansive range of invisible symptoms of an illness not yet known to Kirk, or any doctor he consulted.
It became debilitating, “like torture”, he recounts; “I went from being able to run 30-kilometres to not being able to walk to my car. I had to quit my job and move back in with my parents.” Kirk spent thousands of pounds and years desperately seeking a diagnosis or relief from his chronic symptoms, only to relapse or be left in a worse state post-treatment than when he started, leaving him with suicidal thoughts at the depths of his exasperation. The longest of these periods he spent unable to work or socialise was nine months.
After four excruciating years both mentally and physically, he came across a Facebook group for Lyme disease, where some thirty thousand people described his symptoms as their own. It gave Kirk an opportunity to find connection when he felt so isolated from society: “Ninety-nine per cent of people who’ve been through chronic illness are so kind; they’d send me things or write me cards even though I’d never met them before because they know what I went through.”
All that time also gave him a startling realisation: “For my entire career, I’d put so much passion into creating food in the kitchen to be served to people I’d never even see, but I never applied that same level of care to myself. Failing to reach a satisfactory medical conclusion made me draw on what I knew about food, so I started researching into our gut’s impact on pain and the effects of refined sugars and dairy. I started eating three meals a day for the first time since I was fifteen years old, and my body slowly started to respond well. I experimented with eliminating certain inflammatory foods until I found I was eating an entirely vegetable-based diet, save for an occasional bit of fish, so I took that out too. I started to really enjoy cooking and found it more interesting and challenging to cook without meat and fish.”
Kirk’s culinary creativity came into its own; he discovered that “Food can be rich and creamy and delicious without butter. I completely reprogrammed my mind and how I look at food, and a consequence of that was that I no longer wanted to work for other people”. And so, Plates was born; a creative plant-based restaurant and food studio that he co-founded with his sister Keeley. At the time, veganism wasn’t the trend or movement it is now, and they’ve never strayed from their focus on innovation and development since, continually working to evolve their menu.
Asked where he thinks his life would have been had it not been for Lyme disease, he muses that it’s likely he’d still be cooking with meat and not caring for his health by working too hard and neglecting to nourish his body. “I would never wish Lyme disease on anyone. It’s invisible, but the amount of suffering it puts on a person and their families is horrendous. At the same time, I think everything happens for a reason in life, and maybe I was meant to go on that journey for this reason. Perhaps my body had enough of me mistreating it until eventually my health blew up. I’m so grateful for what I went through because I’m so much more educated than I would have ever been. I’m a better friend, a better partner and a better son as I use myself as a warning for them to look after their health.”
Prior to the official government restrictions around coronavirus, Kirk shut Plates due to the heightened risk to his health and the responsibility he felt towards his small team of six, but describes how the lack of communication caused an “astronomical level of anxiety and stress.” Kirk is already conscious of the mental health repercussions of working in the industry, having set up Chef’s Wellness in July 2019; a community initiative to support the mental and physical health of his fellow hospitality professionals. His optimism is reassuringly unwaved, saying “It’s only going to make our industry even more amazing, with the amount of people helping each other and the fundraising for Hospitality Action.”
As for his personal wellbeing? “One of the first things I do when I wake up is have a cold shower, as fighting against what your mind and body want helps overcome so much negative energy.” He stresses the importance of eating in harmony with our bodies since “the first thing of the day that we put into our stomach is the most important”. He opts for a turmeric non-dairy milk with black pepper for its anti-inflammatory properties followed by a couple of pieces of fruit, or his favourite crave-curbing combination of coconut yoghurt, berries and granola. “Our bodies detox when we sleep, continuing to break down food. The timing of meals is important as heavier foods closer to bedtime cause your gut to work more when it should be relaxing and resetting.” Kirk divulges that he’s using this time at home to practise sixteen-hour fasts: “I like the challenge of it. A lot of thoughts surface that wouldn’t if I were eating."
Fruit and vegetable juices like a carrot, turmeric, ginger and apple blend are a go-to for Kirk in terms of delivering nutrients quickly and effectively without putting a strain on his digestive system. He credits a large improvement to his health over the past year to listening to his intuition, focusing on his diet and calming stress. “I don’t drink alcohol any more, so I get my buzz from different types of herbal teas. I use food as medicine, so I have a raw salad every day, and broccoli and garlic are staples in my diet too.”
As mindful eating is already a significant part of Kirk’s life, he looks for opportunities elsewhere: “Gratitude is so important. We are such a spoiled nation and we forget what’s important sometimes. This could be an opportunity to interact with people better and strengthen our relationships instead of being so busy and preoccupied. We could reverse the situation into making ourselves stronger and more powerful human beings. In three months’ time, I’ll be really fit. I know it, because I have a plan in place.”