Enough is Enough: Reflections on Hospitality, The Power of Change and Taking Time to Breathe

The last two years have been a roller-coaster for everyone, not least those in the hospitality industry. Despite the uncertainty of a global pandemic: life is still full of opportunities to grow, change one’s mindset and adapt. Kirsty Marchant, the former head gardener at Copenhagen’s Noma, shares her story.

By Kirsty Marchant

I’ve been asked to discuss the topic: “how do you achieve and reach your goals during a global pandemic?” I don’t have an answer to this. I can’t tell you what is right for you. I can just tell you how I have been surviving. Goals shift and that’s ok. I wanted to work at what I believe to be the best restaurant in the world, and I got there, but then what? What happens after you reach your goals?

I was born and raised in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. At the age of 15, I got my first job working nights at the local fish and chip shop which was owned by a lovely Indonesian family. I loved this job. It was the first chance in my life that I could meet people independent of my parents’ choices: people of different nationalities, classes, cultures, ages and point of views. It felt exciting and important to build relationships with all types of people and not just people that looked, sounded and behaved like me. I looked forward to those nights where, for four hours, I wasn’t the daughter, sister or childhood friend of someone else. I was just Kirsty and I could build independent relationships, communicate and have my own thoughts and opinions.

Nineteen years later and I still feel this way. No matter what’s going on in life, when I enter any kind of hospitality service, I’m able to leave it all behind. I’m here for the people. All of them.

I finished high school with decent grades and went to university but I dropped out with a year to go as I knew it wasn’t my path. So I moved to Yallingup and worked in a winery. I knew I wanted to travel so I took a job as a flight attendant which led me to move to Melbourne where I began working in cafes and bars. I was then offered a job in guest relations at a resort in Indonesia for a year which I took. After Indonesia I moved home to Perth and found a job in the oil and gas industry as a personal assistant. After two years, I had saved enough money to buy a one-way ticket to Europe. When I arrived in London I was hired by the oil and gas company I had previously been working for in Australia.

Six months in, the company closed its London branch and left hundreds of employees jobless. It was then I had a lightbulb moment. If I could build a financially stable career out of hospitality, I would always have consistent work in an industry that I adored: a place where work blends into friends and family. My motto became “everyone always has to eat.” Nine years later, I still stand by this.

I started taking hospitality more seriously and looked at it as a career rather than a job. After London I moved to Berlin for two years where I worked in coffee and management. I also worked as a cook so that I could understand all parts of a restaurant. At 28 years of age, I came home to Perth. The plan was to figure out the industry and to eventually try to open a space in the city, but plans tend to do a funny thing. They change.

Noma pop-up in Tulum, Mexico. Photography: courtesy of Kirsty Marchant

In January 2016, I had been home for three months and was managing Mary Street Bakery in West Leederville. During my lunch break, I saw a post on Instagram from a restaurant I had forever admired: Noma. Noma was looking for Australian front-of-house staff to come and work with them in Sydney during the restaurant’s 10-week pop-up. I replied to that post and a week later I landed in Sydney. Halfway through my stint, I was offered a job with Noma in Copenhagen. Three months later, I flew to Europe to see how I liked Copenhagen. By January 2017, I was living in Copenhagen and working front-of-house for Noma.

I worked as front-of-house for Noma just over two years and got to travel to Mexico; close the old space; be part of the team that opened Noma 2.0; do a number of pop-up events; plus meet so many beautiful humans, all with an epic team which was – and is still – made up of my best friends; my family.

By mid-2018 at the age of 31, things started quickly changing for me. The way I handled stress, long hours and pressure was no longer healthy. I was mentally, physically and emotionally on the brink of a burn-out. I had to have some very hard conversations with myself which eventually flowed over to my partner, Ben [Ing; former Noma head chef] and my workplace. The realisation that finding something and somewhere that I loved and then giving it my everything was too much for me, was huge.

My thinking, my priorities and my goals started to shift. I was at a point where I was putting my health at risk. I hadn’t stopped to breathe for as long as I could remember and this mentality of doing it all and having it all was no longer working for me. I wasn’t winning. This period was incredibly tough. I was living what was meant to be my dream but it felt like I was just keeping my head above water. I had the most supportive and loving partner, team and friends and I lived in a city that I had always wanted to be in, but I felt like I didn’t belong and I couldn’t do anything right.

In these hard moments, I found my new mantra which for the last three years has been my saviour. I started asking myself “what is enough?”

Up until this point, I had been living by mottos like “you can have it all”, “the sky’s the limit”, “sleep when you’re dead”, “always say yes.” These had gotten me far and they enabled me to do some seriously cool things, but if I was completely honest, they also let me down very regularly.

I quit service at Noma at the end of 2018 and came back to Australia for three months with the support of Ben, my workplace, my friends and my family. I didn’t have a solid plan but I knew what I was doing needed to stop. And fast.

I went to Melbourne and stayed with my brothers and worked with my good friends Matt Stone and Jo Barrett at Oakridge Wines in the Yarra Valley. I felt like I needed these kinds of people near me: the ones that had based their 20s around sustainability rather than excess like I had. I was blown away by the reality that you could do something with passion and at such a high standard in hospitality and still be home at 5pm every day. During this time, I still had no idea what I was going to do next, but I knew there was a better way forward for me. I had seen it.

With Piet Oudolf at Noma. Photography: courtesy of Kirsty Marchant

I returned to Copenhagen in March 2019. I didn’t have a job lined up but had the idea that I would take a position at a farm my friend managed. I have always been in love with the produce side of restaurants and I have always had a strong connection to nature.

At this stage Noma was planning to put in a garden at its new location so I saw an opportunity and asked to be hired as a contractor for the planting. My gardening hero, Piet Oudolf was the designer and the chance to be anywhere near him while he worked was a dream. On the first day of that job, the contractors that were hired managed to royally screw up in front of Piet and I managed to think quick, jump into action and save as much as I could of the day. Piet suggested to Noma’s management team that I should be hired as garden manager, despite having no gardening experience. To my disbelief, I got the job, and for the next two years I held the position as Noma’s head gardener. I will always be beyond grateful for Piet, Rene [Redzepi; co-owner], Annika [de las Herras; general manager] and the entire Noma team for investing in me and trusting me with this role.

One of the first things I did as the garden manager was to ask the contractors to stop coming as I knew they would sink me. I was only a few weeks into my new career path and was sitting alone in a garden that was almost the size of a football field. I had no experience and no team. I was pretty bloody lost, but I didn’t panic, I didn’t want to disappear or run away. For the first time in a very long time, I felt completely and utterly like I was exactly where I was meant to be.

Piet quickly became my mentor and friend. During the first conversation we had after I had taken the head gardener role, he told me: “You don’t need to know everything, you just need to show up.” This was something I knew how to do. I showed up every day of the week: not because someone told me to, but because I wanted to. I needed to. In this moment, after all the change and fear and worry I had just transitioned through, this garden and this role was enough for me.

The garden became a part of me. To be able to slow down and reconnect to nature; to be creative and to use my hands to create life and tend to soil was a very beautiful kind of therapy. To build a team of volunteers and staff members and to have control over how and what I worked on was a game-changer. It was still a huge amount of work, but it was at a different kind of pace. One that felt more natural to me.

In my spare time I got back into yoga and before I knew it, yoga was also something I practised every day. As the garden work was very physical, practising yoga was the final piece of the puzzle for enough in this moment.

Eating out every night, drinking, smoking and late nights became less interesting for me as I had what I needed for this moment. I was careful never to say goodbye to anything. Instead, I would say “not right now.” I found it important to stay in the now rather than plan too far ahead. As my feet touched the ground, I realised that even though I had my dream job and balance for maybe the first time ever, I was now in the wrong city. I missed my country and my family in a way that I hadn’t done until now.

Ben and I had some painful and beautiful discussions and we realised that we had done our time and achieved what we needed to at this moment with Noma. Outside of Noma, we didn’t want to work anywhere else in Copenhagen, so it was time for us to start moving.

In early 2020, Ben and I gave our resignations and planned to leave Copenhagen in July. I took January off since the garden was hibernating and went to India where I completed my yoga teacher training and returned to Copenhagen in February. Ben and I were feeling amazing about our plans. We had adequate time to train our replacements who we believed could be even better than we were. We would finish strong and leave the place we loved so much in the best way we could. We could then travel to Canada and spend time with Ben’s family and then we would go to Australia where we would find a van and travel around the country for a year or more, working and meeting people along the way. And then March 2020 hit. Covid-19 Hit.

Noma greenhouse. Photography: courtesy of Kirsty Marchant.

Suddenly, all of our decisions and what we had planned felt so small and insignificant. The case numbers in Denmark were some of the highest at the beginning of the pandemic, so we went into lockdown pretty quickly. Life became very simple during the first lockdown. I was so lucky I had the garden to still tend to. I would wake up very early to spend a few hours in the garden and then cycle home before the rest of the city woke. We had a very old, very small one-bedroom apartment which became a sanctuary.

Ben and I made the decision to take this time in our stride. I let go of the big plans and again I asked myself, more than once a day: “what is enough right now?” I could still practice yoga. I had a roof over my head. I had a loving relationship. My friends and family were safe. My workplace had my back. And I got to go to the garden. This was enough for me in those moments, especially when so many others were facing such terrible fates and didn’t have access to anything close to enough.

Thankfully Noma was so supportive of all the team during this time. Both Ben and I had resigned months ago and our replacements were now in place but Noma kept us on the payroll and sponsored our visas, even though having extra mouths to feed was tough as the restaurant was opening and closing. René, Peter [Kreiner, co-owner] and the other owners and managers made decisions like this for the people that had been there for them, and this huge act of kindness will stick with me forever. Ben and I also felt like we needed to be around for the team. We needed to be there when the restaurant could reopen and, thankfully, we were able to do this.

So we sidelined our plans and focused more on what we had, not what we had lost. I wasn’t doing as much yoga and this hurt. I thought that I would always be able to practice every day but the lockdowns and the pandemic were mentally draining and, physically, I couldn’t commit. I felt like I was failing at this part of my life. That going to India was all for nothing. I had to remind myself that, at this moment, enough for me was no longer about chasing big dreams, being in control and being the best version of myself. Enough was being able to weather the storm; self-preservation; being able to digest what was happening but also stay present enough to enjoy the little things that make up life.

Noma Copenhagen. Photography: courtesy of Kirsty Marchant.

In December 2020, Ben and I landed in Perth, just as another wave of Covid hit Denmark. Denmark entered lockdown two weeks after we left: a lockdown that lasted for five months. A lot of our friends got sick during this period. Thankfully none of our loved ones lost their lives but some friends have ongoing related health problems. Tragically, some lost parents and grandparents.

We spent two weeks in hotel quarantine and took this time to decompress. We were in the country we had planned to be in, maybe even at the same time as we should have been before the pandemic and we made it here together. But things were different now. We were different now. When we got out of hotel quarantine things got mentally hard. We were hit with the reality that this place had barely been touched. People went on like nothing was happening. It felt insane. It was the first time in almost a year that we had been without masks.

With no one travelling, Perth was busier than I had ever known and people kept saying to us that we must be so happy to be here, so lucky. But if I’m honest I felt a bit mad. I felt like I had left my friends back in the trenches and landed in this unreal bubble. It actually had felt safer and more familiar being in Copenhagen than it did arriving in Perth.

Managing expectations was also tricky. The former head chef and head gardener of Noma had landed in Perth. The industry wanted to know what we were up to, what was next. We just wanted to be alone. Enough for me at this moment was taking time away from our careers and regrouping. I am not my work, and nor is Ben. With the support of my parents, we moved into the bush in Yallingup [a small region in Margaret River] and have been living there since.

Ben and I weren’t off in the bush being brilliant. We weren’t putting together a plan to take over the world. We were doing nothing. Together. We spent the time reconnecting with my family and our friends and getting lost in nature. We got a dog called Mo. We joined a gym. We took the time to mourn what we had lost over the past 12 months. We avoided the question, “what next?”. I had always had some kind of answer to that, but at that moment, I didn’t know. And it didn’t feel important.

I took a job in a garden but it wasn’t right for me. Again, it felt like I should be growing after what I had just accomplished but being alone in a garden after a year of lockdowns and in a new place with none of my friends felt lonely. It didn’t feel freeing and comforting like it had in Copenhagen. So, I took a job in my nearest town, Dunsborough, making coffee at a special place called Tiny’s. It turned out I truly needed this kind of work to wake up. It forced me to leave the bush and to socialise. It reminded me about that special feeling I get when I am working in the industry: the feeling I got working in that fish and chip shop a lifetime ago. It reminded me that hospitality doesn’t have to be so serious, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to be perfect. Sometimes the best kind of hospitality is the kind that you can have the most amount of fun in. Taking this job was about the bigger picture. I needed to know who my neighbours were.

Some were surprised to find me making coffee after working at Noma. Many looked at me confused. If they didn’t say it out loud, their eyes said, “shouldn’t you be doing something more?” But what is more? What is enough? If something makes you happy; if you like what you do; if something pays the bills; if you have room for friends; your partner; your family; for long walks in nature every day; what is more and what is enough? Isn’t more than enough too much?

Recently, I officially squashed the idea that I need to tick boxes or make decisions based on what other people or society says is the right way. Being exhausted or always working doesn’t always equal passion or mean that you are good at what you do. Sometimes it might. Sometimes it might not. It did and it didn’t for me.

Kirsty Marchant speaking at the launch of the West Australian chapter of Women in Hospitality. Photography: Max Veenhuyzen

I have been so lucky to find inspiring and special mentors along my working journey, but I also worked hard to find these people and to build and maintain relationships with them. Some of these people pushed me to strive for excellence and to do more. Some pushed me to slow down, to take my time. At the time I thought I was listening to all of them because it appeared like I was doing what they asked of me. Only now do I realise that I needed not one of these people, but all of them. I needed each person at a different stage and with the guidance, support and wisdom they imparted, they have enabled me to seek and find some kind of beautifully imperfect, perfect balance.

I thought that I would be studying garden design when I left Noma and that Ben and I would be living in a van driving around Australia but when I got back to Australia the thought of sitting still and studying and the thought of living in a van while things are so uncertain made me feel sick. So we live in a house with four walls and a roof and I take long walks in the bush and study flowers with my eyes rather than look them up in textbooks. We can’t travel right now but even if we could, with what’s going on in the world, I feel that it’s really important that I think and act locally. My friends and family are scattered all over the world and when the time is right I will go to them, but travelling without purpose is no longer important to me. Instead, community and nature have become of higher value.

The question “what next” no longer bothers me, but excites me. The world is different than what it was two years ago and what I need isn’t the same. Something I have learnt is that it’s okay to change your mind. It’s ok to change your plans. And it’s ok to change your goals. The expectations or pressure to do something similar or the same to what I was doing are still there, but I don’t wear them anymore.

Ben and I are working on our own little project that feels private in these beginning moments. I can tell you that it’s small, it’s honest and it’s ours. Doing something accessible and real feels more important to me than ever. By being our version of enough, we can work sustainably, we limit waste and work smart with our time. That feels like our biggest priority.

I think this idea that life is short and you have to cram it all in is a trick we are all told. Isn’t life the longest thing we are ever going to do? What’s longer than our own lives? Being able to stop and breathe and to figure out what is enough for ourselves should be a rite of passage. This idea of having and doing it all makes it seem like everything is infinite. It’s not. More than enough is too much.

The above is an edited version of a speech made at the WA launch of Women in Hospitality held at Besk Bar, Perth, on Tuesday October 19, 2021. Women in Hospitality is an Australian community committed to bringing together women within the hospitality industry and helping them grow.

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