“You got into the restaurant business so you could get fucked up all the time.”
James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov, of Philadelphia’s cult hit Federal Donuts and nationally renowned Zahav, has no illusions about the hedonistic allure of the hospitality industry.
The kitchen, in particular, is a good place to pick up bad habits. Cash payments and odd hours contribute to the potential to “blow [the money] on whatever you want,” says Solomonov. Most of the time, the post-shift partying strays only a few steps beyond an idealized high-school shindig: a few too many drinks and a couple joints, perhaps. But in an environment rife with overworked, adrenaline-fueled staff and ready access to substances like alcohol and cocaine, it’s easy for harmful behaviors to progress.
Solomonov smoked his fair share of pot during a brief stint at the University of Vermont—enough to curtail his academic career—and told Frank Bruni of The New York Times, “I was always the guy who did a little too much.”
How does sobriety function in an industry that outwardly celebrates debauchery?
He found his calling in food—honing his craft at a bakery in Israel, graduating culinary school in Florida, and landing firmly in the circle of Marc Vetri in Philadelphia—but a taste for excess didn’t dissipate.
As his star was rising, Solomonov was also balancing a double life spurred by a dangerous addiction to crack cocaine. Accelerated by grief (Solomonov’s younger brother, David, was shot by snipers while serving the Israeli army on the Lebanese boarder), his drug problem spiraled out of control. His wife, Mary, and business partner, Steve Cook, confronted Solomonov in 2008, after withdrawal sickness during a vacation in the Bahamas surfaced his secret, and soon after he entered a recovery program.
Michael Solomonov launched his renowned Philly restaurant Zahav amid personal turmoil. (Photo: Michael Persico)
“The counselors at the rehab facilities were like, ‘You have to get out of the restaurant business. It’s going to be too hard,’” Solomonov recalls. “But you’re also not supposed to make any major changes during the first year of sobriety, and I thought that leaving seemed like a pretty big one. I was the owner of the restaurant, along with my business partner. I couldn’t just fucking walk away.”
Zahav opened in May of 2008. Just a year later, it was named the best restaurant in the city by Philadelphia Magazine. Solomonov’s dream of celebrating Israeli’s culinary heritage was realized amid intense personal turmoil. His commitment, and that of others facing similar personal challenges, raises a pressing question: How does sobriety function in an industry that outwardly celebrates debauchery?
Addiction in the Kitchen
Anthony Bourdain’s notorious 2000 book, Kitchen Confidential, exposes the dark, sometimes stomach-churning reality of kitchen life. The now-classic memoir opened the public’s eyes to a lifestyle that’s very different from what we see depicted on Food Network shows and in glossy cookbooks—one in which mildly depraved behavior coexists (to a degree) with society’s notions of fine dining. Bourdain lays bare the bacteria-laden truth about brunch favorite Hollandaise, psychopathic owners, and narcotic-fueled thinking:
We were high all the time, sneaking off to the walk-in at every opportunity to “conceptualize,” Bourdain writes of working in a Soho establishment. “Hardly a decision was made without drugs.”
There was pot and there were Quaaludes. Cocaine and, increasingly, heroin too.
When the restaurant closed, we’d take over the bar, drinking Cristal—which we’d buy at cost—and running fat rails of coke from one end of the bar to the other, then crawling along on all-fours to snort them.
Bourdain’s book paints restaurant life as a sort of gastronomic Animal House. It’s all sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and haphazard attempts to prove some semblance of culinary capacity. Hours are long, tensions are high, and booze is both cheap and readily available.
As Solomov suggests, kitchen workers can get blasted all the time. And, by Bourdain’s account, everyone signed up for the same dance.
Jesse Schenker, executive chef and owner of The Gander and Recette in New York City, details his fixation with drugs in the painfully revealing memoir All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme.
Chatting candidly in the Gander’s front room recently, Schenker proves himself a font of food knowledge, reeling off a litany of chefs and dishes from the restaurants he’s worked in without a moment’s hesitation. It’s clear that Schenker loves food. That love, however, was once clouded by addiction to opiates.
Schenker, who had a full-blown marijuana habit at 14, took his first real restaurant job near his hometown of Fort Lauderdale, FL at age 15. “The chef, the sous chef, and the cook were all big potheads and big drinkers,” he says. “Every night after we broke down, we’d go outside and have a beer.” These unsupervised evenings consisted of typical teenage experimentation, but Schenker’s extracurricular activities progressed at his next kitchen gig.
Chef Jesse Schenker’s memoir, All or Nothing, details his battle with addiciton. (Photo courtesy Recette)
“The big change for me was when I took this job at Jake’s Seafood & Grill—I was 16 when I got that job. The food runner at the time and a couple of the cooks were all popping prescription pills, like Percocet—that was their thing,” says Schenker. “They were probably like 21 or 22. I idolized them, not only for their work ethic and skill, but [because] they got high and I was escaping, self-medicating myself.”
While at Jake’s, he became aware of OxyContin—a narcotic used to combat severe, prolonged pain—and by 17, he had developed an advanced opiate dependency. As detailed in his book, the habit took control of his life. “I was so physically addicted that I was scrambling to get to work, racing to get high after,” he says. “It became noticeable. I wasn’t the best anymore.”
As good as a drug addict I was, I wanted to be as a chef.
Schenker was eventually jailed after being set up in a bust by a former dealer, and despite making some attempts to recover, he took another deep dive into drugs following an unfortunate exchange in a walk-in of an Asian-fusion restaurant.
“The chef was a junkie. I came to work dope sick one day. I was all shaky, and the chef came to meet me in the walk-in,” recalls Schenker. “I was in there to grab something and he hands me a needle and bag of heroin and says, ‘Get yourself straight and get your ass back to work.’ That was a turning point for me. That was really bad, that moment. It really started to progress for me.”
That incident precipitated a slippery fall to rock bottom. Homelessness. More jail time. And, ultimately, a wide ravine between Schenker and his true love: Food.
“I was still so passionate about food,” he says. “When I was straight, that’s all I could think about.” When he finally overcame his disease, he made a vow: “As good as a drug addict I was, I wanted to be as a chef.” At 27, he opened Recette and received two stars from Sam Sifton in the New York Times.
Certainly, Schenker’s story is one of redemption. Kitchen culture has been both his downfall and his savior. “I’m all or nothing,” he says. “I’m a workaholic.”
Though his trials are undeniably extreme—with a “rock bottom” akin to the nightmares imagined by Hubert Selby Jr.—Schenker’s not alone in transferring formally destructive behaviors into positive focus. Gregory Gourdet, a Queens native now living in Portland, OR has made a similar shift. Executive chef of Portland’s Departure, Gourdet developed his skills in the fast-paced New York City kitchens of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s venerable empire.
Bolstered by his strong culinary pedigree, Gourdet’s decision to get sober flipped the switch on his culinary career.
“When I was a cook, the entire kitchen would go out and do coke and party all night,” remembers Gourdet. “I was drinking and using drugs; I was always late for work.”
Gregory Gourdet left New York for a healthier, more focused life in Portland. (Photo: David Iliyn)
New York took a toll on him. His move to Portland corresponds to a desire to live a healthier, cleaner life. And, as it did for Schenker and Solomonov, sobriety extended an opportunity to achieve his full potential. Finding footing in Portland, which he describes as “not as hardcore as New York,” he’s become a staple of the local food scene and a champion of Oregon’s purveyors. For his efforts, Gourdet was named “Chef of the Year” in 2013 by the state’s Department of Agriculture. Last year, his signature faux-hawk debuted on national television, culminating with a narrow defeat on the Top Chef: Boston finale last week. Somehow, he fits in time to run ultra marathons too.
A Shift in Culture
If Bourdain gave voice to kitchen culture’s dingy underbelly in print, his narration of the PBS docu-series The Mind of a Chef celebrates cooking at its cerebral best. Shifting away from the chef-as-rock star narrative of the past decade, the program proposes that celebrity in the food space should not be divorced from competency. Moreover, it functions as a lens into a world in which the role of a chef has expanded considerably. No longer is it enough to simply run an effective kitchen—responsibilitie now includes traveling to far-flung conferences, juggling endless press requests, and churning out cookbooks. Chefs are expected to be thought-leaders. Television, once the reserve of a select few, can now feel like a necessity for emerging talents. There’s barely time for cotton mouth and raging headaches.
Scaling back on partying has become normal across the food world. Some chefs are vocal about the impossibility of hangovers. Others are simply more conscious of how drinking affects work flow. Yet kitchen culture—with its deeply entrenched, often testosterone-fueled traditions—hasn’t exactly mutated into a safe haven for those battling addiction. Vices are hard to escape; alcohol, most notably, is always in close proximity. And then, of course, there’s the nature of the majority of folks attracted to the trade—described by chef Scott Bryan in Kitchen Confidential as “fringe elements,” including ex-cons and others who can’t find work in more straight-laced fields.
I had all these employees who did not have nearly the same destructive qualities as myself, but eventually they had to either be let go or they left.
“There is an unspoken expectation where I work. There is zero tolerance for coming in extremely hungover,” says Gourdet, “My staff knows that I’m sober. People understand that about me and know what the expectations are as far as getting to work on time, working responsibly and with a clear head. It is a huge pet peeve when people are late for work, just because it really reminds me of how I used to be, and I really dislike that feeling [of] being reminded about how bad it was.”
The decision to enforce strict rules speaks to the need for sober chefs to create a level of comfort in the workplace.
Solomonov, who did not pursue a major environmental change, did make shifts to staff at Zahav. “It was really difficult. There were people who were not as severely affected by addiction as I was. I was sort of the worst,” he says. “I had all these employees who did not have nearly the same destructive qualities as myself, but eventually they had to either be let go, or they left. It wasn’t working.”
Zahav forgoes traditional bonding and exercises of camaraderie as well. “We don’t do shift drinks or anything like that here,” says Solomonov.
“It’s funny how drug addicts attract other drug addicts, and people who do the right thing attract people who do the right thing,” notes Schenker, whose NYC restaurants keep him well clear of his South Florida upbringing.
Solomonov is the only chef interviewed who remained close to the original environment of his destructive behaviors. “I didn’t want to move from Philadelphia,” he says. “I don’t think the geography changes what was going on in my head.”
All three chefs have considered their health while establishing the rules of their kitchens, thinking critically about what will make both their work and the restaurants as a whole successful. In so doing, they cut out Bourdainian hijinks to focus on what matters most: cooking.
Sobriety and the Modern Restaurant
“Your palate is always changing, and [it’s affected] when you inhibit it with anything—be it cigarettes or weed, or in my case, coke or crack…especially the coke and crack. Think about all the sodium you’re in taking! It was like a huge thing,” says Solomonov.
Naturally, then, sobriety affects taste. Yet uninhibited receptors do not yield new, super-human powers, nor do they necessarily alter a chef’s basic understanding of flavor. However, sobriety does tend to have a more holistic influence on a restaurant’s culture, which can manifest itself in everything from the food, to the atmosphere, to the style of service.
“For the first six months, I thought that without being an active drug addict, I would never be able to be a chef, which is false. I never slept, I was irate, not present…it was counter to what hospitality is about. And what good food is all about,” says Solomonov. “It took a few months to realize that it would be better—that we would have a better restaurant, a better team, and that the food would taste better overall. Ultimately, [we could provide] a better experience for the guest.”
Temptation is never far away in a restaurant setting. (Photo Liz Barclay)
For Solomonov, clear-headed thinking meant a better ability to meet the generational shift in dining mores. Service is friendlier, chefs are less totalitarian, and fine dining is more accessible—both in terms of price point and dietary concerns. “We have dietary restrictions every single night—a huge percentage of what we serve has to either been modified, or we have to be conscientious of people’s allergies or restrictions,” explains Solomonov.
Modern kitchens are by necessity more nimble, not to mention more wary that slip-ups are less forgivable when a diner’s safety is at risk. As chef Ming Tsai told Eater, his Boston restaurant Blue Ginger has “spreadsheets that break each dish down by its components, and each component by its ingredients.” An experienced cook can make a dish by instinct even when he’s smashed, but navigating endless tickets filled with modifications takes focus.
On the flip side, the restaurant scene has also shifted, in places, towards bacchanalian impulses. Dining rooms are raucous, drinks flow liberally, and meals are laden with “elevated drunk food” or “refined stoner grub.” The distinction between restaurant and barroom is hazier than ever, and “boozy party with Biggie on the speakers” seems to be the prevailing vibe of the day.
A sober chef can make food to match this scene, just as a sober artist can make music for people to rave to. But sometimes, sobriety influences culinary choices, especially since many chefs prefer to cook the way they eat. Gourdet skews more health-conscious now, preparing a lean menu of tasty gluten-free offerings (along with a few classic pan-Asian favorites like crab-fried rice). His dishes are about subtly, indicative of his palate and mental shift. Just as David McMillan and Frédéric Moran are aware of their agenda—exaggerating excess in thrilling fashion—at Montreal’s Joe Beef, Gourdet understands the concerns of Portland diners. He draws from professional and personal experience, and sobriety has helped him realize a balanced menu perfect for celebrating both the closing of a major business deal, or the completion of an ultra marathon.
Still, there are conventions at restaurants that continue to challenge sobriety—including, but not limited to, expanded emphasis on beverage and cocktail programs.
Pairing without Participation
Undoubtedly, many patrons associate drinking with dining out. And, increasingly, alcohol and food pairings have become commonplace—moving beyond wine to include cocktails and craft beer as well. Sober chefs must reconcile this reality and, in so doing, face a regular challenge of conversing with bar managers and ensuring continuity through the restaurant’s menus.
“Alcohol is a part of food. My restaurant takes about 50% in alcohol. Just because it doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean I can’t do as much as possible to ensure everything comes together—understanding spirits and alcohol is part of my job,” says Gourdet. “I smell, I look, and I go with my gut to figure out what is and isn’t good.”
At Departure, Gourdet works closely with his staff on the cocktail program’s aromatics, spice mixes, and syrups. He doesn’t taste the final products. Instead, he relies on smell to understand how the concoctions will work with his food. With alcohol, the mind of the chef must overcome the mind of the addict. Gourdet draws from his former wine training too, allowing for seamless conversation when organizing wine dinners and understanding what each presented glass will do to the palate.
Alcohol is a part of food. Just because it doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean I can’t do as much as possible to ensure everything comes together.
“I’m involved in the wine list, just from sheer facts. I want to know who our producers and suppliers are,” says Schenker of his involvement with alcohol at The Gander and Recette. “I want to know from a business standpoint. I don’t drink. I don’t have a desire to drink.”
Still, he understands that customers will make their own choices. “We do non-alcoholic cocktails and beer because we want to appeal to everyone,” he says. “Some people want the taste of beer, but don’t want the buzz. With cocktails you can get the flavor and complexity without getting the buzz.”
For Solomonov, there’s some relief that his growing empire doesn’t include bars, but he feels relatively comfortable encountering alcohol in the context of meal service. “I don’t romance the drinks when we discuss the beverages. Obviously, I don’t taste. Everyone knows my deal and I keep myself distanced. I don’t look at bottles of wine being opened and fantasize about getting wasted,” he says. “People can do what they want. As far as the dining experience goes, alcohol is part of it for some people. It’s not for me. I’m okay being around it.”
Zahav’s non-alcoholic offerings aren’t about recreating flavor profiles or inventing mock experiences. Instead, there’s an understanding that broadening drinks menus correlates to a wider embrace of people who have simply chosen not to drink at the restaurant. “It is not just for people who are sober, or pregnant women,” he says. “I guess there are some people who don’t just gravitate to drinking while eating.”
A decade or two ago, that notion was unthinkable. Even when Solomonov was sobering up in the late 2000s, he was nervous about eating out. “Alcohol wasn’t even my drug of choice, but I got anxiety sitting down at restaurants because I was thinking ‘what’s going to happen if someone offers me a drink,’ or ‘how can I sit through a two-hour meal without sparkling wine or anything,’” he recalls. “It was a little bit alienating.”
So too was the idea of a sober chef.
“People are becoming more educated and more informed; being an alcoholic is less of a taboo than it was 10 years ago—even in the kitchen,” says Solomov. “There were not that many sober chefs, and there certainly weren’t many that were open about it.”
Gourdet, Schenker, and Solomonov represent a minority. Their paths encompass tremendous triumph and run counter to the popular chef narrative. But in a world where broth is the next big-city trend and fast-food chains have name-brand meat purveyors, sober chefs aren’t inconceivable.
Still, even as the nation embraces health-conscious habits, the circumstances of sobriety remain insular. No one case is identical. Each person has his or her own fears of relapse. Sober people in the mainstream food world are, simply put, outliers. They are on the fringes of a fringe group, radical departures from occupational custom, and, above all, brave.
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