How Sobriety Changed the Way I Eat

As restaurants grow louder and more lubricated, a non-drinker considers the pros and cons of dining without booze.

sobriety

Something interesting happened at the turn of the millenium. The rules of restaurants shifted and the notion that studied cooking required a hushed, polite atmosphere was thrown out the window. Why separate casual fun from fine dining? Why not challenge snobbery by treating vernacular foodstuffs with refined techniques?

The esteemed Montreal chef Martin Picard was a key progenitor of this movement, and his notorious Au Pied de Cochon, opened in 2001, one of its strongholds: a bawdy, gluttonous temple to the flavors of his native Quebec. Picard wanted every night to feel like a party—glasses hoisted (and consumed) in step with the rich ingredients of the region. Meanwhile, in the U.S., other chefs and restaurateurs were following suit. Gone was the old-guard notion of white table cloths and vested waiters watching over the dining room; instead, a contemporary vision of the mythical Greek bacchanals had taken hold. The music grew louder and more divisive (see: Mario Batali’s iPod at Babbo), and younger crowds celebrated how a new generation could bring classic training to exactly the type of food they wanted to make, exactly the way they wanted to present it.

Twelve years on, dining rooms are still rocking. David Chang’s Momofuku empire trades, in no small part, on this revved-up energy. Frédéric Morin and David McMillan of Montreal’s Joe Beef matched Picard, and at times raised him. Even venerable fine-dining institutions like Eleven Madison Park have played with a more dressed-down style, embracing the idea that entertainment—and drinking—is king in 21st-century eating (meals are capped with a ceremonious bottle of apple brandy on the table).

Current dining trends all too often feel like a culinary rave—awesome if you’re twisted, but kind of perplexing if you’re not.

It was at Morin and McMillan’s Liverpool House, neighboring the heaving buzz of Joe Beef, that I realized sobriety came with shuddering consequences: The rollicking room wasn’t for me. Drinks flowed as fast as dishes laden with offal passed through our table, and by the time the infamous Foie Gras Double Down came out—a luxe take on the fast-food icon, featuring fried slabs of foie gras sandwiching thick bacon and cheddar—I was ready to wave the white flag. My table, a crew of food world professionals, cheered the dish. Sitting soberly, I had to wonder: Was booze the distinguishing factor between delight and disgust, in the same way it might be in a strip club—impaired judgment fueling the embrace of debauchery? I considered whether drinking was the only possible fuel to handle this type of eating—liquid courage for the march of gluttony, as it were, not to mention a very real reason why so much fat and salt might be needed to excite increasingly booze-dulled taste buds. Read any current food media today and you’ll be inundated with gushing tales of “haute stoner grub” and “elevated drunk food.” But to sober palates, the resulting dishes all too often feel like a culinary rave—awesome if you’re twisted, but kind of perplexing if you’re not.

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Funny things happen when you stop drinking. First, you drop a ton of weight and instantly develop a childlike craving for desserts. It’s okay, though. Each bite of a 400-calorie chocolate cake is inconsequential compared to the tenth beer in a 30-rack binge of Coors Originals—a bladder busting 4,500 calories. I lost 60 pounds in four months. Since then, I’ve never thought twice about eating a second double cheeseburger. I always toss chili atop fries. I took three-day tours through North Carolina’s BBQ country—15 stops in that stretch—in stride. Eating without conscience. Sounds great, right? Except heartburn replaces hangovers and the slow recalibration of dining out reveals a frightening truth: So much of the eating is simply an effort to fill the time once dedicated to hoisting pints, mixing cocktails, and—at the lowest points—snorting vodka. No wonder most people are trying to do both at the same time these days.

Last November, the revered French chef Alain Ducasse opened the Idam Restaurant in Doha, Qatar. There, in an Islamic desert nation, he faced a shocking challenge: an alcohol-free establishment. On July 10, Rod Norland of the New York Times investigated the restaurant with a key query in mind: “Can a great French restaurant make it in a place that cannot serve wine?” The question itself remains unanswered, but the profile of the space, situated on the top floor of the Museum of Islamic Art, suggests that for the kings of the food world, dealing with folks like me is a mystery. “It forced us to think differently,” chef Roman Meder told Norland.

The sober, apparently, need entertaining. Something, whatever it is, should always be happening on the table. The Idam crew went to juice bars to research inventive mocktails. But take it from someone who’s had their fair share—rather than mimic the complexity of the real thing, this type of beverage rarely succeeds in more than mocking the customer’s palate. A sommelier at Gramercy Tavern once spent several minutes discussing my entrée choice and suggesting a host of alcohol-free wines. I told her what I’d once favored: oaky flavors,  heavy mouthfeel. The choice returned, sickly sweet and cloying against the first course. I questioned if she’d ever bothered to even taste the Michelin-star restaurant’s NA offerings. I’ve since resigned myself to sparkling water, the only safe accompaniment to food.

Current debate over the tyranny of the tasting menu could easily extend to the diminishing return of drinks pairings.

Soon after I weaned myself off booze, my friend Aaron visited French Laundry. He reported, ever sensitive to my new life choice, that he’d been appalled when his waiter suggested that the meal wouldn’t taste as good without wine. The thought was heartbreaking: Could I, now sober, ever truly enjoy haute cuisine again? I let it sink in. I considered that even if treated as second-class, I sure as fuck could—and, at a considerably cheaper tally than my drinking buddies. Sobriety opens up considerations about the commercial structure of the food. Everyone knows that restaurants score the bulk of the profit on booze. But when drinking, the excessive upcharges are easily reconciled. But with checks coming in up to 50% without the booze, previously unattainable restaurants feel within reach. Sometimes the savings are even greater, especially since you avoid the quickly rising bar tab at restaurants with a no-reservations policy.

Better still, you are cleared to break free from the shackles of wine pairings. Current debate over the tyranny of the tasting menu could easily extend to the diminishing return of drinks pairings. Why let wine dictate your desires? When it’s not driving the conversation, the menu is wide open. Seven years ago on a hot summer day, the desire for a crisp white would trump the desire for a nice steak. No more. Sparkling water goes with everything. Removing a wildcard variable from the order lets the food do all the talking. Wine, I’ve found, did little but cloud my taste buds over time. While I may not be able to experience the magical commingling of a great Burgundy with a nice piece of meat,the combined flavors and textures of a meal feel more distinguished in sum. My ordering habits have shifted to consideration of what may have the deepest flavor profile, rather than what would best complement what’s in my glass.

If I’m more adventurous with menus, I’ve become more exacting about environment. For all of the glorious flavors, the hustle and bustle of Momofuku causes anxiety. I simply can’t catch the room’s wave. Recently at Danji, a superb Korean restaurant in Midtown, a drunken group took station at the table next to us during the middle of the meal and raised the room’s decibel-level by what felt like a thousand, effectively ruining a transcendent dining experience. With sobriety comes a heightened awareness of surroundings—drinkers know this, as it is the reason they are much more forgiving of a restaurant’s foibles with a cocktail in hand. For the teetotaler, that forgiveness is harder to come by.

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All of this came into focus during that night in Montreal—everything I needed to avoid for sober sanity was out of reach. The gusto of the place, the out-and-out gluttony shocked the system. There’s a reason Joe Beef succeeds as a bachelor party kick-off spot and not as an AA meeting host. On our second night in the city, we drove about an hour outside the city to Picard’s Cabane à Sucre. It’s a local feast tradition on steroids. Here, meat pies are piled high with lobster and foie-gras stuffing. The chef himself sits on a sofa in the kitchen, watching hockey. His waitstaff is all young ladies. We are in Game of Thrones. Clinking a glass of soda feels sacrilegious. There was no way around it: I am an outsider. I am in hell.

Bristling at the debauchery encouraged by the food world doesn’t put me in the wrong, nor does it mean I must look down the barrel of my demons every time I want a burger.

Amid a whirlwind of consumption, short pause brings a moment of clarity: It’s okay to buck prevailing trends. An enjoyable life of eating isn’t about belt-notching. Visiting the latest and greatest restaurants guarantees very little—if Mission Chinese had opened in 2006 (my last year of drinking), a free beer-fueled wait would have resulted in a blackout before being seated. I’ve become a smarter eater. Interest in foodways outpaces interest in star reviews now. I eat for sustenance as well as fun, just as I always did, but without having to reconcile three Manhattans every third night out. Bristling at the debauchery encouraged by the food world doesn’t put me in the wrong, nor does it mean I must look down the barrel of my demons every time I want a burger.

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