It’s so hot. My hands are burning. I can’t tell if the burn is from the searing pan in my hand or the lemon juice I just squeezed into said pan. Sweat keeps dripping into my eyes and it blurs my vision so much that I have to take a step back and wash my face. The problem is that if I step away from the 10 orders that I’m trying to prepare, execute, and send out to the hungry guests waiting, then any number of things could go wrong. Late food, burnt food, rushed messy plate ups, a forgotten ingredient—all could lead me to being embarrassingly berated by my chef and antagonized by my coworkers. I hate having to dig myself out of that hole, let alone ask for help and get my balls busted the rest of the night by the other cooks. I’ll just have to let the salt sting my eyes and keep on trucking along. The long hours of cooking in a kitchen are enough to drive one to a drink or toke. Throw in the stress, both physically and mentally, and it’s no wonder everybody I work with will be going out to party after we close. It may be Tuesday, but that’s just for the rest of the world. In this industry, we treat every night as if it were Saturday, and that means we party hard.
While what I’m about to say is rapidly changing, it still is the truth: Restaurants and the food industry are a haven for the disaffected, addicted, disturbed, and insecure. They are places where showing up to work with a hangover is a badge of honor and showing up still drunk is considered badass. I can get free shift drinks and burn a joint during my smoke break. I’ve even been in a few kitchens where sizzle platters of blow are the real magic powering the line as the ticket printer incessantly screams at the cooks.
I love working in kitchens. In this loud, rapid-fire back room I can do no wrong. I am home.
I love getting wasted and the chaos that accompanies it along with the ability to completely lose control of everything within and around me. I particularly thrive on it. There is no better or bigger rush than the chaos that unfolds as soon as the first hit is within me.
Acid, molly, blow, meth, weed, boomers, heroin, and booze. It’s all great, and I want it all the time. I crave them all. Deep down in the bellows of my being, I obsess about satisfying this craving. It’s all that I think about and all that I want to be doing. Fuck civilized society and its burdensome constructs. I want to be free and detach from all of you.
If you’ve never done heroin, then take my word for it when I tell you that the first hit you ever take is life changing. There is no greater feeling, no wonder more compelling, and no way that you’ll ever feel it again. You will never again feel bliss like this, and you will forever be more in search of it.
I should probably rewind a bit and tell you how I got here.
How I Became a Junkie
Like most addicts and alcoholics, my use started as fairly innocent exploration driven by curiosity. As a young man growing up in suburban Cleveland, I was ever drawn to, and captivated by, opposites and opposition. If my elders told me black then I yearned for white. If I was pushed right then I would fall left. When I was told that drugs are bad, I immediately knew that they were really good. And they are in certain contexts, both recreationally and medicinally. Just not for me, as I would find out.
By the time my bar mitzvah had made me a man, I had already become a fairly regular pot smoker, drinker, and abuser of prescription medication. I loved pills, especially the ones that were prescribed for me to alleviate and subdue my ADHD. I would save my daily allotment of Ritalin until nighttime and then blow it up my nose. I’d get high in my bedroom and keep my mind racing by reading the encyclopedia, volume by volume, cover to cover. I’d forget all about you and your rules, and hallucinate myself into these great tomes of exploration. High as a kite, I’d read about Trobriand Islanders and connect with them. I’d stare at their pictures and see myself with them, apart from all of you.
For those of you asking yourselves where my parents were, they were here. They were and still are great parents and people. I was great at hiding my activities from those who I knew would disapprove. My parents played the best hand they could with what they were dealt. They didn’t know the extent of my use and abuse until many years later.
As time went on, my drug-induced psychosis dove deep, and my seemingly insurmountable addictions consumed me. I was adrift in a drug-fueled haze. I did many things that are deplorable and despicable. I lied, cheated, stole, and destroyed. I thought that love, compassion, and empathy could only be found with the help of a joint, needle, or bottle. It was during this time that I found solace and community among other users and abusers. I came to the realization that I had many “friends” who worked in food service and that I could be who I thought I was among them.
Life can crumble in a microsecond.
Tragic deaths and natural disasters happen all the time. The cosmic boot of fate and the unknown can crush us at any moment. I eventually felt the weight of my use and abuse. My actions caught up to me via my intoxicated stupidity. I was arrested for what thankfully was dropped from felony vandalism to a misdemeanor. The results of this arrest mandated that if I wanted to stay out of jail I had to not only behave in the eyes of the law, but also I had to stay sober.
I didn’t have a chance.
I tried every snake oil in the briefcase to pass the biweekly drug tests that I had to take. I’d switch to coke and booze a few days before a test and the two days before I’d drink only water and distilled vinegar to flush my system. I would literally drink a cup of vinegar and then cower in agony for about an hour until it worked its way through my system enough that I could get on with my day. Of course, this was all in vain. Nothing ever worked.
For whatever reason the courts and my probation officer felt that jail would be a waste on me. In retrospect, I’m sure it had a lot to do with the color of my skin and my quaint suburban upbringing. Whatever the case, they saw that I couldn’t stop using drugs and alcohol, and felt that my using was the problem. I agreed, though I wasn’t convinced one iota. I didn’t see my using as a problem for me, I saw it only as a problem for them, and I was willing to do what they ordered me to do to stay out of jail. I was a young suburban Jewish boy from a nice family after all, and boys like me don’t benefit from incarceration.
I was sent to in-patient rehab at a center near West 117th Street in Cleveland. I’d be locked in with veteran crackheads and lifelong junkies, drunks who sweat booze, and cokeheads who blew more money than I could even imagine. After detoxing from the various opiates coursing through my veins, I gradually started to see through my self-induced haze. I came to the realization that I didn’t want to turn into the 60-year-old crackhead whose constant scratching shook our bunk all night and kept me up. I didn’t want to turn into the drunk guy who pissed his family’s multimillion-dollar company away. I wanted to be anything but these guys.
I attended anywhere from seven to a dozen 12-step meetings a week and various therapy sessions throughout each day. I started practicing tai chi and meditating for hours. I followed the advice of my therapist and stared myself down in the mirror every morning and told myself I had purpose, worth, and that I loved myself. I followed the house rules of the rehab center and made my bed and folded my clothes every day. I ate actual food instead of junk and drank lots of water. I openly talked about the chaos that was my mind no matter how stupid or insecure it made me feel. I associated only with people who were going to change their lives in the manner that I was trying to change mine.
Coming to the realization that drugs and alcohol are bad for me was a life-changing experience. I had enough clarity after many weeks in rehab to make the decision to live in the moment and not do drugs in that moment. I liked how I felt not using. I hadn’t taken the time yet to ponder and speculate about what my life could or would be in the future. I knew only that I wanted to be sober and feel the way that I felt in the present.
I also decided I wanted to work with food.
Going to culinary school was not the easiest step for me in sobriety. It is college, after all, and you actually have to study alcohol as a subject. Aside from that, culinary school is an intense and immersive experience. You are constantly networking and trying to find a way to better yourself and your career prospects. Going to as many events as you can from over-the-top wine dinners to a casual BBQ with more kegs than meat, you feel obliged to immerse yourself in the whole of gastronomy, alcohol included. I had to work exceedingly hard to be able to become comfortable around alcohol. I also had to be exceedingly open about my sobriety as soon as I met someone new. I’d oddly and openly introduce myself as someone in recovery, figuring that if I got it out right away that I didn’t want to imbibe, casually or otherwise, then I’d avoid any future awkwardness. This alone led to new levels of stress and angst for me that I would have to learn how to deal with without the aid of drugs.
Parts of this experience were easy, such as having a fellow classmate or professor taste my red wine sauce. Other times I’d find myself really wishing that I could experience the exquisite rarity that is a bottle of Lafite-Rothschild. At the time, it was horrible, but now I’m glad that I learned how to truly survive and thrive in the food industry as a sober and happy person.
Eventually, I found my way through school, largely thanks to my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, the sober community that I immersed myself in outside of school, and my supportive family and friends. I have always worked to put my sobriety before anything else in my life. The reason being that without it, I’d have no life. Seriously, I’d most likely be in jail or dead.
Over the years I’ve had to find ways to be around alcohol, and drugs for that matter, and be able to accomplish my job and greater goals. My wife, Allie, has my back and will always taste foods for me that we suspect may have the strong red wine or bourbon flavors that can be a trigger for me. This was vital when we traveled around Italy and Spain studying gastronomy, and helps now when I need someone to tell me how much alcohol in the vinegar that I’m making still needs to convert.
I sometimes think that the cosmos is playing a joke on me. A huge focus of the work I do focuses on fermentation, and a lot of the fermenting that I do involves making vinegar. To make vinegar one needs to make, or at least start with, alcohol. I often have to make 5 or 10 gallons of booze in order to make vinegar. Some of my colleagues have told me that they think this is a test and testament of my commitment to sobriety. Whether it’s a joke or a test, I’ll never know. What I do know is that now my mind hardly ever focuses on the alcohol. It’s always focused on the vinegar. This mental transformation has taken me many, many years to obtain. Doing what I do now isn’t something that I think I could have done in my early sobriety without relapsing.
I’m now 36 years old and have been sober 17 years. In this time, I’ve seen addiction destroy the lives of many people I know. I’ve also seen many lives blossom after finding a way to treat the addiction. I still see both happen in kitchens all the time. Gains and loss, loss and gains.
Kitchens are no longer the haven for the disaffected, addicted, disturbed, and insecure that they were two decades ago, but they are still a far cry from being safe workplaces for those who struggle with addiction. Many people seek out work in kitchens so that they can be surrounded by others like them and this often means people who like to party. When your remove yourself from that, you find yourself lonely and isolated. As much as you want to relax and hangout with your coworkers, you won’t do so at the bar with a drink in your hand. This still happens to me. It will always be a challenge. The good thing is that more and more of my colleagues are seeking help. They no longer feel that they have to keep up with the rapidly dissolving bad boy/girl chef persona. This change makes me hopeful that the next generation of culinarians can feel safe in the environment that they work in and focus on the art, craft, and science of gastronomy.
If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, know that you are not alone.
Life can get better. You won’t ever be cured, but you won’t have to continue suffering. There are so many places to get the help that you need and many ways to stay in recovery. Know, too, that I consider myself more than fortunate to have gotten sober and stayed sober to this point. Many people go through a vicious cycle of use and sobriety with some stints in either direction lasting for years. There’s nothing wrong with relapse, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed about it. It’s all a part of the disease. Pick yourself back up, or if needed, allow yourself to be picked up, and try again.
Most of the sober people I know, myself included, want to share our sobriety. We are more than willing to act as a guide and share with you what has worked for us in sobriety. Even after my nearly two decades of sobriety, I still have plenty of days filled with struggle. Random triggers can appear out of nowhere and flash me back to a craving for whatever I can get my hands on. The good thing is that now these cravings are fleeting, and I have had enough joy brought to me in sobriety that I don’t want to use.
It is important to encourage kitchens to clean up their culture and create more opportunities for the healthy pursuit of a culinary career. Should you need help, ask for it. You can find me at my restaurant if you need a place to start.
Jeremy is chef-owner at Larder Delicatessen and Bakery, 1455 West 29th Street, Cleveland. For a list of free drug and alcohol recovery centers in Ohio, visit FreeRehabCenters.org/state/ohio.