Lessons Learned From a Line Cook and Addict Who Turned His Life Around
“My life is in shambles — two failed relationships and three kids. I’m the head grill cook and am about to be promoted to Kitchen Manager — I’m in my late twenties, have been in the trenches for 12 years and I’ve seen it all. My most recent failed attempt at family life has me starting over at square one.
This is how an e-mail started that popped into my inbox one night a couple months ago.
“I recently watched your TEDx talk and was impressed by your enthusiasm about pursuing your passion regardless of what other people think — I understand your position being a chef and speaker who encourages self-motivation, passion, and dedication. Your Letter to Cooks was what we all wanted to say but couldn’t express — I appreciate how you were able to convey, in the best way possible, how we restaurant dogs feel and operate as opposed to 9–5ers.
Will you please write about the dark side of our industry? The substance abuse, the long hours, the sacrifices we make that at the end of the day seem futile, because no one, unless they are in fire with us can truly understand us…..”
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The e-mail goes on for paragraphs, and he does a damn fine job describing his relationship with a career in cooking. In some ways, I think we all see a lot of the same things (the good and the bad) and I started feeling anxious, almost like I was a fraud who’d misrepresented or somehow sugar-coated this lifestyle that, while doing great things now more than ever, has also ruined lives, destroyed families and has left many broke and feeling helpless.
I’ve seen dishwashers and line cooks in and out of jail for crack addiction. I watched another fight a heroin addiction, break into my restaurant and empty the drawer of all it’s cash one night. He got picked up by an undercover cop later that day. I had another employee who after work, went out for some shenanigans with friends, and ended up wrapping his truck around a telephone pole heading home, while high on who knows the hell what.
So yeah, these stories exist and they affect me personally, but they aren’t the types of stories I like to tell — I suppose I’m an advocate for change. I want to encourage and inspire my peers and young cooks to show up every day with the goal of bringing the best version of themselves, because if they do that, I think a lot of the messy stuff will sort of take care of itself.
Nevertheless, while reading, I started thinking that maybe he was right — maybe there was another side to the story that I was now obligated to uncover. Maybe I could keep those starting out on this journey from being completely blindsided when their life in the kitchen isn’t exactly the romanticized-walk-in-the-park I envision it being, or if nothing else if others are struggling in their journey, maybe they can at least understand that they aren’t alone.
I know there are people in my life that will never understand why I quit a decent paying job in consulting to take on a new challenge — a full-time life in the kitchen, where I’d be having to work a lot harder for every dollar I’d earn, plus I’d be working nights, weekends and holidays. At the same time, I can’t wrap my head around those who do the opposite — the ones I grew up with who are so incredibly talented and smart, but find themselves stuck in some office they dread walking into for 50 hours a week.
A few years after jumping into restaurants full-time, we opened up the restaurant and I was chef/partner and went three years without getting paid by the restaurant, not a dime, so I slung drinks at a local nightclub, in order to pay my bills. I didn’t work any less hard or lose sight of the bigger picture, but amid the struggle, I would at times think that choosing to jump into the kitchen ruined my life.
I mean hell, I have a masters degree and could have been making pretty solid money at this point, versus broke — I wouldn’t have had to worry about my check card declining while on a date, or the $35.00 overdraft fee when my rent check bounced. I could have had a normal social life, started building the American Dream by settling down with a wife, and finding a white picket fenced house that had a tire swing hanging in the front yard that would be perfect for the children that would soon be on the way.
In reality though, I was essentially broke, and as busy as that restaurant was those first couple of years, we were just barely breaking even. We had funds to cover bills and payroll, plus pay down some debt, we just couldn’t pay ourselves.
I was in a tough place — a lonely place, but I kept fighting and never let my circumstances get the best of me.
Through discovering so much about myself in this process, I learned that life is going to throw you curve balls no matter which path you go down, so you might as well choose a path that most speaks to who you are. Don’t follow the herd, because that’s what society tells us what to do, but what do you tell someone that heeds this advice, and feels like the path they took led them to some dark places, what do you tell them?
The e-mail continues:
“I had been on drugs for thirteen years and finally admitted recently to my girlfriend of four years that I’d been using since I was fourteen. When I was honest, she was very supportive of my recovery — it blew my mind. I thought she would call me a piece of shit and run me off.
Since that e-mail, he has turned things around, stating that he was in a dark place when writing it; that he now has a new lease on life. He has been to rehab, moved back in with his girlfriend, started going to church and has become the father he knew he could be. I asked him what he learned from the experience, or what is some advice he could have used a dozen years ago, when we he was starting out in the kitchen:
1. Stay focused on your goals and craft and don’t get caught up in the rockstar lifestyle — all it does is take away from the things that really matter.
2. Encourage those around you who are destroying themselves to seek help or counseling. At the end of the day it’s not nearly as much about the food, as it is the relationships we build along the way, and we owe it to the those we’ve grown to love and respect, to be there for them when they need it.
3. Find hobbies and people to spend time with outside of the restaurant world. (*Joining a gym has been a life-changer for me, and so has some simple quiet time at the coffee shop with my journal and a pen.)
4. While going out to the pub after work with the fellas is a good way to wind down, so is getting rest and waking up at a decent hour to do things you enjoy.
5. If you think you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, don’t make excuses, make it a priority to get straight. You will relapse. You probably won’t get clean on your first go round, you just have to keep trying and surround yourself with people that will hold you accountable.
6. You should never try and guess someone’s reaction to your honesty. Being honest with yourself and the people around you keeps you focused. It’s hard to be honest all the time especially when it comes to problems like drugs or alcohol, but when we are honest and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we see the other person is actually on our side. We just need to give them a chance to be.
I firmly believe the path we should all be after is the one that allows us to grow the most, serve the most and discover the most about ourselves. It just so happens that this is where the greatest rewards are found as well.
Just know that it’s not going to be easy — you will have bad days, weeks, months and years. You will feel like your back is up against the wall. You will feel tired, beat down and convinced that you can’t keep going — this is when you must press on and remind yourself of why you chose this life in the first place. Even the darkest of night ends with the sun coming up over the horizon in the morning.
He closes that e-mail with this:
“It’s tough trying to become a family man when you’re a line cook/addict, but it’s possible. It’s possible, you’ve just got to rise above your circumstances and keep fighting to make them better — thanks Chef.”
I started writing this, because I was asked to by one of our own who really needed help. Ironically, he found help, discovered help and changed his life for the better, but that I wasn’t aware of until I was well into writing this article that I hoped would open his eyes. If you’re in this place, I hope you see that change is possible and I hope that you’ll commit to making it, as a more rewarding life for yourself is out there waiting to be had— then pay it forward, because we’re all in this together. As Chef David Chang says:
It’s February 11th, a month or so after publishing this article. Since, I’ve been in contact with the young man who’s story is told above . I’d gotten a lot of enjoyment in hearing him turn things around and make a better life for himself.
Yesterday I received a message from one of his fellow line cooks. Here’s the meat of it:
‘He was so proud that a chef of noterity took the time to acknowledge his messages and even put them into words for the rest of the industry to read.
It is with regret that I write you to say that he succumbed to his past demons and took his life the other night. I just wanted to thank you from his kitchen family for taking the time to talk and listen to him, and to understand where he was coming from. Sometimes we feel like fish in the ocean in this industry but for someone of your stature to take the time to acknowledge a simple line cook meant a lot to him. Once again thank you.’
— CHRIS HILL
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