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Substance Abuse Amongst Chefs

By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

I love Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, two Fox shows hosted by Gordon Ramsay, OBE, a British celebrity chef and very strong personality. Watching this season of Hell’s Kitchen reminded me of the stress and rigors that chefs in training regularly undergo. And something rarely …

5 Comments to
Substance Abuse Amongst Chefs

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  1. I just wanted to point out that the premise is quite often quite wrong. The idea of working in kitchens appeals to these vampires and nightstalkers so they get jobs in kitchens to fund their addictions, Some cut the mustard. Some cut quite a lot more, but hey, you get that in all walks of life. The life of a chef is a silent and solitary one in many instances. Skeleton staff, the bottom line, the need for silence in the kitchen so you can hear the cream whip, the potatoes roasting etc. means at the end of a shift these solitary soldiers of fortune, driven by passion and a desire to win at all costs have nowt to do but drink and take drugs. Lets face it, you are knackered, do you want to have a drink and get even more knackered, have a chuff and pass out at the table and have your friends continuously wake you and get you to get the drinks in, Hell its cheaper to do a line o coke. Look I know all drugs in excess can be harmful, I mean look at alcohol next time you are at the chipper, kebab house. Prohibition clearly hasn’t worked. And a line of good chan will get you through the list in record time.

    It’s purposeful in the way that combating altitude sickness is a purpose. Reducing a mountain of work is a purpose. And you would rather it was charlie and they were, neat tidy, on time, ie early, than scruffy, stoners, lol. Seriously, its about choice, and not so much the choice of workers in kitchens and the liquor industry, its about the lack of any other choices open to them at the time they finish. They have less time to get pissed, less time to dance, less time to do more, and have to be working twice a day to please, not themselves, no, they are not doing this to please themselves though the lucky one’s will draw immense pleasure for doing it. They are doing this for you. They suffer hardships so you can enjoy the lifestyle advantages of being a 9-5′er, and like any economic system, for your joy, someone down the line is suffering, and you get to be the big kahuna. Weyhey. Whats more, because so many of you want to eat, there is so much more competition than in almost any other private enterprise other than petrol, you want to affect the price and place a lower value on it than it ought to be, by market forces etc. unlike servos, a lot of restaurants owe their survival to volume sales, and so too please the big-kahunas, they lower their prices, this is something you as the consumer demand. So you the 9-5′er is ultimately responsible for a downturn in living standards for industry workers, as you do in the market in general. Wait til your biofuel is worth more to you than people starving because of it.

    So you see, the main reason the industry workers turn to drugs is to get through the week, as a tougher regime is inflicted on them by a baying public of 9-5′ers, with pedestrian taste, driving down not only the price but the quality of the ingredients, the dish-washers dealing puff cos wages are so low, the bartenders got the coke etcetera. The issue is that in affecting your choice, and in downgrading a nation’s gastronomic heritage, and shrinking that nations gastronomy, as food becomes nothing more than a right that money buys, and it better be cheap and plentiful, because none of you are actually doing a proper job, ie 9-5′er, then you shall be disadvantaged, starved of choice, unable to participate in the very sector of the economy that hospitality workers create by their industry. One cannot have the bread and circuses, without the industry of the bakers and the slaves.

    Frankly drugs are villified more because of the fact that the people with 90% of the worlds riches want the other ten percent, or at least dont want some new money interlopers, entering their world, enjoying the spoils that old money has built over generations, with profit spikes during slavery and economic rationalism. Restaurant standards were higher when the nation stayed home and cooked 4 nights a week.

  2. As an ex chef – and an ex alcoholic/addict I think that one of the most salient factors is that – in the kitchen, as long as you can perform…no one cares what you look like, what you do in your off time – and maybe even what you do in the walk in cooler. If you can handle your spot on the line (which is tough) everything else is gravy.

    A lot of chefs can use and get their job done, and done well. IN the long run though, it’s almost as though our job is enabling our addictions (lol). And in the long run – the drugs tend to catch up with ya.

    Crazy days.

  3. My name is Tricia and I am real Alcoholic. I have been in the culinary industry nearly 15 years. I am on the hot side. Many women never make it on that side, thats why you see them in catering, and or pastry. I have a great passion for what I do, but it is such a thankless industry. I suffer from severe depression because, a. I am too hard on myself, have zero quality of life, no friends, and no social life. I have been sober 6 years now and I am not sure what I want to be when I grow up. Since being sober I have been through 4 jobs all as Executive chef. I resigned from all of them. i just wish I could find a place to call home for the rest of my life. I am 35 now and I feel it is critical to find someplace I really like so I do not feel so unhappy when I get home. When I do get home all I do is sit in a corner and think life is just to hard and I wish it would just end. Like not wanting to wake up and face another day of “What did I do wrong today”. I remember when I was using I would feel the same way. The only difference is I am not using drugs to numb that pain. I have to deal with it sober. Thank you for letting me share. I live in Chicago, maybe one of my fellow chefs could help me
    Sincerely
    Trish the dish

  4. Hello,

    I am reaching our and looking for help so that I can support my 20 year old son in his recovery. My son has been attending a culinary college and has held a Chef’s position for the last 3 years. While the industry seemed to make a instant “superstar” out of him, (being offered private chef positions for crazy high salaries during the summers, etc.), it also created an addiction disease. Since he is so new in his recovery,and hopefully his addiction (still an inpatient in phase two) I am trying to help to set up a support for him at the end of the month when he returns home. Is there anyone on Cape Cod or Ma that could offer me some assistance on any recovery resources that may be available to him to help him continue what could be a promising career, and more importantly a safe, healthy and happy adult life. Any help would be so appreciated. Maybe the restaurant business is not the best choice, but he is so passionate about his cooking, maybe private chef is a safer course at this time? I just have to believe that there is someone out there who may have some insight that could save a young mans future, since he so eagerly is trying to recover.

    Thank you!

  5. I notice that there are not a lot of comments on here and they are fairly spaced out time wise, but I would just like to throw my piece in. First, to Dr Grohol, the statement about word of mouth regarding the contiuation of alcohol and drug abuse in the later years of a chef’s career is NOT gossip but truth. I have been cooking prffesionally for 22 years now and I have seen just about everything this industry has to offer, and in that 22 years I have worked for a multitude of chefs, and all but 2 were raging alcoholics. I know it was 2, because it seemed weird to me to work for a chef that didn’t go out after work every night and get s&%t faced. One chef I worked for started every day at 10:30 a.m. sitting at the bar doing his ordering and drinking a beer to get rid of the hangover from the previous night. Around 8 oclock in the evening and about 16 beers later he would head down to one of the local hot spots and get juiced until about 2 a.m.. If you did the math real quick thats 15 1/2 straight hours of drinking, and whats really funny, is that seemed normal to me for a long time. 3 years ago I quit drinking after 24 years of drinking and 15 years of heavy drinking. When I say heavy, I mean almost 2 fifths of vodka a night just to calm my nerves from work. Now I can’t stand my job, as a matter of fact, I went back to college to get a degree in the medical field because I hate it so much. Anyway, I could write an entire novel about alcohol and drug abuse in the restaurant industry but I won’t. To Les, thanks for saying a lot that should be said, I wish more people knew what went on with us and how little we have to show for our hard work. To Tricia, do what I did, go back to school. I am going to be forty when I get my associates degree, and I will owe the government a lot of money for loans, but I will get to have weekends and holidays and nights off. I will get to wear comfortable clothes to work in an air conditioned building. If I am sick, I can call in and not have to listen to the chef bitch at me for the next week. And you know what, when that fancy new restaurant that everyone is talking about opens, I am going to go in there and have dinner, I am not going to worry about whether table 8′s porterhouse was over cooked, or if the pasta was to runny for table 12, or the fact that the mayor of the town just walked in with 30 people and they are all going to order right in the middle of my rush, and I gaurentee you that I am going to buy every guy or gal in the kitchen a drink for at the end of the night, because I know, that until they realize for themselves what took me 22 years to realize, that this job sucks, they need it just to unwind and be able to go to sleep that night. P.s. Les, I may be selling out to become a nine to fiver, but you can bet your sweet ass that when I walk into a retaurant and look at the menu, the price isn’t going to mean a damn thing to me, but the ingredients are, so if the fish is 35 dollars, it better be fresh, and if the steak says black angus, here’s my forty bucks, and try to get it as close to medium rare as possible, I’m pretty easy going, but if I am paying forty dollars for that steak and I get select, trust me, I will know, and I will ask to speak to the Chef, and they will get apiece of my mind, not because of the price, but because they served me crap!

  6. Been in the business for close to thirty years. To all the “chefs” out there, a few simple rules apply.

    1. If you don’t OWN YOUR OWN PROFITABLE PLACE, there is no WAY you will ever retire…period. The only other choice you have IF you want to stay in this business or (as most) just don’t have the drive and guts to leave (which I didn’t) get into a food service company. Boring as hell, absolutely no glamour or fullfillment…BUT, you get benefits, HUMANE HOURS, decent, but not great pay. Thats it, thats your two choices.

    And the food service business, after show biz, has the most dangers involved as far as sins go….BOOZE, DRUGS, SEX, CASH, NIGHTTIME….its all there, and it all adds up to the whole thing MAKEING IT ALMOST INEVITABLE that you wind up addicted to SOMETHING or making a HORRIBLE life choice…..very, very, very few veterans end up unscathed.

    And, I have to add; while it IS changing somewhat, this industry has, in the past, and still true today (but not as much) attracted the low of the low. People who sucked in school, dropped out, got fired from any other industry…it seems VERY FEW actually CHOOSE this career, MOST simply fall down to this level. Most “resumes” show length of employeement in the 1 to 3 year range, where an employer is actually interested in you and considers you a “long term employee” if he sees you stay over 2 years in any one place.

    Its hell on earth. Legalized slavery. If you work hard enough, actually have a genuine interest in food, and are resiliant and lucky, you can own a place for yourself….which will take care of your MONEY and work hours….but all the rest of the temptations will still be there…AND you will notice that people all of a sudden find you funnier, and better looking……..

  7. As a Student Nurse and Current Chef of over 11 years, who has battled with Alcoholism and various substance misuse problems, I would have to say that in my experience substance abuse remains with chefs/cooks, just the substances change over time. I think it is a worry that chefs are free to do what they want and as long as the job gets done, no one else cares.

    Once im finished my nursing degree, I do plan to push for some public awareness of drug and alcohol abuse that is commonly ignored in hospitality…

  8. Came across this late — it relates to long ago work as a waitress in resorts – and to a friend’s nephew – a waiter in high-end restaurants. It’s hard first of all to resist the very thing you are pushing AND spending all of your time with- food and drink. Not drinking is strange. You are also involved in constantly directly pleasing others – your income depends on it even more than in a salaried world.
    I remember tyrant chefs who required being supplied with their alcohol of choice. Met others who had fallen from better positions when their drinking got out of hand. And all staff tended to hag out at other bars in their free time. In resorts, I think it was – most likely is – worse because the entire service community lives isolated from the “outside” world – and often serves hours that eliminate the rest of your life. And yes, for slave wages [one restaurant owner actually got investigated and charged for shorting all of us. And there was a hierarchy of staff – the lowliest were the dishwashers – sometimes undocumented immigrants, sometimes alcoholics and drug users definitely not in recovery. Back to the chefs – waitstaff had to cater to them in order to get their meals out. They could engage in any sort of verbal abuse, and did. If they are good enough, owners are not going to call them on their behavior.
    Eating at the CIA is highly recommended – and maybe they should include classes on the particular danger of substance abuse in the restaurant business.

  9. I struggled with addiction and because of that it took me 2 years to finally make it into culinary school, after 11 weeks I relapsed. Luckily when I relapsed I got sick and got a doctors excuse for all the days I missed. The school put me on a 3 month medical leave and now I have restarted and at week 7. this time around is much better, the drugs i like dont exist where I live now, I was traveling 3 hours home every weekend to see my drug addicted ex before and he was the one I relapsed with. As soon as I went on my medical leave I went into the mental hospital because the ex drove me to suicidal thoughts and constant panic. since I left the mental hospital I left him and have been clean. I no longer have to go 3 hours home every weekend to see him. I only go once a month to see my family. I am doing great in school now. I started realizing the number of chefs with mental illness/drug addiction and started researching it, it really is unbelievable. Cooking is my new addiction and i am so so addicted. I cant quite understand this whole chef/addict phenomenon but it does make me feel better about my self, especially after realizing the number of great chefs who were addicts. and those are only the chefs who admit to it. If i make it in this industry as I plan to, I want to write a book, i mean anthony bordain became famous that way(writing a book once he became a respected chef that detailed his past with drugs. inspiration.

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