Left to right, Marc Thuet, John Higgins and Michael Quinn
Recently, I watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s food-and-travel TV show “No Reservations” in which he imbibed copious amounts of what he deemed exceptionally good wine at a restaurant in Croatia. The show ended with him falling off a chair and lying on the ground – seemingly comatose.
The eloquent, urbane and eminently watchable Mr. Bourdain makes no secret of his past struggles with addiction. A heroin addict for several years, he has written about use of marijuana, cocaine and other substances during his roller-coaster career as a chef in New York kitchens. He also chain-smoked on his TV shows until the birth of his young daughter. It is obvious he still enjoys alcohol and not in moderation.
Bourdain burst on to the literary and food scenes in 2000 with his brilliant, ground-breaking book “Kitchen Confidential.” When I interviewed him for the Toronto Star at that time, he told me the life of a chef is “day after day of mind-numbing repetition. It takes a certain type of lunatic to crave that kind of life.” A life he compared to “serving on a submarine” because of “the enforced closeness, pressure and isolation.”
On a panel with Bourdain a few years later at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival was Jonathan Eismann, a chef who has since lost his three Miami restaurants after a tragic 2012 hit-and-run accident in which he killed a pedestrian. Eismann talked about drug use among chefs.
He described how kitchen staff were affected by “different drugs that react at different times of the night. First, the potheads cut themselves. Soon the cokeheads were a disaster and eventually the junkies stood like stone statues at their stations.”
I was reminded of all this recently when an Ontario celebrity chef with a top-notch reputation temporarily disappeared without trace or explanation. There were hints in the media that the pressure of his job and life in the stressful hospitality industry – along with some kind of addiction – may have been the reasons.
I discussed this with John Higgins, a well-known chef who spent many years in the industry and is now director of the Chef School at George Brown College in Toronto. In the strong sing-song brogue of his native Glasgow, Higgins gave his take on the topic at hand.
He lists some reasons addiction thrives in the heat of a professional kitchen: Long hours, the pressure of producing good work in a short time, the adrenaline rush, easy access to alcohol and the fact that sensitive, creative types are often attracted to this job. In a nutshell, he confirms the theory espoused by Bourdain.
“People think cooking is easy,” he begins. “It’s not all Food Network – it’s a high pressure job with long hours.”
Higgins notes that some chefs use drugs or alcohol to help “come down” from the adrenaline rush of that stressful syndrome: You’re only as good as your last dish. “Some cooks want to go and party hard and you do that for four or five years and it becomes the norm.”
He continues: “The high that you’re on because you’re busy, you’ve really been moving and you’re being successful and you’re being creative and you’re making people happy, it’s like wow, wow, wow – it’s like Disneyland for kids.”
His antidote is raising awareness of these hazards among people entering the profession. He recommends planning one`s career and staying focused on that plan. And, most important, having a mentor. His advice: “Get a job working with the best person you possibly can and to go worldwide whether it’s at a fast food place, the Ritz Carlton or the Bellagio in Las Vegas.”
“Everyone needs support,” says Higgins and cites his wife. “She tells me what reality is. It’s respect as well,” he adds: “It’s a tough, tough business with crazy hours.”
Higgins has struggled with his weight over the years and being a chef can be hazardous. These days, he finds walking his dogs and going to the gym are great stress-relievers that offer physical exercise. They give balance in his life: “”I know when I have a balanced life, my weight is good.”
French-born chef Marc Thuet knows all about drug addiction.
Talking in his gravelly voice, he openly – and courageously – tells the story of his long-time struggle with it and of his ongoing recovery. Stocky, with spiky blonde hair and a gold ear-ring, he has tattoos on both arms. One reads: “Live the dream.” The other is one word: “Passion.”
Since completing a serious stint in rehab (the last of several) almost eight years ago, those have been his mantras. And, although he admits the cravings are always waiting in the wings, he’s clean and dry.
Thuet has done it all: marijuana, heroin, opium, cocaine, OxyContin, alcohol – and in mind-boggling amounts – for about 30 years. He nearly over-dosed more than once but is here, feisty and going strong, to tell the tale.
In recovery, he has starred in a reality TV series called Conviction Kitchen in which he and his lively partner Biana Zorich employed and tried to help ex-cons, mostly addicts, in their former restaurant. The couple currently own and operate a catering company/bakeries called Petite Thuet in downtown Toronto.
Sitting in my living room, Thuet explains why he is willing to talk about something many would find shameful. “Maybe I can help one or two people to know that life is beautiful and worth living,” he begins. Then, referring to the intricate way he self-medicated for all those years: “I never thought I had a problem. I used to live my life through chemistry.” That life, he adds, was “chaos.”
“I didn’t sleep a lot. I partied a lot. But, at the same time, I worked a lot. I never missed work because of my addiction.” He was obsessed, compulsive and indifferent to others: “If I got a negative reaction, I didn’t care.”
Eventually, he wound up in a dark place. He had been using drugs for several years, unbeknownst to Biana. She finally found out and kicked him out. “I was depressed, had suicide thoughts – it’s the same for every addict. If you don’t hit rock-bottom, you’re not ready.”
Thuet has five offspring including two young daughters with Biana. The latter keep an eye on him. “My kids know daddy doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke weed. A lot of waiters in the city know; they bring me a diet Coke.”
His biggest worry while in rehab was that he would lose his creativity as a chef without the drugs. “I couldn’t wait to come out and cook again. My insecurity at that time was huge.”
The first dish he made without the aid of substances was a sole souffle with caviar. The verdict: “it was excellent.”
As he leaves, I thank this lovely man for our chat. His reply: “My young daughter says, ‘Daddy, you’re like a pineapple – prickly on the outside and sweet inside.'”
From the mouths of babes.
British chef Michael Quinn spoke to me recently by phone from his home in Yorkshire. He is using his tragic 30-year descent into alcoholism and the lessons he’s learned during almost two decades of sobriety to help others in the hospitality industry via his foundation called ArkGlobal.
In the early 1980s, Quinn was at the height of his game. He was head-hunted to be executive chef of the high-end Ritz Hotel in London. He was the first chef to receive an MBE from the Queen at Buckingham Palace. He travelled the world as a celebrity and earned the nickname “The Mighty Quinn.”
But, as he says: “There’s another side to the story.” His addiction to alcohol eventually cost him everything and he wound up losing his family and jobless – a homeless drunk hanging out with criminals.
Working in a professional kitchen made it easy to slip into addiction, especially with a family history of alcoholism along with “an over-sensitive nature and a perfectionist streak” that he claims are predispositions. For him, alcohol was the chemical “that filled the hole in the soul and was the missing part of the jigsaw.”
From a social way to unwind after work, drinking became a daily routine from daybreak to day’s end. He cites “wind-down drinking after service” as “the spring-board for many into full-blown alcoholism.”
In those days, Quinn explains, “all kitchens had a beer allowance called sweat pints.” For a long time, he was “a drinking alcoholic – a stand-up drunk. I was a work-hard, play-hard character. And, like most alcoholics, I denied I had a problem.”
But, as for most alcoholics, drinking eventually caught up with him when he crossed “that invisible line.”
Quinn took his first drink at 18 and his last one at 49. By then, he was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with end-stage liver failure. He was given the last rites. “That’s when I had an amazing spiritual experience. My life changed in a flash and I was placed on the road to recovery.”
Quinn has been “free from the obsessive compulsion” ever since. He credits Alcoholics Anonymous for much of that.
Meanwhile, his full-time mission is to help others by taking his message to colleges, universities, hotels and restaurants. “The only way to get around this,” he says, “is to educate young people and to spell out the warning signs. It’s like planting seeds.”
For more info, check: www.arkglobal.org.