Sobriety in the Kitchen
“Top Chef” alum Chris Scott shares his story of substance abuse that led to sobriety and cooking from a clean spirit.
You can really change a lot in five years… if you want to. That’s how long ago I last drank alcohol. If you include drugs in the mix, it’s been at least 12 years, but I stopped counting after a while. Although I ran the gamut with all kinds of recreational drugs, it was indeed alcohol that damn near destroyed me.
I’ve seen the destruction from alcohol firsthand in my life and in the lives of people I’ve known and worked with. I even had two cousins destroy their livers and pass away from alcohol abuse well before the age of 45.
The restaurant business is certainly a place where I feel the most free. When things are going right, it is where I lose myself and find myself again. I’m able to get creative with various flavor profiles and marry together two or even three food cultures in a dish, and every living chef has at least 10 food concepts in their pocket. It is where true artistry comes from emotion and experience and appears on the plate, leaving and recreating memories with every single bite. It’s beautiful.
It is also a place where drugs and alcohol run rampant. Drugs and alcohol were often free for me in the restaurant industry. If I was holding some weed, and someone had some blow, then of course we were sharing. And alcohol is easily accessible right down the hall, in the office or behind the bar. At one job back in Philadelphia, we’d show up for work around 10 a.m. and work well until midnight. During a shift, we’d drink a constant flow of beer or cocktails out of those tin shaker cups. If we got too buzzed from the alcohol, we’d “balance out” by doing lines of cocaine. If we felt too up from the coke, then we’d deflate by smoking weed in the walk-in or out in the back alley. We’d call this mix “the trinity.” After our shift, we’d all meet up at a local bar or club and really pour it on then do it all again the next day. I’m amazed that we all seemed to get through all of that and still put up a decent product on the plate day after day.
For me, things got bad after my mother passed away the day before I got married.
My mother had cancer. Before this we barely got along. She was a single mother, sometimes working two jobs to make ends meet. She gave up all her own dreams in order to take care of me. My father chose to not be a part of our lives. Not only was he abusive, but he literally left us broke and living in my mother’s car while she was deciding on how to move forward. She decided to move back in with her mother (my grandmother) and this is where we remained. Her bitterness toward life bled out in negative ways, including her relationship with me. So when she became sick, we tried to quickly reconcile our relationship, and we did to a point, but there were still many things left unsaid. Her dying the day before I got married and three months before the birth of her first grandchild took a toll on me and affected my spirit. Alcohol was there as a crutch.
I absolutely believe that alcoholism is a physically dependent disease, but when you tie in the mental health aspects of it, it can absolutely destroy you.
Restaurant work in general can be brutal. Not only is it difficult on your body, but it also steals away more than 50% of your time. In the beginning of your career things can be hard, whether you haven’t mastered the craft as quickly as you wished, others climb the ladder faster than you, or the pay isn’t enough to sustain your cost of living. Things can look bleak, careers may change and alcohol is there as a crutch.
On top of the difficult workload, I was also struggling with my own mental demons. That seems to be a common thing in the industry these days, or in fact it’s something that’s always been around but now coming to light after the death of Anthony Bourdain and the related conversation on mental health issues in kitchens.
It got to a point where I was becoming a recluse, drinking my life away and pushing away everyone who ever loved me. I had no confidence in myself or my work. I lived lies and made horrible decisions based on drinking. I was at a point when I could have lost everything. I needed help.
I began to seek out meetings and to talk to individuals who were going through similar situations. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. That was absolutely my thing when I began seeking help. I would attend meetings and come back home and drink. You must either have a moment when all hell breaks loose or when you’ve just simply had enough to get serious about recovery. For me, it was a little bit of both.
Once I began the process of healing, I discovered things about myself. All the things about me that I used to hate, I began to love. I began making amends with all the family members and friends that I’d hurt. My cooking even got better because of my ability to focus and cook from a clean spirit. Almost in a matter of months of being sober, I could see myself rounding the curve, with things that I would have NEVER imagined starting to happen, and it was beautiful.
It's long overdue in this industry to look at this subject long and hard. How many situations like Anthony Bourdain's do we need to endure until we stand up as a group and say something? I'm living proof that there is another side, the light at the end of the tunnel. With a platform like "Top Chef," opening up about my experiences and struggle with alcohol has inspired many, but it can't stop there. If I can talk about it, blog about it or post about it, then I will. I can only hope to keep inspiring.
In my restaurants today, I do not offer shift drinks, and I do not condone a drinking lifestyle, even if it’s casual. I know too well the dangers and bad decisions that can come from one drink too many.
Since I shared my sobriety story with the world, many have joined me. I answer each and every person who reaches out for words of encouragement or looking for a path to heal. Only with one another’s help do we all succeed. And I look forward to helping as many as I can.
For assistance or resources on substance abuse, call 1-800-662-HELP or visit samhsa.gov. ICE students can hear Chef Chris share his sobriety story on Aug. 20. Learn more in the student newsletter.