Joe is a single guy, young and well educated, quiet yet personable enough, incredibly talented as a cook, reflective, and a closet alcoholic.  From the perspective of the chef who reigns in charge of the restaurant where Joe works – this young line cook is an ideal employee.  The chef knows that Joe will always be ready with his mise en place at service, always be focused on excellence in cooking, he will look the part of a professional and whenever the chef is short an employee he knows that Joe will respond to the emergency and double time it in on his day off.  The chef is either oblivious to or avoiding what everyone else in the kitchen knows – Joe drinks with reckless abandon.  After work – Joe can’t wait to trot to the closest bar where his alter-personality kicks in after the second drink.  When he settles in to this environment he quickly turns from that quiet, reflective, talented cook to the life of the party.  He has done this for so long that Joe is able to stumble home at 3 in the morning and appear sharp and focused at 1 p.m. when he arrives for another shift behind the line.

Today, something is different.  It’s 1:20 and Joe hasn’t shown up for work yet.  The rest of the crew is quiet and uncomfortable as the chef asks if anyone has heard from Joe – his most dependable cook.  The chef has called Joe’s cell a few times – but no one answers.  By 2:00 everyone is rather worried and the chef sends one of his other cooks to Joe’s apartment to check on him.  After pounding on his door for ten minutes – he finally opens the door.  He is in rough shape, his face is bruised and cut, his clothes are spattered with blood, and he is obviously still intoxicated from a late night of bar hopping.  “Man – what the hell is going on?  You’re supposed to be at work – the chef sent me to check on you.”  Joe is speechless – he simply waves off his peer and says: “I’m not coming in today.”  This cook has hit the wall – alcohol has taken control and there is no turning back at this point.  He hasn’t been on an extended bender for quite some time – but now one is rearing up its ugly head.  This isn’t the first job that he will likely lose, and it won’t be the last.

If you are working in the restaurant business then this story will ring true.  Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who can occasionally over-subscribe to alcohol or other substances and not worry about the disease sinking its clutches into your every being.  Even if this is the case – you have worked or are working with others who can’t turn it on or off.  Statistics that measure substance abuse by industry rank food service as #3 in heavy alcohol use and #1 in abuse of illicit drugs.  Joe is not an anomaly.  Nearly 13% of all heavy alcohol users in the U.S. work in the food service industry!  Why is this so and what can be done about it?

There are a number of tragedies associated with Joe’s situation – a number of ancillary victims whose only shortcoming is a quiet association with Joe and his problem.  The chef will ultimately lose a great employee, his co-workers will suffer the impact of Joe’s meltdown, customers might even begin to notice a change in the quality of work, Joe’s family will suffer the uncertainty of his health and wellbeing, friends and relationships will deteriorate, and he will continue down this bottomless pit until he self-destructs even further.  All of those connections tried to ignore the growing problem and simply shook their heads and hoped for the best.

One recovering alcoholic stated: “I think I always knew there was going to be a problem – but I thought – not me.   One day a delivery driver arrived late – I was pissed!  I gave him a hard time for no reason – it was not his fault.  On his way out the door he said to me: ‘I wish I could give you a beer’.  It was confirmed – I wasn’t hiding it well.”

Alcoholism and Drug Abuse are part of a disease category that relies on dependence.  Like any other disease it needs to be recognized, accepted, and treated.  This dependence will not go away on it’s own.  The person or persons impacted by this disease will require a regimented treatment unlike any other debilitating disease.  People impacted by substance abuse will need tough love, support, physical treatment, mental and emotional support, and a lifetime of discipline to overcome the need to lean on alcohol or drugs.  As is said: “once an alcoholic or drug user, always an alcoholic or drug user.”  Note that no one is ever cured of this disease – they are always referred to as “recovering” – never cured.  Yet, like Joe – so many keep their problem under wraps as long as they can – never seeking help, never admitting that they are plagued by the evil hands of a monster that always tries to draw them in.

You might think:  “a drink now and then is fine, it’s enjoyable, a nice release, a way to enjoy the social nature of friendship and family.”  You might reflect on your own situation where a bottle of wine with a great meal is the complete package and never something that draws you in at the expense of family, friendships, mental health, or a career.  That’s great – I belong to this fortunate club, but at the same time I have witnessed lives crushed, relationships shattered, careers end, and even lives lost among those who are not as fortunate to have the off and on switch.  What Joe is experiencing is what tens of thousands of food service workers face every day – it is a very, very serious problem.  There was a point in my career when I felt that I should become an honorary member of Alcoholics Anonymous simply because so many of my friends and co-workers built their life schedules around AA meetings.  Let me reiterate – it is a very, very serious problem.

A good friend and fellow chef stated:  “Most alcoholics and addicts feel all alone in a crowded football stadium – most of us think we don’t belong.  A lot of people think, in the beginning, it will help them be more social, to get along better, but what you’re really doing is placing yourself where you can no longer learn – you stop growing.”

During these unprecedented times when the restaurant industry is challenged like never before, when the routine of the cook, chef, server, or manager is very uncertain, and when that typical adrenaline rush of working in a busy kitchen has, in some cases, come to a halt; there may be more individuals than ever before who are on the edge.  It is so easy for alcohol or drugs to creep in and take control.  We all need to pay attention to the signs, be aware, and be there to support those who are finding it difficult to cope.

It takes a village to save a friend or co-worker from the ravages of substance dependence; we can all play a role in the recovery process.  First, most who are in the know will tell you that it serves no purpose to ignore or discount an alcoholic’s or drug addict’s actions.  This is the tough love part – they need to be called out.  Second, we can all help by talking about how their actions impact not just themselves, but also all those individuals around them.  It is important that the individual come to grips with the problem.  Third, we need to support them by helping the alcoholic or drug dependent individual connect with the right help.  Bring the individual to the helping hands of another recovering cook, chef, friend, family member, or known AA sponsor.  Know where and when local AA meetings are being held.  Post it in your kitchen for all to see.  Finally, be the voice of encouragement – the process out of despair is long and difficult, but never turn away from their desire to become whole again.  The person may lose a job along the way; find a family member or friend who turns his or her back, or a co-worker who fails to understand the disease.  From this point on – staying sober or clean is the most important action in their lives.

Words of advice from my friend: “Ask for help!  You are not alone.  There is so much help out there – talk with somebody before it’s too late.”

I was turned on to the following TEDTalk.  It is heart-wrenching and uplifting at the same time.  Everyone, whether directly impacted by substance abuse or not – should watch and listen.  This is a valuable 10-minute investment of your time.


Know that you are not alone

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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