Portland Chef Gabriel Rucker uses his life experience to make a difference for others who struggle with addiction in the food and beverage industry.
Kelly Jordan, USA TODAY
PORTLAND, Ore. – The first time he used alcohol to self-medicate, Gabriel Rucker didn’t think it was that big a deal.
Rucker was a young chef in Santa Cruz, California, stressed out about a ruined batch of creme brûlée. In his panic, he spotted a bottle of raspberry vodka. He poured himself a shot and threw it back. It instantly took the edge off. Soon, shots became a daily occurrence. Before he knew it, he’d emptied the bottle.
Now Rucker is a two-time James Beard award winner and owner of three of the most prestigious restaurants in Portland, a celebrated food city. For the first decade of his career, he was a hard-partying, always-drinking cook who reveled in the carefree, anything-goes attitude of an industry that’s long glorified and glamorized a life of debauchery. Shortly after Rucker decided to be a chef, his mom handed him a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” the best-selling memoir from the former line cook who wrote candidly of a profession that included brutally late nights, drinking on the job and drug use. Rucker considered it the blueprint for culinary success.
“It was like, this is how you do it: You work your ass off, you stay up late, you smoke cigarettes, you go to work hungover and you do it again. And if you sprinkle some drugs in there, that’s OK, because we all do,” he recalls. “For me, as a young kid, I was like, ‘Great, all the things I like to do!’ ”
But it spiraled quickly.
Six years ago, Rucker was 32 and married with two children, including a baby a couple of months old. He’d spent his day off cooking for friends and neighbors, downing three bottles of red wine by himself. He passed out in the middle of dinner, rolling off the couch – and onto his kid. Everyone was OK, but Rucker spent a sleepless night reckoning with an embarrassing reality. The next morning, he asked his father, David, who has 27 years of sobriety, to take him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
“Shame is an interesting beast, and you have to confront that,” David Rucker says. “It’s one thing to think you’re just having fun and partying with your friends. It’s another thing to recognize there’s something broken in you, especially in a society that’s never looked at weakness as valuable.”
For Gregory Gourdet, who rose to fame on Season 12 of Bravo’s hit reality TV series “Top Chef,” the bottom was lower, and considerably uglier. After seven years of hard drug use that included ecstasy, meth and cocaine, which resulted in one horrific car accident, a string of missed weddings and a morning when he woke up in a pool of his own urine, Gourdet realized he had to change. That truth dawned on him after he spent three days freebasing cocaine with no sleep. By the end, his best friend wasn’t even speaking to him.
He’d gone to rehab once before, drinking and drugging his way through four weeks of recovery. In 2009, in the Portland IKEA parking lot, he asked a friend for help. That friend, himself sober, had “an amazing freedom in his life,” Gourdet says. He ached to feel that way, too.
Support for sober chefs grows
To those working in the food and drink industry, this lifestyle probably sounds relatively normal: A study in 2015 from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that food service and hospitality workers have the highest rate of substance abuse of any profession. What Bourdain’s book revealed to the outside world has long been known by those working in the front and back of restaurants.
In a culture that’s historically tolerated and even championed excess, Rucker, Gourdet and other award-winning chefs spearhead their own movement: sobriety. This week at Feast Portland, one of the country’s premier food festivals, a handful of sober chefs will host their second annual Zero Proof dinner, an alcohol-free event devoted to celebrating and promoting a sober, healthy lifestyle. It’s the brainchild of Rucker, and for the second year in a row, the 70-seat dinner, with a $225 price tag, sold out in less than 10 minutes.
The sobriety movement is catching on across the food industry, especially after Bourdain’s suicide in June 2018 shook the culinary world. Other high-profile chefs, including Montreal’sDavid McMillian of Joe Beef, have spoken openly about their battles with addiction.
In its eighth year, Feast Portland has long offered wellness components to attendees interested in more than late night after-parties: There are chef-led city walks, trail runs and yoga sessions. A few years ago, organizers stopped putting welcome bottles of alcohol in chef’s hotel rooms.
Portland prides itself on being inclusive, says Feast co-founder Mike Thelin, and although food festivals are notorious for being over the top, he wanted to curate an experience where drinkers and nondrinkers feel welcome.
This year, in addition to the exercise-heavy “before-parties,” Feast will host a Ben’s Friends meeting Friday morning. The support group is aimed at helping those in the food and drink industry who struggle with substance abuse and addiction.
In 2016, after Charleston, South Carolina, chef Ben Murray killed himself following years of drug and alcohol problems, Charleston-based restaurateurs Mickey Bakst and Steve Palmer knew they had to do something.
“Our industry was being wrecked by drugs and alcohol,” says Bakst, who has 36 years of sobriety. “Steve and I had had countless conversations about losing people … we were just disgusted.”
The suicide of Murray, one of Palmer’s employees, served as the catalyst. Ben’s Friends is not an official chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it doesn’t offer the structure of AA. But the nonprofit group does provide community for people whose jobs require close proximity to alcohol, who frequently work until 1 or 2 a.m. and who often work alongside co-workers who roll into their shift hungover. Rucker calls Ben’s Friends “the gateway drug to sobriety.”
Gourdet, who got clean with the help of AA, says there’s “a lot of shame in saying, ‘I’m an alcoholic’ out loud for the first time, in a room full of strangers.” His hope is that Ben’s Friends, which boasts chapters in eight cities, can help people find the courage to do that.
Bakst knows the success rate is low. Addiction specialists say 8% to 12% of AA members stay sober after the first year. Other studies estimate that roughly 40% of people drop out of AA during their first year. Those are, Bakst admits wryly, sobering statistics. He knows that in an industry such as his, temptation is never-ending.
“At the very beginning, when you’re serving a glass of whiskey and your hands are shaking and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, God, I want that,’ yes, it’s very difficult,” Bakst says. “But it gets better. And there is hope.”
“I told myself, ‘I’m not that bad’ ”
Callie Speer, an Austin, Texas-based chef who’s scheduled to participate in the Zero Proof dinner, worried for years about the implications of being sober.
“My biggest preconceived notion was that if and when I quit drinking, I wasn’t going to have a life,” says Speer, 35, who’s been sober three years. “I didn’t quit drinking to be boring, and I’m not boring. When you’re partying all the time, you think, what do people even do when they don’t drink? The answer is, a whole bunch of (stuff).”
For years, Speer reasoned away excessive drinking, telling herself that it was normal to take shots at 10 a.m. and that sipping alcohol throughout the day was just the way of life. She played the comparison game: When her then-husband, also a chef, got in a drunken driving accident and had his DWI charge embarrassingly splashed across newspapers in 2014, “I told myself, ‘Well I’m not that bad, so there’s nothing wrong with me.’ ”
She kept drinking. A few years later, she says, a co-worker went off on her, unleashing a fiery, harsh tirade in the kitchen: “You have a team of women who want to work with you and learn from you,” he spat. “How disappointing that this is the version they get instead.”
Two days later, she checked herself into rehab.
She’s the executive chef of Holy Roller, an all-day diner in Austin. She admits to bouts of FOMO, the millennial term short for “fear of missing out.” When a big-time food critic comes to town and she hears stories of alcohol-fueled late nights, she wonders if she’d been out partying, would she be the one getting a write-up in a major publication? She chooses not to dwell on it because “no drink could taste as good as feeling reliable.”
Instead, Speer keeps busy with work, optimistic that soon, it won’t be weird for someone in her industry to volunteer that they’re sober, that it won’t be a fringe movement but a mainstream one.
Living without drugs and alcohol
Four days before Feast took over the city, Gourdet laced up his sneakers and took off running, pounding 19 miles worth of trails in the Columbia River Gorge just east of Portland, mentally prepping for a chaotic week.
He runs because he’s got the time and energy. Since getting sober 10 years ago, Gourdet, 44, has completed more than 20 marathons, including two 50-milers. Someday he’d like to do a 100-mile ultramarathon. It’s a stark contrast from his first day of rehab, when he stumbled and gasped his way through just 2 miles. “Awful,” he says, shaking his head.
He speaks openly about his journey because “it’s the only way to clear the demons.” At the TedxPortland festival in 2015, he detailed his New Year’s Eve celebration in 2007. After drinking for 12 hours straight, Gourdet fell asleep at the wheel, driving into a ditch and flipping his car. His vehicle totaled, he went from the emergency room to jail, walking into a cell with broken glasses and a small scratch above his left eyebrow.
For long stretches of his life, Gourdet says, he knew and hung out only with people who did drugs. Now, as the executive chef at Portland’s Departure restaurant, he’s around booze every day, and he doesn’t crave it.
“I’m not scared of alcohol,” he says. “It doesn’t control me. I know who I am, and alcohol doesn’t have to be a part of me anymore.”
Rucker continues to cook with wine but isn’t tempted by it. His new vice of choice is ice cream, and he’s adopted a strict workout routine. He posts proof of his new, healthy lifestyle on Instagram, encouraging others in the industry to reach out if they’re ready for change. He’s confident that in Portland, where counterculture rules, chefs can start a different type of movement.
If you work in the food industry and are struggling with substance abuse, reach out to Ben’s Friends at bensfriendshope.com/contact
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/09/11/celebrity-chefs-get-honest-addiction-seek-change-industry/2275670001/