If you’re unable to listen, check out the full transcript of Gregory’s conversation with host Elizabeth Vargas below.
Hello everybody and welcome to Heart of the Matter from Partnership to End Addiction I am your host Elizabeth Vargas, and I hope you are having a fabulous June. When I got sober, I remember a lot of people we would all talk about, “Oh, my business drug and alcohol use disorder is rampant in my business.” And we all said that, whether we were journalists on network television or lawyers or brokers and day traders. But it turns out – get this – that the highest rate of at least drug use, illicit drug use, in any business happens – guess where? In restaurants in the food service industry. And by the way, it’s the one business where when you go back to work, you’re continually surrounded by alcohol. If you’re tempted by alcohol or drugs, they’re everywhere in the food service industry. So today we’re going to talk to chef Gregory Gourdet.
You may remember him. He was on Top Chef for several years. He was a Top Chef finalist twice. He was an all star and guest judge. It’s a hugely successful show. I know my kids watch it and love it. He’s also been named Chef of the Year by Eater and one of the fittest chefs in America by Men’s Health. But that only happened after he got sober. He says he lost seven years of his life to drug and alcohol use disorder before he finally got sober, as he put it, in the parking lot of an IKEA. That was where his moment of clarity was. It’s an interesting story. He’s got a new book coming out called “Everyone’s Table” where he uses all sorts of his Haitian upbringing, his training by Jean-Georges in Manhattan to come up with some fabulous recipes.
But it’s probably the only cookbook or one of the few that you’ll read where there’s a lot of space devoted to getting sober. At least at the very beginning. It’s very inspiring. Gregory Gourdet in fact is inspiring and has an incredible story and I think you’re going to enjoy hearing from him so here is chef Gregory Gourdet.
Gregory welcome. Great to have you here.
Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
I wish we were doing this in person over food that you had prepared because I took a look at your new cookbook and wow does it look amazing.
Thank you so much.
So listen, I was doing some research in advance of this podcast and I was really struck by a statistic that according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the rates of illicit drug use found in the accommodations and food services industry is the highest of any industry. Nearly 17%, whereas for all other industries it’s an average of just under 10%. Why is it so high do you think in the food services industry?
I’m 100% a product of that environment. My troubles with addiction definitely started when I was cooking. I think a lot of it stems from just the hours working at night. It’s a high pressure situation. And the reaction to that is to go out and to celebrate a successful evening. You’re always working with a group of other people, and you’re getting off work late at night. I started my career in New York City. The bars were open until 4:00 AM. You could go clubbing for days if you wanted to literally. So it just became going to the bar to celebrate a successful evening of service after working for 12 hours a day pushing yourself, working under a very high pressure situation with very expensive ingredients, and that took over. When you have so many resources for addiction, so many bars to go to, drugs are easily accessible. You have carte blanche. You’re allowed in any establishment or club or bar because of your connections – it just becomes very, very easy to succumb to that lifestyle.
I remember years – it’s decades ago actually – I dated a chef here in New York City who had several restaurants. And after all the restaurants would close, all these chefs would gather at Blue Ribbon downtown at 2:00 AM and sit at a table together and eat these amazing meals and drink all this alcohol until 5:00 AM.
Yeah, yeah. New York’s trouble.
It’s part of the lifestyle, isn’t it?
It has been, it was and that’s definitely changing, but it’s 100% my story. I was starting my training at the turn of the century, the early aughts so it was New York City. It was a heyday for sure, it was the end of an era for sure. The first thing we did after work was go to the bar and there was many of us. And we met up with people from other restaurants as well so we’d be like 12, 15, 20 people deep at bars and at bigger bars and at clubs and we’d leave the bar at 4:00, which is ridiculous. I couldn’t imagine staying up that late anymore – especially even in the pandemic world – but then you know, New York City, you could go to the club and we’d go to the clubs at 6:00 AM, clubbing all day and you don’t do that sober. I could probably do that sober now, but back then it was definitely a drug-fueled event. There also historically has been a culture of shift drinks and it’s literally being rewarded for doing your work with alcohol.
What does that mean shift? Like at the end of your shift?
At the end of your shift a lot of restaurants historically have had, when finish your shift, you go, you sit at the bar, everyone gets a beer or a shot and that’s how you end your night. So I don’t know a lot of other professions that celebrate you doing your job with alcohol.
Right. Oh that’s right. That’s a good point.
So there have been some systems in place to build a sense of the culinary industry is very problematic in that it’s very easy to become addicted to drugs and alcohol when working.
One sober chef, a fellow sober chef, Sean Brock, actually said that both alcoholism and workaholism were rampant problems in your industry and were actually both rewarded. In other words working those long intense hours and going out and drinking a lot seemed to be rewarded, according to him. Did you find that to be the case?
100%. I personally don’t feel I was forced to work a lot by any means, but I am definitely still a workaholic. That is just a part of my personality, and I think having an addictive personality that leads to that. Also having my parents be my mentors and role models and they literally worked two jobs, three jobs, their entire lives until they retired. So that is the example of what I have in my head of how you need to work, especially as immigrants who came to this country to raise a family and find success. So for me it really was about having to come in early to get your job done.
And I worked off the clock because I wanted to, I really wanted to just get my job done and I actually enjoyed that pressure. I think it’s different for everyone, but I enjoyed working that much. But it did lead to the reaction of after doing all this all day and going to work and working off the clock for four hours just to get everything done and having a great successful night, I’m going to go party my ass off. That’s really what led to my issues with addiction because I don’t have any addiction in my family whatsoever, so it’s really something that I put upon myself and gave myself.
You mentioned you don’t have addiction in your family. You are a child of Haitian immigrants, as you said, typical immigrant family that comes and works really, really hard to achieve the American dream, not just for themselves, but for their children. You went to the Culinary Institute of America, it’s an extremely prestigious cooking school. And then unbelievably right after graduating you went to work for Jean-Georges.
Hello, in fact, you were at the Jean-Georges restaurant in the Trump towers on Central Park West, right?
Trump Hotel. That’s right.
I’ve eaten there a zillion times probably you were there as well it’s an amazing restaurant. At what point did you feel like your drinking began to be problematic. For a while, were you drinking just like everybody else in the kitchen.
Sure. My story of addiction starts fairly early with recreational drug use. I went to a small boarding school in Delaware. I grew up in Queens, very traditional Haitian household. My parents were very, very prim and proper, very respectable people. We went to church on Sundays, we went to Catholic school. But when I was introduced to boarding school and kids from different parts of the country, definitely more white people than I grew up with and from tons of different backgrounds, recreational drug use started pretty early. I remember doing acid in high school-
… for the first time, and it was all very recreational. I did get suspended from high school for this whole drug incident. That was a little peek into what could happen and my parents were extremely concerned, but I just kept moving forward, I kept working, I kept going to school, I went to college. I started cooking when I went to college in Montana, again, a lot more recreational drug use. In the 90s it was rave culture. That was a really big part of global party culture. Listening to techno, throwing raves, lots of designer drugs. And as I got a little bit older I settled down and I started working in New York City, I specifically remember the first time I was late for work. And I really marked that day as like the beginning of the seven year addiction issue that I had with drugs and alcohol. I had to close service one evening and I had to be back early the next morning toward brunch, it’s called the clopen a culinary term where you close and then you have to open.
So you have a very, very short window to get home and get some sleep and get back to work. And I told chef I was not going out. I was going straight to bed. And on my way home, I took a quick detour. I was out all night partying and I woke up the next morning late for work. I was asleep on my friend’s couch and I walked into work and the chef was working my station online and he was extremely upset. And that was the first time I was ever late for work. And that was the first time of many times for seven years, I was very late for work. And I really marked that day as the first day of this seven-year battle I had with drugs and alcohol.
And that really was a bottom for me. I checked into rehab a part of my last days in New York City. I finally told my parents that I had a problem with alcohol and cocaine, but I got an opportunity to move to California. So I dipped out of rehab and I moved out west and it took another two years in moving to California and then finally moving to Portland, Oregon to finally get sober.
Yeah. You pulled what we call in recovery a couple geographics.
You actually write in the forward to your brand new cookbook Everyone’s Table, “Seeking change for escape I moved to San Diego and joined a gym. I would stop drinking for a few weeks in an attempt to keep the demons at bay and to keep them secret from my new community only to relapse spectacularly.”
Indeed, indeed. I remember I moved to California and I was two weeks into rehab. I jumped out of rehab I left and within minutes of landing in LA, I was doing cocaine with some friends. And we drove down to San Diego where I was supposed to start my new job. And I think I lasted for about a month of not drinking. I was like, “Hey, I’m going to be a good person for good.” And I think it was Halloween. And I just got absolutely blacked out drunk and everyone was just extremely shocked with my behavior because that wasn’t how I was acting for about a month. And that really opened a can of worms for my time in San Diego, which was a huge mess. I got in a really bad car accident after drinking for 12 hours on New Year’s Eve.
I was arrested immediately after… They took me immediately to the hospital because I flipped and totaled the car I was immediately taken to the hospital. They realized nothing had happened to me, I had a tiny scratch above my eye they couldn’t believe it and I was immediately arrested. And I got even arrested one more time during my time there so it was very, very messy. And without the drugs in New York City, the drinking became truly a big problem. And I think that’s really when my alcoholism really came into play – when the drugs were taken away. And it took moving to Portland, Oregon, and I accepted a job at a cafe here and I walked in and I was going to be the executive chef and my sous chef he introduced himself. And the first things he said was, “Hey my name is Tom and I haven’t drank in two years.”
And it was really the first time I had ever met someone who was in recovery, who had said that they hadn’t drank in numerous years and for me I couldn’t fathom such a thing. So I would literally go and get drunk every night. And I would actually go and hang out with his group of sober chef friends. And we’d hang out and we’d light smoke cigarettes and just chill out and eat and then I’d go to the bar and start drinking. And it was really one of the first pivotal moments in my life that made me think about a sober lifestyle. And I started looking around and I was entering my early 30s and all my friends from college who were living here, they had homes, they had children and I was getting drunk and falling off my bike. I just knew I had to get myself together.
And after moving around and doing this and that and so many jobs, I took a deep look inside myself. And I had a really long conversation with a really good older friend of mine from college and he had been in recovery for a few years as well because it truly is about community. And I asked for help. I stayed up all night, one night and I met him and it was the last night I ever drank and I did drugs. And I thought long and deep if I was really ready to never do drugs and alcohol again, and I asked myself that question and I told myself that the answer is yes. And I walked into an AA meeting pretty shortly after that and that was 12 years ago and I haven’t looked back.
Wow, what do you think it was? We call it that moment of clarity, some people call it the God shock, however you choose to see it. Something happened, and it wasn’t after your car accident. In fact, you write in your book about that New Year’s Eve car accident and arrest. You write, “In a movie about an addict this would be the moment that changed everything, when the protagonist checks himself into rehab and emerges a new man. But this isn’t a movie. A couple of weeks later I was blackout drunk, again. Six months after that, I was back on cocaine. It took another year for me to quit drinking and doing drugs. There was no humiliation or accident or tearful conversation with a friend. I’d already had so many of those. Instead it was a day like any other.” Except it wasn’t it was a day that you looked at yourself in the mirror and said, “No more.”
Indeed, indeed. I think we all get to that point that’s why so many of us are in recovery, and so many of us are able to reclaim our lives and move forward and it happens for different reasons. Sometimes it happens at our bottom, and I really felt that time in New York City was really truly my bottom, but even my bottom wasn’t the end of it for me, because my bottom led me to enter rehab, but I truly didn’t have an understanding of what recovery was. I was drinking in rehab, I was doing coke in rehab.
How were you doing that?
I was just sneaking by, I think we only got like… It was outpatient. It was definitely sketchy, but it just proved that I didn’t really understand what was going on. Because just understanding that you have a problem with drugs and alcohol may be very apparent, but understanding how to get sober and wanting to get sober is two different things. Because even my friends who insisted that I go to rehab, who wouldn’t talk to me, who wouldn’t work with me unless I was in rehab – we would have conversations and they would be like, “You should be able to drink like a normal person.” So the understanding was I would go to rehab and I would just be able to do drugs and drink like everybody else again and that’s not how-
The great lie we all tell ourselves.
And that’s just not how it works. So it definitely took spending time with alcoholics, meeting alcoholics, getting advice from alcoholics and really looking at my life. And I reached a point where I physically felt I could not drink. I could not use drugs and I could not smoke cigarettes physically. I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore and that was really-
Did you quit all three at once?
All three at once.
Oh my God, how did you do that?
I just did. It just all fell into the same box of things for me. Alcohol led to me wanting to do drugs and smoking cigarettes it made me think about all those things as well. It was just all a package and I physically couldn’t… Luckily I physically felt like I couldn’t smoke cigarettes anymore. And I know how hard it is to quit smoking cigarettes. I smoked cigarettes for 17 years. So I’m very, very relieved that I’m relieved from that as well. But it just took some deep soul searching and getting older and looking around at what people in the world are doing and what my life is like. And realizing that I wanted more, and I deserve more, and I could achieve more. And I’m extremely grateful that I am in recovery.
You’re in one of the rare fields where even though you’re working there’s alcohol everywhere around you.
Most people don’t go to an office surrounded by people drinking. And yet that’s your office, which is the restaurant is surrounded by people drinking, not just the customers, some of the staff. How is it? I’m really curious about that early sobriety, but even now, does it ever look good to you again? How do you resist that temptation when everybody else all around you is indulging it.
Sure I think for me I’ve been relieved of the desire to drink, and I think that’s something that I’m extremely grateful for because I know everyone’s recovery is different. I know people who have 30 years of sobriety who are uncomfortable walking into a bar. For me I was speaking to someone… Even the first I think even in the beginning I thought I was getting sober I would still taste drinks at work. And someone called me out and like, “You can’t taste a drink. What are you doing? Just because you want to taste the happy hour cocktail, you can’t do that just because you’re the chef.” And I was like, “You’re absolutely right.” It even took a little more time to really dial in what recovery meant to me. But for me, well, the first thing I did I stopped going to bars for six months. Within that first year I would go running, I started running and I would literally go run at night. I would get off of work. I would go running at night-
That’s the middle of the night Gregory. When you get off work it’s late.
Yeah. I was training for my first marathons. My first half marathon, I immediately set my goals. I was training for my first half marathon. As soon as I did my first half marathon I hired a coach from Nike and I started training for my first marathon. And I would just run around, everyone would get off of work people would go to the bar and then I would just start running. So that was one way to just immediately change my habit and do something exactly opposite than what I used to do. But I think for me I just wanted to get sober to be able to do the things that I still enjoy and do the things that I still love and I had to make a clear decision.
I definitely had to pick up some new habits and I took up eating healthier, which leads us to the book and going to the gym and being healthy. And I live somewhere like Oregon, which is an absolutely stunning state to be outdoors. I was taking advantage of being outdoors after living in New York City for the past nine years. So there’s so many amazing things that happened and just trying to figure out taking a break from going to the bars and all these things and just removing myself completely. But I remember the first time I went back to New York City and I went to a bar or a club with my friends. Back then I would drink so much Red Bull it was awful, but I was extremely nervous and an extremely uncomfortable, extremely shaky had tons of anxiety around it. Not that I wanted to drink, but I just was just so uncertain of how I felt about the situation.
With these statistics about substance use disorder in your industry and stories like Anthony Bordain who wrote about drug and alcohol use in his memoir Kitchen Confidential, and then of course committed suicide because of mental health issues. There’s been a lot of focus on people, chefs in the business, the pressure, the substance use disorder. You now lead a group, a recovery group of recovering chefs. How important has that been to your recovery?
It’s absolutely extremely important. I think our industry as a whole has been in quite a transitional phase for quite a few years. I think maybe four or five years ago we started seeing more focus on mental health in the industry. I think with the younger workforce, the new generation, which is a completely different generation than mine. I think we as chefs had to start to reevaluate what kitchen culture really was, and how we were trained and how our upbringing impacted our leadership and how the younger generation really reacted too, and how the younger generation needed to be treated. Because we talked about we worked off the clock it was high pressure. I wanted to work off the clock all these things were it’s just very different today.
So I would go and drink and do drugs with my chefs, all these things are absolutely not okay in the modern world. I think it started with the Sober Chef Movement, which popped up. I think about five years ago we started seeing, I did one of the first sober chefs dinner at a food festival. We did that for Feasts Portland a few years ago and it was with Andrew Zimmern and Sean Brock and Gabriel Rucker.
That is so cool.
Yeah. That was really great. And through that Ben’s Friends which is the recovery group for the industry members that I’m in. Ben’s Friends had been a couple years old at that time. And really it’s not an AA meeting, but it’s very AA adjacent a lot of us have gotten sober through AA, most of us have. We’re part of Ben’s Friends so it’s just an open meeting, it’s an open conversation for all industry people because this disease impacts us pretty profoundly, and we have daily meetings. With the pandemic we’ve been able to go virtual, but we have meetings in every city. We have national meetings once a day. So it’s been able to connect tons of people in the industry from bartenders and winemakers who have gone sober and are questioning how they-
How does a wine maker stay sober?
One day at a time, like the rest of us. But it’s like offering a safe space because maybe in a AA meeting you can’t say that you’re a bartender, you can’t say that you’re a wine maker and you’re sober because you might get a raised eyebrow. But in Ben’s Friends you can talk about these things because again if this is the industry that we love, this is what we want to do for life, we find ways as people who are in recovery to keep doing our job and keep being passionate about the things that we enjoy.
Many of our listeners may remember you from your stints on Top Chef. You were a contestant in season 12, and then later on a judge.
But you auditioned. You had auditioned how many times before they took you.
I auditioned twice. I think I auditioned like… Tasha’s been on… We’re on season 18 right now. So I think I auditioned for season two or three and a few years after that. But I specifically remember staying up doing coke all night long and then going to my audition.
Gee, I wonder why they didn’t pick you?
I know. I know. It’s another one those amazing-
This guy is talking super fast.
… full circle stories of how this recovery is truly a gift. And in recovery you can achieve a lot of things so I’m really grateful.
You have been named in addition to all the other awards you have won for your cooking. You’ve also been named one of the fittest chefs in America by Men’s Health magazine. When you quit drinking and doing drugs and quit smoking, and then started running in the middle of the night. And instead of going out and partying when you were done with your shift, that led you to compete in half marathons and then full marathons, how many marathons have you done?
Oh, man. Tactical marathons I’ve probably done maybe I would probably say about 20, but in terms of running marathon distance because I’m an ultra runner, I’ve run more than 2000 miles multiple times. I’ve probably done that distance about 50 times-
… but I’ll just go run 30 miles with my friends for fun. A little bit far less in the past few years I will say that, I think I’ve reached my heyday of running but running is still extremely important to me.
It’s a healthy habit that you are able to really pull a switch for the unhealthy-
Not everybody who gets sober is going to… is running marathons.
You don’t have to. You don’t have to.
But it did lead you to getting sober led you to do a complete rehaul of your entire life, not just the exercise but in the way you eat and your relationship with food yourself.
Indeed. I think running is a pretty straight forward metaphor for life, it’s putting one foot in front of the other. It also helps me chop projects into pieces of time. So the mile markers represent things that I need to do in a certain space of time. So running has really helped me just be able to deal with huge life projects, because I just take it one mile at a time. But wanting to eat better and seeing what works for my body and what doesn’t and understanding that what you put into your body is extremely important if you want it to perform after eating whatever I wanted for years and years as an addict.
And that’s really what’s led to the book and experimented with the paleo diet and going to the CrossFit gym 10 years ago when those two went hand in hand. And just kind of figuring it out for the past decade and seeing what works for me, what doesn’t and understanding that even though mother nature makes all these foods that do have nutrients, some actually aren’t the best foods for you. There are actually nutrients and vitamins far prominent in certain foods and we should focus on those. And that’s really the story behind the book. It’s being able to pick the best foods that mother nature makes, create them in a delicious and interesting way with global flavors and eating it as much as that as you want, and never feeling really on a diet.
In this book, I’m curious in this lovely, gorgeous cookbook with recipes that I’m dying to try and make, but probably won’t look like the one that you have photographed in there because they never do. Why be so honest in the opening of this book about your battles with addiction? Why talk about that first AA meeting when you say quote, “I introduced myself as an alcoholic and addict my voice breaking from the weight of hearing myself say those words aloud for the first time.”
I think in the modern world, I think being as vocal as possible about my recovery, about my addiction has been extremely important. I think on the foundations of AA we are taught to be anonymous. We are taught to just be respectful and not promote or really talk too much about our issues and our struggles. But being someone who’s been given a national platform so many times and been asked by my story so many times, I just got more and more comfortable telling my story, from being asked about it on Top Chef. And it’s very uncomfortable to talk about these things. Especially if you’re just a few years into recovery. You have so much shame, so much guilt about some of the things that happened in the past you’re not quite past it.
So being asked to talk about it more and more, I got more comfortable with it, but also seeing what that effect is. The first time I was on Top Chef, I was getting messages and comments and letters from people from all over the country who thanked me for being open about speaking about my recovery. And I even had chefs getting their fourth DUI and calling me and asking me what they should do. And I specifically remember that with chef friends of mine. And it truly was a time where I realized being as vocal as possible is actually helping people. And if I can help remove the stigma of being in recovery, if I can show people that by being vocal and honest and carrying my badge of my addiction and recovery, it’s actually really helpful for people to see that you can recover, you can thrive, you can be successful and it’s been extremely helpful.
And that’s to this day where with social media and everyone’s just on a national platform is just paying attention to what others are doing. I still literally get weekly messages from people thanking me for being open and honest by my recovery. And I think that’s something that’s been very helpful for me as well.
Right. You say that it was a friend that you had who was in AA who helped you get sober. It was that connection with somebody else who was willing to talk about their own sobriety. You’ve described a pretty dark existence during the seven years that you were using drugs and alcohol. I know that when I was at the end of my drinking, that was the loneliest I’ve ever felt in my entire life. And I read a lot of books that other people wrote about getting sober, but it’s that connection it’s actually hearing somebody else say, “I suffered this exact thing and here’s how I got better,” that gives people hope and starts to chip away at that stigma that is still so prevalent right now.
Indeed, indeed. I have to accept that this is part of my story this is who I am, I’m far removed from that person. I like to say that I don’t have regrets and I’ve learned from every experience and that you can really truly learn from any experience it was worthwhile, but the fact is I definitely have regrets. I definitely have family events that I missed. I definitely have things that I’ve told people that I regret saying. But at the same time, again, all those experiences helped make me the person that I am today so I’m grateful for them. But it takes a lot of looking into the mirror and I’ve actually talked about just really being honest with yourself to stay sober.
And being vocal about what’s happened to me it reminds me that I’d never want to be in that place ever again. It reminds me of what I have today and I never want to let that go. And like I said I just want to be like that old timer in the meeting, I want to be sober for a very long time, I’m being competitive with myself. I just want lots of years of sobriety, I think it’s exciting. And that’s a goal of mine to be sober for the rest of my life, and that’s something that I work at everyday.
Yeah. Those anniversary meetings when somebody stands up and says they have 50 years. And you’re like, “What?” There was a time when I couldn’t imagine having 50 days sober. Gregory Gourdet thank you so much.
Of course. Thank you.
The book is “Everyone’s Table.” It’s a beautiful book with recipes that aren’t hard, but sure look good and they must taste good.
They’re all outlined for the home cook in mind. So they are step-by-step full detail most of them is ingredients that you can purchase year round. There’s a handful in each chapter about really hyper seasonal ingredients. And I tell you which ones to use, where to shop for a global pantry. But they’re definitely for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, any night of the week you can find something to cook and it won’t take you that long.
Okay. Promise. Thank you so much.
Really appreciate it.
Thank you so much for listening today to Heart of the Matter. You can find this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and on our website at drugfree.org/podcast. And as a reminder, if you need help with a loved one who is struggling with substance use, you can text 55753 or visit drugfree.org. We’ll talk to you soon.
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