Getting sober is hard. Staying sober is harder—especially when you work in the food and beverage industry, where boozing is implicit in the very description of your profession.
Popular culture doesn’t help. Television loves romanticizing chefs as hot-headed tyrants with full throats and empty bourbon bottles; gluttony, after all, is the most fun of the seven deadly sins. Society has thereby normalized our longing for indulgence, and the restaurant industry is more than happy to serve up our most decadent desires on a plate—or in a cocktail glass.
That’s not Andrew Zimmern’s poison though. Not anymore, at least. It’s hard to imagine a time when the globe-traversing chef could have been anything but the affable, curious, considerate man the world has been watching on Bizarre Foods for over a decade, eating grilled udders in Buenos Aires and donkey skin in Beijing.
But that’s the end of the story, not the start of it.
Beginning in his teenage years, Zimmern was an “everything addict,” imbibing in various concoctions of booze and drugs for nearly two decades. He was a heroin user. He pawned his grandmother’s jewelry to try and drink himself to death. He slept on piles of dirty clothes in abandoned buildings. At his lowest point, homeless and squatting in lower Manhattan, he had taken to swiping purses off chairs in the Upper East Side to fund his habits. “That’s how I lived for a year—no showering,” he told ABC’s Nightline. “I was the guy you crossed the street to avoid if you walked by me in New York.”
Zimmern has now been drug-and-alcohol free for 27 years. In this interview, he speaks candidly about getting sober, what keeps him motivated, and the role the restaurant industry has to play in supporting society’s most at risk communities. Some highlights include:
- Why honesty is the key to sobriety
- Why all men should consider going through trauma therapy
- What putting an oyster knife through his hand taught him about masculinity
- The problems he solved by getting sober—and the new ones he gained
- How the hospitality industry’s machoism fed into #MeToo
- Why diversity in the kitchen will lead to greater benefits in society
This weekend, Zimmern will be joined by four other sober chefs at Feast Portland’s “Zero Proof,” a tasting dinner celebrating and supporting substance-free lifestyles (with non-alcoholic drink pairings to boot). In a food-festival environment where the free wine is often poured like oysters down an ice luge, it’s a welcomed addition to remind consumers and chefs alike that your health is in your own hands.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Quartz: First up, thank you for being so open about your sobriety. Many people feel like they have to justify their choices to others or hide the fact they’ve stopped imbibing for fear of judgement. But if more people were upfront about their stories like you are, we’d begin to destigmatize it.
Andrew Zimmern: I think it’s a mistake for anyone to hide their choice to not drink. We make choices all the time about food, beverages, and all sorts of things we put into our bodies. The silence reinforces the stigma and shame, and there’s a lot of stigma and shame associated with many personal choices. I happen to believe through my personal experience that living your truth is much more powerful than keeping that truth set aside or hidden.
My advice to anyone is that the sooner you can be living your truth, the easier it actually is. I’ve found that if people don’t know you’re sober, then someone can very casually spin around and put a beer or a joint in your hand—things that are might be very benign for most people, but for a recovering person can be very dangerous. So not only for personal wellness, not only for the ease with which it helps you navigate sobriety, I recommend transparency. I think it has way more benefits than it has pejorative associations.
Because it’s not just your relationship with that substance: It’s also how other people feel about your sobreity. The opinions they have about it, the reactions they have to it…
It’s certainly easier now than it was in the 1950s. The number of people who are abstinent from drugs and alcohol for whatever reason—whether they’re recovering from addiction, whether they just found out from the doctor they’re pregnant, whether it’s a religious choice—is higher. But the most frequent question I get asked from people new to sobriety is, “What do I tell work? What do I tell my girlfriend’s family? What do I…?”
I have found almost without exception that it is better to confront that issue head on. (Sometimes for someone just entering sobriety, or any other “ism”—addictions, gambling problems, you name it—wearing everything on the sleeve from day one is sometimes not prudent.) But relatively quickly, especially in the recovery community, you get a lot more understanding and empathy than most people would ever imagine.
It reduces the toxic amount of shame associated with it. It reduces the stigma, but it also lessens the person, your own anxiety. Had I not been public in my workplace about my sobriety when I started this journey 27 years ago, I would’ve sold myself short, because a lot of magical things happened to me when I invested in the loss. Investing in the loss is a spiritual practice where you give up the outcome, or the perceived gain of a situation, and let the world be what it is to you. When you invest in the loss, you gain so much more. You lose insecurities. Your anxiety lessens.
There’s an interesting duality at play here: Yes, sober life is becoming more normalized—but at the same time, statistics show us that more people are drinking at dangerous levels than ever before. You’d think those two would be antithetical. What do you think is leading to the rise of both?
You can make a really good argument that all of our “isms” happen to be our number one anxiety medications of choice. We do that rather than exercise, or talk to other human beings, or seek out professional council, or even seek out opinions of friends. I mean, rarely do you find people saying, “I’m having problems in my marriage. I’m gambling too much. I’m binge eating and throwing up. I’m a heroin addict. I’m day drinking. I’m morning drinking… I’m going to talk to my friends about this.”
The mind of someone who is in that position is already not functioning properly. When I was drinking and drugging, my mind was telling me things that weren’t true. I was already unhealthy. And I was incapable of seeking out a healthy alternative. I keep coming back to drugs and alcohol only because it’s more pertinent to my own story, although I certainly suffer from depression, anxiety, and lots of other things that I use emotional sobriety to work through. But seeing the rise in opioid use, for example, at the same time we’re seeing a rise in the popularity of sobriety, I don’t think the two are mutuality exclusive. I think there’s causality for both.
When it comes to sobriety, over the last 25 years, so many people from celebrities to the postman on the beat have come out and been public about this, sharing solutions. I think people are starting to realize that they have alternatives to a life consumed by drugs and alcohol. I think there’s more awareness out there. People know that they have a choice, and not just 12-step programs. Lots of different things can bring someone to recovery.
What are some examples of that?
I belong to a big national gym chain. I saw a sign in the lobby of my health club the other day when I went to play tennis: It said they were doing an info session, an hour-long thing about drugs and alcohol. I was like, “Wow. That’s fantastic.” I asked somebody about it, and they said, “We’re not trying to cure alcoholism or drug addiction. We just have a lot of people that will go out on a Friday night and drink, and then come into spin class on Saturday morning. We’re trying to tell them that’s dangerous, and they need to be aware of it. If you are a regular exerciser, the effects of drugs, alcohol, food, and water in the body is something people have to understand.”
And why do you think we’re seeing a spike in this kind of behavior?
We’re living in very anxious, dangerous times. I think that there is a lot of fear and anxiety in the world. Anyone who has a tendency toward something that makes them feel better is going to want to take their favorite medication, whether that’s food, gambling, drugs, alcohol, whatever.
With opioids in particular, the hugest spike isn’t because of the streets being flooded with cheap pills from some foreign country—it’s people abusing prescription medication. Big Pharma needs to take a lot of blame for that. I think doctors and hospitals need to take responsibility and take a long, hard look at how they’re prescribing them.
I’ll give you an example. I had a medical procedure done years ago. The doctor was going to write me a prescription for 24 Percocet or Percodan, I forget which one. [Both of these drugs contain Oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin.] I said, “You know, no. Just give me four.” My wife was in the room with me—always have another person when you’re dealing with doctors—and she said, “Absolutely, four.” Because we’re used to this kind of thing, we both knew that she was going to take the prescription and give me one every 12 hours.
After two days, the four pills were gone. The pain was gone. It was manageable with just Advil, right? It wasn’t ideal, but after two more days, I was fine. Four days total. No problem. Doctors, insurance companies, and Big Pharma profit by overprescribing these types of pain killers. I have friends who don’t have a problem with drugs and alcohol who, when someone hurts themselves, say, “Oh, I have a bunch of painkillers from last year that are in my medicine cabinet.”
Oh yeah, I feel that happens all the time.
And I’m like, “I’m just curious—how does that happen?” They’re like, “Oh, I had shoulder surgery. My doctor gave me a three-week’s supply of OxyContin. I took it for two to three days, and it made me loopy, so I stopped and just took Advil.” So it’s just sitting there. Kids can steal it. A spouse can abuse it. Having all of these highly addictive opioids and other pain killers around is more of a gateway problem to addictions of all kinds than marijuana ever could be.
I want to ask you about a concept you mentioned before: “emotional sobriety.” What do you mean by that?
I found that when I walked into sobriety, I had 100 problems in my life. The minute I stopped and put a cork in the bottle, 50 of those problems immediately went away. Like, I’ve never been picked up for a DUI in sobriety. It a literal impossibility! And then you keep going down the road. Within a few short months, I stopped lying. Over the course of the next 15 years of sobriety, 45 more problems went away. It took a while in some cases, but a lot of changes went down in my life, all for the better.
Yet somehow, every year when I was taking inventory—talking to my people that I work with, talking to my family, talking to my friends—I would see that there were five problems that kept popping up all the time. I believe that for most people who have my kind of story, you stay sober a long time and a lot of shit gets better, but there a couple little things that are still there. I have found that it takes a very concentrated, focused effort in later years of sobriety to really target those things and pursue a higher plane of wellness.
15 years sober, 20 years sober… Every year I would do a weekend-long workshop, going through the 12 steps and doing some real hardcore work. One or two more of those problems went away, and I found myself at 20 years sober just unable to shake those last two or three things. They were causing me problems in life because I no longer had a hundred issues that would pop up in different combinations, I just had three. It was like having much higher-caliber weaponry. When those problems exploded, there was more collateral damage.
In some cases, being sober is being sick and tired of being sick and tired. So, I started to talk to people about this. I worked with a therapist for a couple months. He uncovered some trauma and intimacy issues that were at the core of these three problems. Every year I started going to the Meadows, or to Onsite, or back to Hazelden, where I first went to treatment. There are dozens and dozens more great wellness centers around the country that do ongoing workshopping for people who are confronting all kinds of issues in their lives. I just happen to have a special place in my heart for Hazelden, the Meadows, and Onsite.
I’ve sent friends to all three places who don’t have a drug and alcohol problem—they just have other problems in their life. I think everyone—every man, all my male friends—could benefit from doing intimacy and trauma work at the Meadows. Every friend that I have I’ve suggested should go do the living-centered program down at Onsite. These things are remarkable tools. I’m someone who doesn’t want to be a prisoner to those things in my life that I can change. I’m a human being, and I need all the help that I can get.
The more work I’ve done on intimacy and trauma issues, the more I realized the horrific, collateral damage associated with trauma. Trauma is transmitted from generation to generation: from my grandparents, to my parents, to me. I’ve seen it all. I’ve mapped it out. I’ve written it on whiteboards in giant rooms and used colored yarn and color-coded three-by-five cards. I’ve mapped out the whole thing, and I can see where it’s come from.
I don’t want to pass that on to my son. I want to transform that trauma, because that trauma has shame associated with it. Of all the human feelings, shame, I believe, is the most toxic. Whether they’re pursuing chemical dependency or alcohol sobriety or not, I believe that this work is invaluable to people.
I’ve been abstinent from drugs and alcohol for 27 years. And I’ve now been abstinent from the problems and the consequences associated with my trauma and intimacy issues for a bunch of years. I still have challenges in those departments, but no longer do I feel powerless. I now have a solution for how to deal with all of that—the same way I learned solutions to deal with my chemicals and booze. And I call this whole jumble of stuff emotional sobriety.
You said that all your male friends in particular would benefit from working through these kinds of issues. Within your industry, chefs have these stereotyped personas of being these masculine, heavy-drinking, pack-a-day-smoking party-goers. Is there something about the food and beverage industry that either attracts or incubates those kinds of personalities?
Well, I’m 57-year-old, rich, white male, so I’m part of the problem. I’m thrilled to see that the food world looks different today in America than it did 40 years ago when I started. More people with more experiences, more genders, more races, creeds, colors, religions, sexualities. Whether we’re talking about a country, a business, or a restaurant, the better the mix, the better the culture. The more diversity, the better. That’s number one.
Number two, the food world I entered really did have a lot of toxic masculinity, to coin a popular phrase, associated with it. Men were dominant. Masculine ideals. You had to tough it out the harder you worked.
I remember in 1980 I was on a sabbatical from college. Well, they had actually kicked me out. My drug and alcohol problem, y’know—I didn’t realize that college meant you had to go and do coursework and attend classes. So I’m on a mandatory semester away, cooking in France in a three-star Michelin restaurant. There was a line at the door of people trying to get in to work for free, to stage there. Even back in those days, it was a very popular restaurant in Paris.
Living in New York and Long Island, I had opened oysters and clams my whole life. I was really quite expert at it. I had never seen a pointed French oyster knife until I went to start to stage in that Parisian kitchen at age 19. I was whipping through oysters. Everyone was just amazed. In restaurants, the cream rises to the top. In my first couple of days, it became my way out of washing dishes and cleaning vegetables and carrying boxes. I had a skill set that was better than other people’s in that kitchen. I was a better clam and oyster shucker than anyone else in that place.
So it’s my second week there. It’s the middle of a Friday night, and I put a French oyster knife right through the fleshy part of my left hand, between my forefinger and my thumb. I pull the oyster knife out and reach up right above me. The pastry chef kept some bottles of booze up there to use with things, so I reach for whatever had the highest proof. (I think it was a bottle of Polish vodka, actually.) I pour it all over my hand, then I wrap it in a clean towel. I then wrap kitchen tape around that, basically bandaging my hand until I finish the shift.
I went to the emergency room at one in the morning instead of at 9 o’clock at night, because I knew that if I hurt myself and left, someone else would take my place. I was also a victim to this notion that asking for help was a sign of weakness. It’s not. It’s a sign of strength. I also wasn’t being true to myself. I was counting on the fact that I would be seen as being emotionally and physically tougher than other people.
And guess what? In 1980, in Paris, in a three-star Michelin kitchen, they noticed. The sous chef noticed. It was one more check mark in the box in the column of Things That Andrew’s Good At. It ended giving me an opportunity to cook on the line in that restaurant, where I could then further show them that I was tough. It led to insanely competitive, anxious, 14-hour days of work. The addict inside of me did what it did best, and I just cut loose hard when I left that restaurant at night.
Things didn’t get better, because I’m a real addict. I’m a real alcoholic. It eventually led to jails and institutions and almost death on several occasions for me. But that attitude that I learned in those experiences in the early days was something that fueled me.
Jump ahead many, many years to 1994, 1995. I’m the chef and partner in a French restaurant in Minneapolis [the Minnesota outpost of New York’s Café Un Deux Trois], and I’m two, three years sober. My business partner, the other owner, came up to me. I think I had thrown a plate at a server that day. I’m not proud of it. It was just horrible, but that’s how I sometimes reacted. He said to me, “Look. We’re really lucky. Even though there are lots of people who leave here every month because they can’t work with you, because you’re too much of a perfectionist, you’re too demanding, you don’t give people a second chance, you verbally abuse people, and you occasionally physically abuse people… the line to get in here is long. But it’s not good for you. Something is wrong.”
It was a huge spiritual awakening for me. I feel really badly about a lot of that phase in my life. My sponsor told me flat out, “You need to treat everybody in your life the same way that you would treat a newcomer in a 12-step meeting.” I’ve never forgotten that.
Now, I still make some of those mistakes today. I’ll come off of a bad phone call and I’ll be short-tempered with someone in my office, but I now call them back and tell them why, straighten the situation out, and say I’m sorry. I have a regular daily discipline that I can do to correct that in my life, and I’m much less prone to it. I learned a lot both on the negative side and the positive side through my behavior in those restaurants.
Now I’m a huge advocate of eliminating that kind of behavior in restaurants. Éric Ripert is one of those chefs who, as far as I know, is a “normie,” but he happens to have become a practicing Buddhist. I remember reading an interview with him where he talked about formerly being a yeller, and how that’s no longer something he can tolerate in himself. He’s actually been much more successful not doing that.
I have the same story. Once I corrected my behavior, I was much a better boss, a better employee, a better coworker. I was able to enroll people in my ideas easier. Everything I was afraid of happening ended up being the exact opposite. I wasn’t perceived as weaker. I wasn’t a worse leader. In fact, I was a much better one when I was calm, and kind, and empathetic, and listened, and tried to make the culture within the restaurants that I owned a better culture. It’s the same way today. I try to do that in all of my businesses.
What kind of effects do these behaviors and masculine attitudes have on the restaurant industry?
During the #MeToo movement, newspapers started reporting on some of the toxic environments created by a handful of very famous chefs. Every time I was interviewed about it, they’d ask, “Well, what do you think about this particular chef and that particular chef?” And I said, “I’m heartbroken.” In many cases, they’re very good friends of mine. This was a side I was never aware of. But the bigger problem is not the famous restaurant that winds up in the New York Times—those are really important stories, and I’m not diminishing them—but there are thousands of other little restaurants we’re not talking about. I’m worried about the servers and the cooks in the tiny little restaurant in Dubuque, Iowa, where there is no other job in the town for them. They’re sitting there, taking it on the chin, because of that environment.
No business is immune to this; there are thousands of restaurants like that, just as there are thousands of other types of businesses like that. I do think, however, that the entrainment industry and the restaurant community are common examples. You can throw in professional sports, too, although that’s a much smaller sampling of human beings who are engaged in that activity. In these high-pressure places where people are treated differently over the course of their rise through the ranks, where exclusivities and rewards are doled out by people at the top in ways that are not equitable, you find much more toxic environments, filled with a lot of people who are more prone to those “isms.”
My job the last 15 years has allowed me to get on the inside of a lot of other industries and take a good peek. And I can tell you that restaurants, historically and today, have been places for people who don’t have a lot of other choices to get jobs. I believe the restaurant industry is still one of the biggest employers of single moms. I believe the restaurant and hospitality industry as a whole is one of the biggest employers for people exiting jails and institutions. It’s an amazing opportunity we have in the hospitality industry to really make great change in the lives of people who need it the most. That’s why it’s imperative that the restaurant and hospitality industry lead in making our environments the best environment for everyone—not a place where we hide secrets, but we talk about issues.
You know, it’s a pennies business. A lot of restaurant owners have always shied away from embracing the wellness of their employees because they just couldn’t afford it, right? They couldn’t afford the time, and they didn’t have the money to do it. A lot of people are now seeing that if you invest in your family—we always call our restaurants our family—that if you invest in those people, if you actually honor them as family, you’ll find your turnover goes down. Any restaurateur will tell you that turnover is one of the most expensive bottom-line killers that there is. It’s not hourly wages. It’s not cost of tomatoes. It’s what it costs to replace people, train them, bring them in. To create the right culture in your restaurants or your hospitality operation, you reap rewards that are way more bountiful than any you could’ve ever imagined.
Thanks to lots of different people in working in this country—Kat Kinsman being someone who comes to mind right away—we’ve put wellness in the culinary community out front. We’re giving chefs tools to have meaningful conversation in restaurant environments, and everyone is able to sort of open up a little bit. I think we’re going to begin to see the restaurant industry really leading when it comes to personal wellness in the next few years.