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.

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