Restaurant industry grapples with demons of addiction, mental illness

After Anthony Bourdain’s death, ‘Parts Unknown’ enters uncharted territory
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Anthony Bourdain

Chef Brandon Baltzley has struggled with substance abuse for most of his adult life. He loves his job, he says. But the restaurant industry’s high-stress, fast-paced culture fueled his appetite for drugs and alcohol as he rose through restaurants in Washington, New York and Chicago.

Journalists charted his stumbles through vivid descriptions of his benders. He was an “enfant terrible,” the chef who lost opportunities because of his drug addiction. An article in 2011 headlined “A chef’s painful road to rehab” was the best and worst thing to happen to him, he says. It got him a book deal and turned him into a spokesman for the industry’s struggle with substance abuse, even as he continued to struggle himself.

Baltzley’s highs and lows may sound familiar to those who’ve read Anthony Bourdain’s early writing on the restaurant industry’s culture of excess. Most anyone who’s worked in a restaurant, including Baltzley, can relate to wild binge-drinking and drug-fueled escapades of “Kitchen Confidential.”

Such behavior has come to be regarded as an occupational hazard, Baltzley says. He and others in the industry want to change that by speaking openly about substance abuse, mental health and the relationship between the two, and by letting others know that it’s OK to be sober in the business.

Baltzley says crack, cocaine and alcohol masked the lingering effects of unresolved childhood trauma and provided a short-term salve for a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. But to maintain the numbing effect, he kept using, even as his career took off. He managed to stay sober for months at a time, once for a full year. His latest binge-drinking streak lasted for nearly five years, until January.

He had a wife, an 18-month-old daughter and a restaurant slated to open in April on Cape Cod. Yet, at just 33 years old, his liver was failing, he says.

“I was dying,” he said. “I needed to figure out, ‘Am I going to drink and kill myself? Am I going to keep doing this until I’m done? Or do I try to turn this around?’ “

Baltzley says that for him, substance abuse was a symptom of deeper emotional health issues. And restaurant workers who escape the cycle of addiction still face enormous pressure to satisfy customers, co-workers and supervisors. The pressure only gets heavier as one becomes more successful, he said.

Baltzley awoke June 8 to find his phone lighting up with messages and voice mails. Had he heard about Bourdain? Was he OK?

Bourdain’s death shocked him, he said — but it didn’t really surprise him.

“We live in a complicated world. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have every single person in the industry wait for your opinion on every … matter. He’s only human. That’s a lot of pressure,” he said.

“Some will say he chose that path or whatever, but I’d like to think that some people just go with the flow, be it healthy for them or not, because they think it’s what they’re supposed to do.”

An industry looks at itself in the mirror

Bourdain’s death came in the midst of what some consider a disruptive period for the restaurant industry. For one, it’s dealing with shockwaves from #MeToo, the movement to stem sexual harassment, which has entangled culinary heavyweights including Mario Batali and John Besh.

Before #MeToo, a quieter industry reckoning was underway to alleviate the stigma surrounding mental illness and its symptoms, including substance abuse. Renowned chefs including Sean Brock and Seamus Mullins, known as much for their hard-partying stamina as for their culinary prowess, have spoken publicly about their efforts to stay clean and sober.

The website Chefs With Issues provides a venue for industry workers to share stories of their struggles. Its founder, Kat Kinsman, gives talks on the topic at industry gatherings and closed-door sessions across the country.

“Chefs die all the time and no one talks about it,” she wrote in Food and Wine after Bourdain’s death. “There are a million reasons for this, but the thing is that it happens constantly and it’s only spoken of in hushed tones so no one gets upset. Other people’s feelings are awkward, and we as a culture are exceptionally crappy at talking about them.”

Kinsman noted that, in recent years, Bourdain had acknowledged and expressed regret for his role in fostering the “meathead bro culture” that valorized self-abuse and workaholism.

“He spoke precisely and passionately about the failings of the industry — his own included — and the culture at large,” she wrote. “It’s utterly terrifying, ripping open your chest to show the ugliest, darkest parts of yourself to someone who may not understand. But that is how the light gets in.”

Kinsman participated in sessions for industry workers at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and Atlanta Food and Wine Festival this month. When someone asked Atlanta participants to raise their hands if they or someone they knew in the industry had been affected by mental health or substance abuse issues, everyone had a hand in the air.

‘I felt like I was the only one’

Such meetings are taking place with greater frequency across the country at industry gatherings and in casual meetings. In the Southeast, an organization called Ben’s Friends is leading one of those efforts. It was formed by two industry veterans, each with more than a decade of sobriety, who say that now more than ever, their community is open to the conversation.

“It’s time that we start talking about this and start offering to help. And if nothing else, providing a conversation that you can stay sober in the restaurant business. You’re not doomed to a life of excess just because you want to be in hospitality,” Ben’s Friends co-founder Steve Palmer said in the lobby of Atlanta’s Loews Hotel, headquarters of the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival.

The night before, Palmer and Ben’s Friends co-founder Scott Crawford hosted a “chill space” at the festival for the second year in a row. At 10 p.m., the festival’s VIP lounge overlooking Midtown Atlanta turned into an alcohol-free space for festival talent only. The organization has hosted similar spaces at the Charleston Wine and Food festival.

The crowd in Atlanta was small this year, Palmer said. But he knows from experience that helping just one person goes a long way.

Palmer, managing partner of Indigo Road Hospitality Group, attributes his success to his sobriety. Nearly 17 years ago, he kicked his addiction. Since then, he says, he felt like the “lone dove” even as his career took off. It took the death by suicide of a close friend and employee, Ben Murray, to compel him to act.

“Ben committing suicide was a moment for me to pause and really question some social norms that I had accepted about our business — like this is just the way it is. Everybody does drugs; everybody parties,” Palmer said.

Crawford, owner of Crawford and Sons in Raleigh, North Carolina, came down for one night to host the chill space with Palmer. He was grateful for the venue.

In 14 years of sobriety, Crawford said, he has also felt like an outsider in his community at various points — like when he attended festivals such as this one.

“I became introverted at these things, which was the opposite of what I wanted to be,” he said. “This lobby at night becomes a who’s-who of the Southeast, but there was always a time when I had to get out of there because I was on a different level from everyone else.”

Through Ben’s Friends, he and Palmer say, they’ve discovered a community they didn’t know existed.

“When I got sober, I got healthy. I got much better at what I was doing. I started to excel. … But I felt like I was the only one,” Crawford said. “I wasn’t, but I just didn’t know. There was no network of people who were making the choice to be sober.”

These days, he and Palmer said, they’re seeing more faces — new and familiar — at Ben’s Friends meetings in Raleigh and Charleston. Why? The opioid epidemic is killing people faster at a time when food and hospitality are becoming more central to American life, Palmer said. The industry is more open to the conversation.

“The hospitality industry needs more people working in it, not less, and we need more emotionally sound, well people,” he said. “I also like to think there’s been some evolution of our consciousness, that we care a little bit more about each other. And tragedy does propel you to have that conversation that, five years ago, you weren’t willing to have.”

‘It’s never too late’

Kinsman invited Baltzley to speak at the closed-door session at the Atlanta festival. It was his second year in a row attending to share his wayward journey. But this year was a little different, he said: He was sober, and it showed.

It took 21 days of isolation in a cabin in Maine to reorient himself, he said. He confronted some of the trauma that was holding him back. He cried a lot. Now, he’s 60 pounds lighter than he was when he spoke at the festival this time last year. His career is moving forward with the opening of his new restaurant, the Buffalo Jump, in East Falmouth, Massachusetts. Because he’s the boss, no alcohol is served; it’s BYOB.

Apart from personal motivation, seeing more of his industry counterparts attempt sobriety help propel him toward sobriety.

“I had an image, and I wanted to change that,” he said. His advice for others feeling the same way: “It’s never too late. Find the people you want to follow, and do not let up.”