In his 2000 memoir, “Kitchen Confidential,” best-selling reprobate-turned-raconteur Anthony Bourdain described the kitchens where he cut his teeth in the ’70s as “insular, chaotic, drenched in drugs and alcohol, and accompanied constantly by loud rock and roll music.”
Not much has changed since then, especially in terms of drugs and alcohol. The use of mind-altering substances in the restaurant business isn’t a big secret among those who work the kitchens and behind the bar. Spend a significant amount of time around food and beverage workers and you’ll hear plenty of stories about chefs and servers getting soused or sniffy after shifts.
Now, a federal survey illustrates how prevalent drug and alcohol abuse is in the restaurant industry. According to recent data by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, restaurant and hotel workers have the highest rates of illicit drug use by industry. In terms of heavy drinking, miners ranked the highest of all occupations, followed by construction workers and then restaurant/hotel employees.
The survey, based on data from two time periods between 2003 and 2012, found that 19.1 percent of workers in food services had used illicit drugs in the past month. The food-services industry also had the highest rate of substance abuse disorder – 16.9 percent – compared to other professions.
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Heavy alcohol use, defined as drinking five or more drinks during a single occasion on five or more days in the past 30 days, had a rate of 12 percent among restaurant and hotel workers.
Substance abuse by food-biz folks has many well-known faces. In addition to Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, the popular food personality and one of Bourdain’s co-hosts on ABC’s “The Taste,” has admitted to past cocaine and marijuana use. The Bee also recently profiled Tim Hanni, a certified Master of Wine and legendary tastemaker who’s a recovering alcoholic yet continues to work in the wine industry.
But the recent survey takes on local significance with John Puckett. He’s worked in Sacramento-area restaurants since the age of 12 and came to a point where he had to face his substance abuse issues. Puckett’s now 49, a cook at Oak Park Brewery, says he’s nearly 14 years sober.
Puckett bottomed out when he was a manager at Fanny Ann’s Saloon in Old Sacramento. He’d partied hard in his day – speed and acid were sometimes in the mix with heavy drinking. Puckett showed up to a morning shift at Fanny Ann’s after closing down Club 2 Me a few hours earlier. Still drunk, he thought he could power through the day by taking a shot of Jägermeister.
“The barback found me passed out on the men’s restroom floor,” Puckett said. “I had alcohol poisoning. The paramedics came and took me down the stairs. That was the last day I drank.”
Puckett checked into a recovery center and ultimately kept his job at Fanny Ann’s. But he knows that maintaining sobriety in a profession that likes to party hard can be a challenge. Restaurant workers can be a maverick bunch. Theirs is a job that endures heavy stress during the crush of brunch and dinner rushes. Conditions in the kitchen are often hot and cramped – a literal pressure cooker of a workplace – and decompressing after a shift is often synonymous with checking out mentally.
“It’s part of the culture,” Puckett said. “It’s a combination of the hours (in restaurant work) and the accessibility. Amphetamines are almost a tool that some need, and then it gets out of control. There’s also the camaraderie. You and your crew might unwind by having a celebratory shot or cracking a beer. Beer, wine and liquor are around all the time.”
Puckett says he’s been cautious about the kind of restaurant jobs he’s taken post-Fanny Ann’s, hoping to stay away from possible triggers. He first took gigs in state office cafeterias and catering to play it safe. Working in a brewery was a big step, but he says he feels comfortable enough with his sobriety to take a job surrounded by beer. Still, he admits to occasional cravings.
“I’m from a long line of cooks who drank all the time,” Puckett said. “I see all that beer and want one. It’s a hard habit to break.”
These days, Puckett relishes his role as the straight-and-narrow chef. He wants to be a role model for his 7-year-old grandson. For him, the chemical indulgences so commonplace in his profession are a thing of the past.
“I’m just a happier guy,” Puckett said. “I can go in to work and cook people food and not have problems.”
Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.