To mark New Year’s Day, which is more closely associated with fresh starts than any other date on the calendar, we’re today turning to a local expert on the topic.
Steve Palmer, managing partner of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group (Oak Steakhouse, The Macintosh, Indaco), recently published his memoir, "Say Grace: How the Restaurant Business Saved My Life." In the book, he chronicles his descent into addiction and attainment of sobriety, facilitated by colleagues in the hospitality industry.
“The hospitality industry operates under a perplexing contradiction,” he writes in the book’s introduction.
“We are an industry of caring individuals whose job it is to care for others — but we are failing to care for our own. The industry enabled my addiction so readily, so completely, that I nearly drank myself to death on the job. But that same industry consists of wonderful, caring people who helped bring me back from the brink.”
Palmer in 2016 founded Ben’s Friends on that very principle. The support group, which now has chapters across the country, was created for food-and-beverage professionals struggling with substance abuse.
As Palmer writes in "Say Grace," he tried multiple times to beat addiction by moving to another city, so his narrative touches on time spent in Atlanta, Savannah and St. Louis. But the chapters excerpted here concern Palmer’s early years in Charleston, from the opening of Magnolias to his being sent to rehab by his boss at Peninsula Grill.
Say Grace is available for purchase at all of the Indigo Road restaurants and Blue Bicycle Books.
Ben’s Friends’ Charleston chapter will hold its next weekly meeting on Sunday at 11 a.m. at The Cedar Room, 701 E. Bay St. For more information, visit bensfriendshope.com.
The following is excerpted from "Say Grace: How the Restaurant Business Saved My Life" (ForbesBooks, 2019)
I was serving drinks at the Sun Dancer one day when some other industry guys came into the bar. The place was packed, they pulled up a few stools, and we got to talking shop while I poured their drinks.
They were opening a new restaurant called Magnolias in downtown Charleston. Two of them, Chris Goss and Bernie Smith, watched me hustling behind the bar and chatting it up with the regulars. They must have been impressed because they offered me a wait job at the new restaurant right there on the spot … This was one of my luckiest breaks in the hospitality industry.
Magnolias was destined to be the best restaurant in the city upon opening. These were the most coveted wait jobs in the city. I was only 22-years old and the least-experienced person on staff.
The job was involved, the training intense. We had to know the menu inside and out in minute detail. Learning the dishes on offer wasn’t enough. We had to know where the key ingredients were sourced. We had to understand wine pairings.
We had to understand presentation and how the dishes fit into the restaurant’s overall concept. … Chris, a founding partner, explained the concept to me. I’ll never forget it. I was standing at table 36. It was four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.
“People don’t go out to eat,” he said. “They go out to have an experience. We’re here to create that experience.”
This was not how restaurants operated in the early 1990s. We were at the vanguard of an industry revolution. Fine dining was a niche sector in the industry. Fine dining wasn’t mainstream. No one used words like foodie or gastropub. Celebrity chefs weren’t a thing. There was no Anthony Bourdain, no Top Chef, no Food Network. All of that was years away.
… Magnolias awoke a passion in me. I realized that this wasn’t just some job. It could be my calling. Lots of people work in restaurants while figuring out what to do with their lives. Not me. I knew right then that this was going to be my career. It was going to be my life. I had found my place, my purpose, and my people. For the first time, I felt like I belonged somewhere.
I was good at the job and started being recognized right away. My personality was suited to hospitality. I liked making people happy and sharing in their lives. People were coming in for big date nights, engagements, celebrations, retirements, and other major life events.
We got to pop the Champagne and celebrate with them. I loved that, and it showed. People could see how passionate I was about the work, the restaurant, and the industry.
My tastes became more refined. Most kids in their early twenties are slamming Bud Light and Jell-O shots. We were being treated to hundred-dollar bottles of wine in the back of the restaurant. The restaurant sent us out to Napa Valley to visit wineries. We felt sophisticated.
On nights off, we dined at fancy restaurants in order to learn about food and presentation. We treated food and beverage as both science and art. We were always learning. I read books on elevated dining. I was living and breathing fine dining around the clock … We were the Magnolias crew, and in this insular world, that meant something. After work, we would hit the industry hangouts with a swagger in our step. Industry people respected our knowledge and coveted our jobs.
Every single night, we would make a beeline straight for the bar to blow off steam.
We’d high-five each other over drinks and trade stories about the eccentric customer who sent their plate back six times and the bottle of wine that slipped between fingers and shattered across table nine … The late-night Charleston bars stayed open until six o’clock in the morning back then. We closed them down after most shifts. We would stay out all night drinking, sleep till noon, and then roll into work the next day hungover.
I was making $1,000 a week in cash, a lot of money at the time for someone my age. After rent and bills, every last cent went to partying.
I was lucky to have been hired at Magnolias. But the job and the wonderful career that followed required me to be around alcohol all day, every day. I was already drinking every night.
The industry isn’t to blame for my addiction. I was probably always destined to be an addict. But moving downtown and becoming enmeshed in the industry caused my drinking to tick up. It felt impossible to say no to drinks after work. Sitting out drinks meant missing out on a key part of the bonding experience. I’m a social animal. I wanted to be around my people.
Not everyone drank as heavily as I did. The industry was why I couldn’t say no to drinks, but not being able to say no to the third, fourth, sixth, tenth drink and then lines of cocaine in the bathroom — that was a product of my own personal demons.
I had come to Charleston to make a clean break without actually doing anything to get and stay clean. My scenery had changed, but I was still the same me. The geographical cure failed once again. I’d brought all my old problems with me.
We took a misplaced pride in drinking too much. We would boast about how much we could throw back in a night. No one cared. We could drink whatever we wanted as long as we could still do the job.
That was the code. Anything goes as long as you get your butt in to work the next morning and do the job with pride. And I did. I would work doubles six days a week and always went out drinking afterward, caught four hours of fitful sleep, and was back to work the next day.
I was able to rationalize all of this away because drinking was still fun at this point. It was helping me bond with my coworkers. There was nothing but upside. In the recovery community, we call these the “years of no consequence.” I wasn’t overdosing or losing jobs. … I felt more stable. I had a tribe and a sense of purpose. Despite the warning signs, I was happier than I had ever been.
Magnolias did so well that the owners opened a second restaurant, the Blossom Café, next door. The new restaurant was a Mediterranean bistro … Recognizing my passion for service, they made me one of the service trainers.
… The lead-up to the grand opening was incredibly exciting and incredibly stressful. The success of Magnolias created a lot of buzz around the new restaurant before we even opened the doors. Blossom catered to a younger crowd. The bar and kitchen stayed open late.
We skipped the tablecloths. The speakers were pumping Counting Crows and Dave Matthews Band.
Opening a new restaurant is a bonding experience. It is the ultimate roller-coaster ride. Scared to death, nervous and anxious, and then bam! The adrenaline hits on opening night, and you want to do it all over again. It is a sublime sickness like no other.
The hours leading up to the grand opening were long. Some of us were putting in 70 hours a week. We became known as the Blossom Boys’ Club. We were always together. If we weren’t working, we were partying like there was no tomorrow. We all had Mondays off and would rent a boat and spend the whole day drinking out on the water. We called it “motorboat Mondays.”
For my 25th birthday, we picked up a few cases of wine and rented a lake house. Someone brought cocaine. We got totally smashed, but it was wrapped up in the veneer of work. We sampled wines — whole bottles of them at a time. We were comparing styles and vintages. I was out on the water, the boat rocking in the ocean waves, and everything felt perfect. I loved these people. I loved this business. I wanted to do exactly this for the rest of my life.
(At) the Peninsula Grill, where I would go on to be the GM, I met Hank Holliday, the owner, and Bob Carter, one of the chefs — the two men who would later stage my intervention and send me back to rehab.
They were brilliant people. Hank was a savvy businessman. Bob was a creative genius. He was the kind of chef who visited tables in the dining room to make sure that the food was coming out properly. The guests loved him. He was not only talented but passionate and charismatic.
The concept behind the restaurant was to elevate Southern cooking into the world of fine dining. This hadn’t really been done before, not at this scale, not in such a grand way. We served caviar alongside fried green tomatoes instead of toast points. No other restaurant in the country was putting up velvet walls and serving country cooking. There was nowhere else you could get served grits alongside Dom Pérignon. We had the longest wine list of any restaurant in the city. The cellar was stocked with $500 bottles of wine. …
The restaurant was an immediate hit. We brought national attention to the Charleston restaurant scene at a time when fine dining was becoming mainstream. We got good write-ups in the industry magazines. Glossies like Esquire showered us with praise. The restaurant made and even topped many of the “best of” lists that year.
Our consulting contract was only for six months, but once it was up and the restaurant was open, I didn’t want to leave … I quit the consulting company and stayed in Charleston. The Peninsula Grill hired me to wait tables. It felt like a step backward in my career, but I felt burned out and needed a break. My personal life was in shambles. I was drinking way too much. I needed a hard reset, and moving to Charleston had helped the first time — for a little while. I thought maybe it would again. I was going to try the geographical cure again.
It should come as no surprise that moving back to Charleston did not fix my life. I was doing cocaine all the time. My drinking got worse. I was physically addicted to alcohol and needed it to get through the day … I had more run-ins with the law. I was out drinking at a bar after one of my shifts when I saw my friend Chris fall out of his 1970 Bronco.
He couldn’t even get the key in the ignition much less drive in a straight line, but he still refused a cab. He hated cabs. I offered to drive him home. I had been drinking, too, but wasn’t nearly as trashed.
He scooted over into the passenger seat, and I got in.
The Bronco was heavy in the back and prone to fishtailing. We were crossing a bridge to get to the island where Chris lived when the car started to sway. When I swerved to straighten out the car, blue lights started swirling in the rearview mirror.
“Oh, (expletive),” Chris said. “I’ve got cocaine on me.”
The cops gave me a Breathalyzer. When I blew over the limit, they cuffed me and put me in the back of the squad car. I went to jail on a DUI charge. Chris got a ride home with the police with a baggie of cocaine in his pocket.
My wife was furious when she came to bail me out. It wasn’t just the DUI. It was everything. We were fighting all the time. We were still newlyweds, but she was already at the end of her rope. She had every right to be angry. I was still lying and hiding things. It wasn’t just drugs either. I had stayed out high on ecstasy one night and ended up cheating on her. I had lost my wedding ring in the process.
I am obviously not proud of any of this. My behavior was abhorrent, and there was no good excuse.
My drinking never slowed down. It got worse. My cocaine use got worse. I was up all night, coked up and drinking.
My mornings started with liquor to stave off the shakes, and my days ended with liquor to knock myself out. I would have an eye-opener or two in the shower before work and the rest of the bottle when I got home from the bar.
I was drinking around the clock out of necessity. I would sneak drinks in the morning. I would sneak drinks at work. I drank on lunch break, on the way home, in the bathroom, in my office in the back. There was always alcohol within reach. I was stealing bottles from the wine cellar and taking shots of Grand Marnier behind the service bar. If I wasn’t asleep — and I barely slept — I was drinking.
There was always some excuse not to quit. I told myself that as the restaurant’s wine buyer, I had to drink wine. I bargained with myself, saying I would stick to wine, but I never stuck just to wine.
A few glasses in and I would be phoning the cocaine dealer. A few lines of coke and moderation went out the window. I would be up drinking all night long.
I justified my drinking by pointing to much success at work.The restaurant was doing well. The numbers were great. I was getting praise for growing the business. Everyone was happy, and everything was great — until they weren’t and it wasn’t. Eventually, the duality of my life started to break down.
I was no longer maintaining my career while my personal life crumbled. They were now both falling apart. …
If you have never stayed drunk around the clock, you can’t really appreciate how you start to lose touch with reality. The whole year was a blur. I barely remember anything. The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, and I have only hazy memories of it. Bob, the chef, called me that morning and told me to shake off my hangover and turn on the TV — something big had happened. Even that barely registered. I had become a husk of a person.
This brings me back to where I started this story. I moved back to Charleston in February. By October, my wife had left. By November, I was headed back to rehab again.