In 1976, when the nation marked its bicentennial by celebrating American archetypes ranging from steamboat captains to cowboys, most people assumed they had an equally good grasp of how an alcoholic looked and acted. So 52 celebrities, variously known for being bright, successful, rich or handsome, held a press conference in a Washington, D.C., ballroom. Each took his or her turn standing up and saying, “I’m an alcoholic.”
Although the event was formally titled “Operation Understanding,” there were aspects of some of the stories that seemed unlikely to resonate directly with the less famous. Buzz Aldrin, for example, talked about the depression he faced upon returning from the moon. But as participant Dick Van Dyke said, the group hoped “the stigma of alcoholism would be somewhat removed” once the disease was connected with actors, ballplayers, doctors, politicians and priests.
At that time, chefs hadn’t yet crossed the threshold of celebrity. It took another four decades for a food-and-beverage leader to step forward as a spokesperson for sobriety: Sean Brock of Charleston-based Neighborhood Dining Group this month detailed his struggles with addiction in a lengthy expose published on the front page of The New York Times food section.
“He is the first famous person in the industry I can think of to say ‘This is really an important issue,’” says Stanford University psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys, a specialist in addiction treatment.
Other hospitality professionals have openly discussed their experiences with substance abuse, including Steve Palmer of Indigo Road and Mickey Bakst of Charleston Grill, co-founders of the peer recovery group Ben’s Friends. But nobody with the national profile of Brock, who showed off his bourbon collection in Garden & Gun magazine and got boozy with Anthony Bourdain on his television show, had called out from within the maelstrom that has already claimed a staggering number of chefs’ lives.
That’s critical, Humphreys says, because “what people often need is a unique role model to identify with recovery.”
“If you’re a carpenter and a hotshot chef is addicted to cocaine, you might not relate,” he continues. “But if another carpenter says ‘We carpenters meet and support each other,’ that’s a little easier to reach emotionally. That’s what (Brock) is offering.”
Brock has previously been an advocate for many things, although none as significant as clean living: His passionate endorsements of Waffle House, heirloom hogs, Carolina Gold rice, Pappy Van Winkle and tattoos have reshaped the Southern foodscape.
Such taste-making clout is largely derived from personal charisma and public relations. But it’s also attributable to food festivals across the Southeast, which have thrown their weight behind programs showcasing items and ideas that Brock first promoted. Now the question is whether those influential events will apply their trendsetting powers to sobriety.
"People are dying"
There are a multitude of reasons why substance abuse is rampant in the food-and-beverage industry, including long hours and short tempers, high pressure and low pay. (According to Humphreys, scientists tried to determine if people prone to addiction are drawn to the easy accessibility of alcohol in restaurants, or if the easy accessibility of alcohol in restaurants nudges people toward addiction. They discouragingly discovered that both are true.)
For celebrity chefs, those issues are compounded by the stresses of constantly being in the public eye. Brock “can’t walk down the street in Charleston or New York without someone identifying him,” Neighborhood Dining Group president David Howard told The New York Times. “That’s a blessing and a burden, and requires you to always be on point. With that comes addiction.”
And it’s relatively simple for public figures to press snooze on the wake-up calls that people in recovery describe, Humphreys says.
“They have more access, more money and can buy their way out of consequences,” he explains. “They do all the same dumb things and make all the same mistakes, except if you or I drove drunk, the police would haul us off to jail. Celebrities sign an autograph and get a ride home.”
While it’s impossible to know exactly how many well-known chefs have diagnostically disordered relationships with drugs and alcohol, hard partying has long been the norm when industry professionals get together on the festival circuit. Dominique Love, founder of the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, recalls wondering why certain chefs would repeatedly turn down invitations to join her lineup.
“Then I’d realize, ‘Oh, they’re on a path of sobriety’,” Love says.
Palmer is practiced at being around alcohol, but he’d rather not spend his time with colleagues under its spell. “The desire to socialize and connect is the same,” he says. “But when you attend the festival after-parties, it’s not a comfortable situation. There’s always a little bit of feeling like an outsider.”
With his friend Scott Crawford, a North Carolina chef in recovery, Palmer last month hosted a substance-free space at Atlanta Food & Wine. The gathering area, featuring fancy non-alcoholic drinks and Chick-fil-A sandwiches, was one component of a larger initiative that Love created in response to the mounting mortality rate in the Southern chef community.
“You’d have to be in a hole not to realize what’s going on in this industry,” she says. “People are dying.”
Love believes ignoring the problem would undermine the festival’s mission to preserve and promote the region’s culinary scene, and to showcase the people responsible for it. “We have to make sure businesses are thriving,” she explains. “We have to shore up our talent and give them support.”
The alcohol-free “chill space” in Atlanta was so dramatically different from the typical food festival lounge that Brock cited it in The New York Times, describing it as “the safest I’ve ever felt.” It was complemented by panel discussions of physical and mental health. Those sessions were closed to the press and accompanied by a breakfast prepared by Love and co-founder Elizabeth Feichter.
“I don’t think this one program is going to change the world, but it was intended to send a loud and clear message that we take care of our people,” Love says.
Within the festival context, though, it’s not entirely clear who makes up “our people.” Festival directors have to decide if they’re ultimately accountable to the people on their talent rosters or the people who paid for tickets. Gillian Zettler of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival classifies the latter as her most important constituency.
“We’re really consumer facing, first and foremost,” Zettler says. “Our higher purpose is to create really meaningful experiences. Truthfully, I feel like we’ve got to stay true to our mission.”
Zettler adds she’s counting on Palmer and Bakst to provide guidance, since she doesn’t claim expertise in the addiction arena.
For now, the festival is planning on keeping San Pellegrino as a sponsor, since “people were really, really happy” with the availability of water at this year’s festival. Zettler also anticipates again offering coffee, smoothies and juice stations, and continuing to schedule sessions with wellness components, such as biking.
Physical activity is one of the primary counterbalances to the alcohol poured at Music to Your Mouth, Palmetto Bluff’s annual food festival. “I love when I see a chef at the starting line for the 5K,” director Courtney Hampson says.
Hampson admits that "some of them look a little rough" at the morning race, but Music to Your Mouth doesn’t tolerate too much in the way of drunken shenanigans by chefs. “If you were to look back, you can see there are people who did not end up being invited back,” Hampson says.
Beyond those strict expectations of professionalism, the festival also gently encourages healthy behavior by giving chefs a rare chance to relax: For Hampson, the rejuvenation opportunities are exemplified by North Carolina chef Bill Smith, who preps his tasting tent table in time to sip coffee and watch the sun rise over the May River. This year, Hampson plans to provide chefs with a list of dozens of activities on the property that don't involve drinking.
For the industry to shake its substance abuse problem, Humphreys says, those kind of cultural changes are essential. It’s already occurred in the corporate world, he points out. “Look at smoking,” he says. “If you went to a board meeting of any company in the ‘50s, everyone would have been smoking. Now if you smoked at a board meeting, people would think you were some kind of weirdo, or they’d feel sorry for you.”
It’s unclear whether that shift can start with the Southern food festivals that popularized bacon-washed cocktails and small-batch bourbon. Still, Love is willing to give it a shot.
“I don’t know what it looks like when this model is replicated,” she says. “My hope is it’s an overall movement to say, ‘Let’s take care of the people who take care of us.’”