The Chef and Author of All or Nothing Talks Addiction in the World of Professional Cooking, Running Multiple Kitchens, and Work Ethic
Photographs by Evan Sung
It’s been a busy year for chef Jesse Schenker. His West Village jewel box Recette recently turned five years old, last spring he debuted The Gander in Chelsea, and fall saw the publication of his first book, All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme. The book is a staggeringly revealing, first-person account of Schenker’s years-long tussle with addiction, one which saw him toggle between pro kitchens and the streets, rehab, and jail. It also, not incidentally, recounts his culinary development, and the steps that led to his success in the high-stakes world of New York City restaurants and in his personal life (he’s happily married with two young children). We recently sat down with him at The Gander to discuss the book, addiction and the pro kitchen, and how he’s adjusting to life with two restaurants.
Friedman: The kind of stuff you talk about in this book, in this very revealing way, a lot of people don’t want to talk about. They certainly don’t want to talk about themselves doing it or having done it. At the same time, it’s often what publishers want from people. You clearly had no problem doing it. But it didn’t seem crass or commercial to me. I don’t know if it’s the right word, but to me it has the tone of almost a confessional ‑‑ it’s very soul‑bearing. It seemed to me that you must have wanted to do it. But I’m wondering why. Was it for yourself? Did you think it would help other people?
Schenker: A hundred percent. Both. Ultimately, for me, the first thing that I thought of, and I still think of to this day, and I’m going to quote it. I’m not going to get into the whole AA literature, but “you can’t keep what you have unless you give it away.” That’s the truth.
Friedman: Which means what to you?
Schenker: Which means I need to show people… Ultimately I was an anxious kid. I self‑medicated, so I got hooked on drugs because I was trying to numb my feelings… You know the saying, “I’m going out of my mind?” You’re not going out of your mind, you’re actually going in your mind.
So for me the best way to feel good and be serene was to get out of my mind. And the only way I can get out of my mind is when I do things for other people. When I’m in the moment and I’m cooking for someone, I’m not thinking about Jesse and how anxious Jesse is. I’m thinking about making this food for that person. And in that moment, I feel great.
So in writing this book… if I can motivate one person or a family member of someone who has a struggling kid or spouse, to make the right decision to stop enabling, to save their life, I did a great job. I did good.
Friedman: How did you come to this level of awareness? Did you come to these realizations on your own? Is that something that comes out of a 12‑step program?
Schenker: I think it’s a combination of ‑‑ mind you, I’ve been in and out of rehab and jail and therapy since I’m twelve, okay? I’m still active in 12‑step programs. So it’s a combination of the principles of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous as well as being in therapy as well as Daoism and Buddhism. Just reading and kind of always being interested in searching for something more.
These are little tidbits that I’ve picked up from places that help put this recipe to me, to my life, to make it work. I closed the book with the recipe. I have to give back. I have to have a good balance in home life, work life. I have to go to meetings. It’s like a dish. If you leave out a certain ingredient ‑‑
Friedman: It all falls apart.
Schenker: Yeah. And I find that to be true for me. So I guess writing the book is the ultimate way of getting out of myself. And I’ve been on the beginning of this mission to really find out where my place is and how I can help people.
Friedman: You mean in the industry or just in general?
Schenker: In general. I think there’s people out there that are so caught up in their own shit, can’t get out of their own way, and that are suffering that don’t have to… if I would have read a book like mine when I was struggling working in a kitchen, maybe I would have been like, “Oh, man, I don’t want to go down that path. I don’t have to? Wow, I can get off at any floor? Really?” I didn’t know that. I just hit bottom after bottom. Every time I thought it was the end, this trap door would come and it would get even worse.
Since the book, I’ve spoken at culinary schools in bad neighborhoods in New Jersey. Chris Christie invited me to his thing in Jersey. He had a big convention about the stigma of addiction in New Jersey because his friend had OD’d and died, a prominent lawyer, and how he wants to make changes. Nothing political… I went there to basically speak about how everyone suffers, whether it’s the house moms hooked on Xanax or the alcoholic husband or the kid. It doesn’t discriminate. You don’t have to be from the ghetto to be a drug addict. You don’t have to be a junkie with a needle in your arm homeless under a bridge. It happens everywhere…
Statistically there’s more people in this country that suffer from the disease of addiction than they do cancer. But there’s no, “Hey, we’re going to wear a colored bow this month [for addiction]” People think we’re the scum of the earth. Where do people that can’t afford these expensive rehabs go for help? They go to jail. There’s a stigma that goes behind addiction that’s bad. So if more people like me that had ‑‑ mind you, I’m really a nobody in the big scheme of things — but people who have platforms that can go out there and actually say, “Hey, I’m an addict. This is what I did. This is what we need to do,” and actually rally together, maybe there could be a change.
Friedman: You said you spoke at some culinary schools. Drug use isn’t glamorized the way it used to be but it’s still very much around in the profession. I’ve overheard many times people talking about this cook or that cook that fell off the wagon and won’t be around for a while.
Schenker: It happens. I just had someone arrested. I had to deal with it. It happens often.
Friedman: More than in a lot of professions?
Schenker: I don’t really know. It’s like this whole tattoo thing. “Oh, all chefs have tattoos.” I think people have tattoos. I think it’s just that ‑‑
Friedman: Chefs are in the public eye?
Schenker: Yeah, chefs are more in the public eye now. I think people suffer from issues: Gambling problems, eating problems, drug problems, alcohol problems, regardless. I mean, I’ve sat in numerous groups and meetings with people that are flight attendants, dental assistants. Do you know how many dental hygienists probably have problems? Do you know what I mean? They’re out there. So I think now that because of Food TV … we’re celebrities now.
Friedman: But don’t you think it also kind of dovetails in with all these perceptions about the industry, a lot of which are true, like the hours?
Schenker: The hours, lack of education.
Friedman: The post‑service rituals.
Friedman: What does a cook do after work? You go out, you drink. Maybe you drink a lot. There are these attendant things I think people are going to focus on more when you’re dealing with a population that generally speaking gets home between 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. most nights. I’m not saying necessarily that’s a bad thing. But don’t you think that’s part of it?
Schenker: It definitely contributes to the overall ‑‑ if you look at it as a statistic, it’s going to be more prevalent because of that.
Friedman: People say that one of the hardest addictions to control is food, because you’ve got to eat. It’s not like alcohol where you can just completely not have alcohol. And I kind of feel like if you’re in the hospitality business and have a substance abuse issue, it’s not quite like that but it almost is because you’re so surrounded by the temptations.
Schenker: Yes and no. I mean, I think I’ve never stopped working in kitchens. I got clean in ’04 and I’ve been working in kitchens, and some tough kitchens at that, for the last ten years and I’ve not had a desire to drink or party. And I’ve seen it. It’s a conscious choice you’ve got to make every day. Early on it was not just every day, it was every moment.
Friedman: Are there concessions? At the end of the night do you tend to split pretty quickly?
Schenker: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I have no desire. One thing that I don’t know how much this contributes to the overall success or reputation that I have in New York City but I’ve never been that guy that’s at all the events or the parties or the Eater this or the that. I never show face at those things and maybe that’s why the love hasn’t been reciprocated, which is fine.
Friedman: What do you mean love hasn’t been reciprocated?
Schenker: If you follow Food + Wine and the Eaters and the this and the that, they talk about the same group of chefs over and over and over. You know, young, new, old, whatever. And I’ve just not been in that niche. If I’m not working, I’m home with my family.
Friedman: You feel like being out and about is part of that equation?
Schenker: Yeah, of course.
Friedman: Part of that recipe?
Schenker: Definitely. Yes. One hundred percent.
Friedman: There’s a part of your book where you say people who worked with you maybe kind of figured out you had an issue but it was never spoken about. And then you write this book. You don’t just reveal that, you go into unbelievable detail. How was it received by your team?
Schenker: I think my management staff and partners read it. I don’t know how many cooks actually read the book. Probably the headlines of stuff. But I think most people just are telling me they actually have more respect for me now. A lot of people were saying, “Now I understand why.” You know, it’s always been, “I don’t drink. I’m allergic.” And everyone kind of understood that. I think the people close to me knew my past. Obviously not in that great of detail. I think some people might have been shocked; others were not so shocked.
Friedman: I’d be curious to know: did anyone pick up the film rights?
Schenker: I don’t know if I could talk about that yet.
Friedman: Okay, fine.
Schenker: There’s been discussions…
Friedman: Publishing‑wise, what’s your future? Are you going to do a cookbook now?
Schenker: Definitely. I always wanted to do a cookbook. Nothing’s sold. I’m conceiving it and I want to be very specific and I want it to be what I want it to be, so I’ll wait it out if I have to. I’m definitely not going to self‑publish. I know how cookbooks are. I’ll probably take a hit but it’s worth it. I just want to have complete control over it. I don’t want to do Jesse Schenker at Home, not yet at least.
Friedman: You want to do what you do.
Schenker: I want to do what I do. I want to take a little bit of a chance and do something a little bit different, not your typical coffee table book.
Friedman: Do you want to say anything about what you want to do for any publishing people that read this interview? Do you have a firm sense of what you want to do?
Schenker: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. I mean, ultimately Recette Private Dining is how I started on my own and it was always very gastronomic and tasting menus. So I have Recette now. I do Mondays with Jesse that I’ve done for the last few years. And I’d like to basically craft a book of one hundred recipes, ten 10‑course menus, seasonal but incorporate rock and roll and my personality, and even some of the all or nothing mentality into that. Obviously, beautiful photos, little descriptions on how the menus actually evolved. Something like that. Nothing cookie cutter
Friedman: This is how most chefs feel about their books, don’t you think?
Schenker: Definitely. But a lot of times your first book isn’t that. The publishers know what sells. They have their stats. They have their BookScans. They know what works. The book I’m talking about works for a certain statistic. Maybe a bigger one, you know? We’ll see.
Friedman: Where are you now with your own day to day? You’ve got the two restaurants. How’s that set up for you? How do you spend your time these days?
Schenker: I usually get up and I’ll hit Recette during the day. I’m in charge of everything still over there, even the wine ordering, which is ironic because I don’t drink. But Recette is still a mom and pop. It hasn’t changed. It didn’t get busier and bigger overnight. It’s the same restaurant. So, Audrey Villegas is the chef de cuisine, has been with me for a while there. She’s rocking the food end so that hasn’t skipped a beat over there.
So I’m over there, basically making sure everything’s organized, checking the numbers and, doing that consistency stuff. Then I’ll usually get here by, like, 12:00 or 1:00, see through lunch. There’s usually a million administrative things that have got to get handled. That’s always the difficult part of being the chef and the owner, is, you have to split the left brain and right brain. If it was up to me I would do dumb things like fill the fryer with extra virgin olive oil, you know? And then I’m on the line here at The Gander basically six nights a week, at least.
I want to build that same culture and same feel that Recette has. People over there … I’ve had the same dishwasher and hostess for five years. It’s like a family over there. Everyone breathes the food and the wine. They know everything. And I built that culture and it took four years, so I want to build that here. And I think that I’ve built that because I was there leading by example and I was there every day. And I want to do the same thing here.
I’m still a working chef. I like to cook. I cook brunch three times a month.
Friedman: Isn’t that the most reviled meal among chefs to work?
Schenker: Everybody hates it just because, you know, people with the egg whites and the this and that; “Can I get an egg white omelet but with one yolk?”
And we have a big private dining room downstairs so that’s really starting to take off. We’re going to start doing a lot of wine dinners and stuff. I want to be able to do more, not cutting edge, but more interesting things down there …
I definitely have a desire to get involved with some sort of not‑for‑profit regarding addiction… I think while rehab is great, the money needs to be raised to spend time nurturing people to have long‑term success in recovery. Going to rehab is great. Thirty days, six months, whatever it is, but then you’re released and then what?
Friedman: So the long‑term would be your focus?
Schenker: Yeah. And I think that’s where a lot of these not‑for‑profits are — I don’t want to say making mistakes because they’re making great headway — but I think that’s where the focus could be. And a lot of these wealthy people who have these sick children, it’s like, “I want to fix them. Here’s one-hundred grand, send him to this great rehab and then he’s fixed.” That’s not the answer. Give me that hundred grand and let’s put it into infrastructure to build long‑term success. How do people stay clean, you know?
Friedman: You have this line in your book where you say, “I’m still a junkie, I just traded in one addiction for the other.”
Schenker: I’m still a junkie.
Friedman: The current one being work.
Friedman: Do you think that’s really that different from most guys who do what you do at the level that you do it?
Schenker: No, definitely not. I think if you’re doing what I’m doing, you’re Type A, and I think if you’re Type A, this is what you do and this is how you get your fuel.
Friedman: Is that bad?
Schenker: It’s only bad when your life becomes unmanageable because of it. Is your home life suffering? Does your wife resent you? Do your kids not miss you? Are you forgetting to pay your bills?
Friedman: So that’s the line for you?
Schenker: The problem is I don’t have a line.
Friedman: See, that seems kind of normal to me, for chefs.
Schenker: How else are you going to make it? This is not a career; this is a lifestyle. If you choose to do this, you’re in it, and if you’re not in it ‑‑
Friedman: You’re not going to make it.
Schenker: ‑‑ you’re not going to make it. One hundred percent. … I know what it takes. Forget about culinary skill. I think that’s a separate thing. Think about guitar players. Do you know how many talented, sick guitar players there are that don’t ever leave their room and they’re prodigies but you would never know? It’s kind of the same thing.
Friedman: Or they don’t get along in any band they’ve ever been in.
Friedman: Or they don’t show up for gigs.
Schenker: Right. So in terms of chefs, there’s probably sous chefs or cooks that are working at restaurants that are more talented than people that are getting the credit are, that you would never know. But in terms of the tenacity and the ambition and the amount of work it takes to survive in this business, you have to be fucking nuts. Who’s in their right mind? I don’t look at clocks. Work’s got to get done, it doesn’t matter if it’s 7:00 p.m. on a Tuesday or 1:00 a.m. on a Sunday.
Friedman: It’s funny: I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve interviewed who came up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s who are are almost disgusted by the way the labor laws have changed. Because when they came up ‑‑ you probably can’t even comment on this — but when they came up, you worked twelve, sixteen hours every day.
Schenker: I’m the last generation.
Friedman: You’re the last of that generation?
Schenker: Yes. Anybody younger than 30 doesn’t have the thick skin or the work ethic. They don’t want to work. They want to make as much as possible without doing anything. They don’t know how to fucking roast a piece of meat … I deal with it on a daily basis. “I went to culinary school. I know this. I know that.” … The work ethic? I don’t know what it is. When I started I got high off of taking the mats out and cleaning up and scrubbing the floors and being quickest and most efficient. I wanted that. I wanted people to recognize that and the chef to be like, “That kid’s going to go somewhere.” And people used to tell me I was going to go somewhere. They knew it, you know? Organizing the refrigerators, labeling stuff, cleaning up other people’s stations. The guy told me to be there at 8:00, I’m there at 7:00. “You can leave now.” “I’m going to stay and clean now with everybody.”
Friedman: What you’re describing was typical?
Schenker: It was what everyone did. That was it. You did it.
Friedman: That was a rite of passage.
Schenker: You did it. If you didn’t do it, you weren’t … That was the deal. Working [one of my old jobs in Manhattan], forget about it. The standards were: You had to clean the fucking hoods, the ceiling panels in the kitchen. Your shoes would melt standing on the stove. Everyone did it. You clocked in at 3:30 and you clocked out at 11:00. But there’s no way that your station was set up if you got there at 3:30. You had to get there by 11:00 at least. Nobody got paid. Nobody cared. That wasn’t what it was about, you know?
Friedman: In terms of restaurant‑wise, anything on the horizon for you?
Schenker: Make these restaurants the best they can be every day. I mean, I’m not going to lie: There’s always things. People are always talking. There’s a million ‑‑
Schenker: Yeah, but what’s the right one? There’s only twenty-four hours in a day. What am I going to do?