If You Want a Healthy Kitchen, Lead from the Top Down

Gabriel Rucker got sober and found clarity as a leader in his restaurant and in the industry.

Photo: Photo by Stuart Mullenberg

Editor’s note: In November, we launched Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: kat.kinsman@meredith.com. Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too. We’ll edit and post some entries to foodandwine.com.

Gabriel Rucker is a two-time James Beard Award winner, a 2007 Food & Wine Best New Chef, and co-owner of Le Pigeon, Little Bird Bistro, and Canard in Portland, Oregon. His edgy, highly original, and recipe-free masterpieces, evocative of French bistro signatures and classic American fare, have gained him both regional and national acclaim.

Le Pigeon’s early days were party-party. It was a fun place to work, but we were definitely lacking some professionalism and maturity. I had to rely on others to be more responsible. That was the culture, and that was the environment. We drank beer, we had fun, we cooked food, we shot from the hip. But as the years have gone by and the expectations of the restaurant increased, and the expectations of myself as a human being, as a father, as a good person, as a husband (I just celebrated my ninth year of marriage), I realized that it wasn't a sustainable environment. Nor was it necessarily the healthiest environment. It felt kind of young and stupid. We were proving we could drink bourbon, cook food, and still win a James Beard award. At a certain point, I was lucky to get a kick in the pants and realize that I needed to change my ways.

At a dinner party for some neighbors about two weeks after the birth of my daughter, my second child, I was making dinner, and drinking red wine. Apparently I drank a lot of it. I was an idiot. I fell off the couch, passed out during dinner. I stayed awake all night afterward, not pleased with myself. I had previously gone to an AA meeting, dipping my pinky toe into the pool of sobriety. I did a week, but nothing real, I was pretending. Something was different this time. My kids were asleep with my wife and I was lying in their bed—because I wasn't allowed to sleep in my bed that night. And, I just decided that it was time to get my fucking act together.

The next day I asked my dad to take me to an AA meeting. He did. He told me that if I decided to do it, that he supported me and that's great—but I couldn't go back, and things would never be the same. I couldn't decide to do this and then just drink the way I had before. He wouldn't be able to be okay with that. I went all in. I’m lucky I had a dad to take me to a meeting. And, the night of the dinner party was the last drink I had, almost five years ago.

Since I drank really openly at work, as a public figure, as a human being, as a partier, as a husband. I had to get sober really publically. I came into work one day and break it to my staff, "Hey look, I'm going to AA. I'm going to stop drinking." People were supportive. I mean, some people were, "Oh wow, really?" Some people I'm sure were, "Oh, thank God." Maybe some people weren't ready for a change. And, some people were probably, "I wonder what it's going to be like here now?"

I didn't ask immediately for people to act differently. I didn't expect them to. I was worried about myself acting differently. But as the years have gone by, the culture shift has been huge. I don’t try and hire different people, but if the person who is driving the bus has a certain mentality, passengers are going to follow suit, right?

I don’t go out of my way to hire sober chefs; I hire good cooks. But, the culture has changed, and it seems we attract a different type of person. Conversations in the kitchen no longer circulate around eating the most foie and drinking the most whiskey. They now support one another living a healthy life outside of the kitchen. We’re now a safe space for chefs wanting to make healthier choices. There are nights when two out of three people working at this restaurant cooking are actually in recovery. There are lots of days now that I get a call from someone that wants to try to get sober, see what it's like. We have a different code that we live by now. In AA, you learn about the difference between attraction and promotion. I think a lot about this, especially leading up to the Zero Proof dinner: a non alcoholic dinner that's part of Feast Portland. You have to live your best life. It’s not to say that we don’t have people on our team who go out and party. It’s just that I opened the door to approach me. I’m not here to tell people what to do. You have to have your own a-ha! moment.

The transition has provided clarity and better ability for me to manage people, it’s a lot less hectic for employees. A lot of people that have stayed on through all those changes, I think are really relieved. And, that's probably why they're still here is because it can be fun to work in a hard-partying place and to have sure, that's fun, but, at the end of the day people come to work. They want consistency, direction and a supportive space.

With Zero Proof a lot of young cooks can see these people like Sean Brock, Andrew Zimmern, at top of their game, functioning at a super high level. It sets a great example. And makes you think about what’s possible. I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this.

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