I Got Sober, I'm One of the Lucky Ones
"I justified drinking it all because it was so ingrained in my profession. It's easy to tell yourself that it makes you a better chef."
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: email@example.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.
Matt Hinckley cut his teeth working in demanding kitchens all over the world before returning home to Orlando, Florida, to open Hinckley’s Fancy Meats, a company that ships sustainably sourced meats and charcuterie nationwide.
When I was 17 years old, I worked at a neighborhood pizza joint. I started on the phones, graduated to rolling dough, learned to make the pizzas, and delivered them when I became legal to do so at 18. At the end of the shift the manager would close the restaurant and open the taps. I remember filling 32-ounce Styrofoam cups with Michelob or Heineken (the fancy beers of the late 1980s), smoking Marlboro Reds, and playing the joint’s only arcade game, 1943: The Battle Of Midway, into the night. I saw dishwashers tripping on acid, mesmerized by the bubbles in their sink. I saw cooks walk off the line to smoke weed in the walk-in cooler—apparently the best place to smoke weed inside the restaurant if you didn’t have an extraction fan right on the hot line. And everyone drank.
If anything, that restaurant was a taste of what was to come. I had tapped into an industry that wasn’t much concerned with job stability, and that seemed to favor the types of misfits who misguided teens are attracted to. It was permissible, if not encouraged, to tell the types of jokes that might get you fired at other jobs. I spent several years trying to find other "real jobs," but I always bounced back to the hospitality industry which was waiting for me with quick money and open arms.
I started my career in the front-of-house mainly because I needed the fast cash that tips offered in order to pay rent. I turned to the back-of-house during a slow summer because I needed more hours. I was hooked instantly by the cooks' camaraderie. I learned of the symbiotic relationship between cook and bartender, and the line between work and play was blurred. I saw an opportunity to make a career out of something that was much more tolerable than the cubicles waiting at those "real jobs."
I didn’t come up in great kitchens and I had no formal training. I couldn’t explain good food, but had an intuition; like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart says of porn, "I’ll know it when I see it." I bought all the text books from Le Cordon Bleu and the CIA. I studied the basics at home and learned how to make myself valuable. Once I better understood the science of cooking I was able to turn on the creativity.
I took jobs in remote places, often where the expectations were low, and I had the freedom to experiment. But no matter how remote I found myself, I was always able to find or make booze. In the Nicaraguan Caribbean, I could buy a liter of good rum for about $7. In remote Alaska, a six-pack of bad beer was $14, so I made imfulafula, an African fermented beverage with wildly varying results (and ABV) by mixing water, yeast, and fruit left over from the breakfast buffet. I spent a couple of summers in New Zealand in a kitchen where it was perfectly all right to show up to your shift with a six-pack in tow.
I developed a tolerance and had the ability to function well, both creatively and on the hot line, with a few beers in my system. It became the norm throughout work and travel in Alaska, Africa, Australia and beyond. A few beers at work followed by several more at home. If I was hungry I’d drink a dark beer. When thirsty, a light beer.
I returned to the US by way of Miami after spending about five years abroad. I landed at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink the year that Michael Schwartz took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. The work was intense. I’d have a drink or two with the gang after work, then I’d go home and have another three or four drinks while journaling or working on menu ideas.
In every kitchen, I did my best to get ahead of the person standing next to me. I showed up an hour early for my shift. I learned stations by watching others. I volunteered for shitty jobs. I studied at home. I stayed late. I came in on my days off when other cooks called in (or didn’t). I worked through sickness and injuries. And when you do all that, maybe it's not such a big deal if you’re nursing a few beers.
I got into zymurgy and started working my way through the cicerone certification. I brewed beer at home with things like roasted acorn squash, applying what I knew about kitchen science to the craft of homebrewing. I brewed meads and melomels. I read up on distillation. And I justified drinking it all because it was so ingrained in my profession. It's easy to tell yourself that it makes you a better chef.
After five years in Miami, I headed to NYC. I took the helm at Public and continued down the same course, albeit with a Michelin star hanging in the balance. I medicated stress with drinks. I don’t know if there’s a defining moment when I told myself, "Enough is enough," but I remember walking into my corner store, looking at the wall of beer, and feeling like I didn’t have any choice on whether I wanted to be there or not. So I forced myself to walk out.
Since I started working in restaurants at 17, I don’t think there was a seven-day period where I didn’t drink. So I challenged myself to not drink for a week. I thought of it as something that I had already accomplished, rather than something I needed to do. I made up my mind. I just had to put the time in. After that week, I decided to try for a month. And after a month I challenged myself to not drink for a year. I did that. I went for a whole year without so much as a sip. I felt like I had control. So I did what any chef might do. I went to the Viking Festival in Iceland during summer solstice to crush beers with the Vikings. I had accomplished my goal of not drinking for a year and it was time to celebrate.
I remember how uneventful and anticlimactic it was to taste that first beer again. I felt fully in control. Tasting it reaffirmed my belief that I didn’t miss it that much. And then the next day, I remember how distinctly eventful it was when I asked for Brennivín in my coffee. The illusion of control had been shattered. I was back to my routine.
I moved back to Florida to start Hinckley’s Fancy Meats and continued down the usual path. I had racing thoughts, panic attacks and difficulty focusing. I self-medicated with booze to take the edge off. I knew I could quit again, but I also knew it had to be cold turkey.
On July 4, 2016, I found myself staring up at fireworks, swaying. My wife, standing next to me, sober, asked me if I was OK. I said that I was, but I knew that I wasn’t. I was irritated at myself for not being in control of my own ability to stand up straight. So I decided then, under the fireworks, that it was going to be my Independence Day.
I quit drinking that day and started making changes in my life. I put diet and exercise at the front. If I craved a drink, I ran—like Forrest Gump—until I exhausted myself. I kept sparkling water in the fridge and when I wanted a beer I’d drink a can of sparkling water—quite often more than 12 in a day. I started doing martial arts again. Kung Fu helps me with focus, meditation, breathing and cardio. I also do Brazilian jiu jitsu and Muay Thai kickboxing which offer up their own sets of benefits and rewards.
I tend to gravitate toward extremes. I’ve gone deep-water diving, jumped out of airplanes, done glacial ice climbing, big game hunting, cooked in extreme kitchens, and a whole bunch of other crazy shit. I’ve put myself at the mercy of nature to feel alive because I was walking around numb. My experience in Iceland taught me that the grit and determination that it takes to do difficult things in life doesn’t apply to biological conditions.
I know what’s waiting for me the next time I have one drink. So I choose every day not to have it. Even when I’m around other people who are drinking I don’t miss it. I feel good most of the time. I don’t have the racing thoughts, anxiety and panic attacks that I once had. I’ve lost weight and gained muscle. I use exercise to eliminate stress now. I’m just as creative as I was before, but with the added benefit of actually remembering my ideas. I feel blessed that I got out so unscathed. When I see the damage that the drink causes in others, it makes me feel fortunate just to be standing here. I’m one of the lucky ones.