It took coming close to death for Sean Brock to realize that he had to change his entire way of life and how he approached work.

By Kat Kinsman
Updated February 11, 2020
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Alex Boerner

Restaurant kitchens are tough on your body, and the evidence is in plain sight. Burns, cuts, scars—if you spend enough time around chefs, you just expect to see them. What's less evident is the toll the lifestyle takes on their psyche. Food media and the restaurant industry not only took the damage and excess for granted, but celebrated it. So did the consumers ravenous for the next tale of a "bad boy" chef who spent his copious on-duty hours in the hellfire of service, and the remaining slivers of the night dousing the flames with whiskey—then showing up to do it all over again. 

And then the house burned down. As the casualties mounted—cooks, bartenders, somms, waitstaff just fading from the industry, burning out, or opting for another career entirely, and some lost to suicide and addiction, and everything that it entails—more and more people began looking for a way out. Not necessarily from the industry (though there's been plenty of that), but from the cycle of brutal hours, low pay, verbal and physical abuse, social isolation, and lack of stability. But where were they to turn? Who had gotten out alive?

It was a watershed moment for the industry when Sean Brock went public with his sobriety. The hard-partying chef had become a food world and pop culture icon equally for his Southern food evangelism and his bourbon consumption. While his exploits were discussed with both glee and awe, colleagues, loved ones, and acquaintances alike worried for his safety. Folks cheerfully hoisted a glass in his presence and whispered their fears to one another. Brock wasn't just abusing alcohol—he was battling some severe health issues that were exacerbated by the punishing hours at the restaurant, and the after-hours comedown, to the point that he couldn't see, and his body was beginning to shut down.

When a few of Brock's dearest friends showed up at his doorstep to take him to rehab, the chef said, "Thank god."

In a raw and revealing interview onstage at Blackberry Farm during the annual Passing the Torch event for the Sam Beall Fellows Program, Brock opened up about how his mind and body got to that state, the restaurant industry's role, and what he's doing to fix it.

These interview excerpts have been edited and condensed for clarity. You can hear the full interview on the Communal Table podcast.

Restaurants are often a refuge for people with atypical brains.

I started cooking in the '90s, so I was there during the difficult times. I've had pans thrown at my head and I got hit in the ear once with a hot piece of foie gras that I overcooked. That was just how you earned your wings and that's what you were told and what you told yourself. You just start accepting those things and that's why they run rampant. 

[Overconsumption followed by showing up and working the next morning] is how you gain respect, to work harder than the person beside you.

I now know that I found comfort in restaurant kitchens. I felt security there. It was like you're hidden back in the back in a little submarine. It was 1994 and I was 15 and it felt like a profession that was gaining respect at the time. Twenty years later I blink my eyes and I was in a tornado, I was in a whirlwind.

I now know that I was desperately seeking worth. I found worth because I was rewarded for being a workaholic. I ended up being the executive chef of The Hermitage Hotel in Nashville at the age of 24. 

Brains and bodies are not made to withstand that kind of pressure.

I wasn't doing it well. I had no business being in that position, but I had such a drive to succeed and to find that worth, that I put myself through hell just to not fail. I was terrified of failing and I think my whole life I've been terrified. I now know that failure is growth.

I broke. Our nervous system and our brain are not designed to be that deregulated for that many hours, for that many days of the week, for that many weeks in a year, in that many years, in a lifetime. It has nothing to do with who you are or where you come from, or what you've done. It's the way human beings are built and it can only take so much. That's just science, that's not my theory. 

I'd gotten to the point where I was operating eight restaurants in five cities. When you're the chef and you're the boss, you always have to have the answer regardless of whether you have it or not. I got to a point where I went into what's called limbic freeze, or amygdala freeze. 

I also ended up with an autoimmune disease that came about because of stress and fatigue. My immune system produces all these antibodies that attack the receptors on your muscle that grab the acetylcholine, which carries the message from your brain through your nerves and into your muscle, and that went undiagnosed for a couple of years.

The first symptom is double vision and then your eyelids stop working, and then eventually if you don't care of yourself, it goes through your entire body and your throat stops working, your lungs stop working, and then that's all she wrote.

This was my body and it was the universe realizing that it was out of options to signal to me that I wasn't taking care of myself. I ended up having six surgeries on my eyes while awake over a period of a year and a half. That trauma of being strapped to a bed, having my eyes cut and snipped—one surgery they actually took my eyeball out to adjust muscles and nerves—your brain and your nervous system doesn't know that you can't feel it; it just knows to alert you of this threat. I eventually got diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, which is a very rare autoimmune disease. That was the tipping point because with all those surgeries, all of a sudden I couldn't go to work.

Chefs' brains aren't socially conditioned not to be at work—or to ask for help.

I couldn't see and my vision was double. I couldn't get my hands to work. I would grab a spoon and I would go to plate, and then I couldn't let go of the spoon. I would have to physically open my hand. For the first time in my life I felt worthless. It was devastating. So, I got even better at drinking whiskey.

With six surgeries comes painkillers, and that pushed me into a freeze. Our nervous system when alerted of a threat has a window of tolerance, and from birth we go up and down all day long. We go above it and that's anxiety, and we go below it, that's depression. It's like a pendulum. When the nervous system is so fatigued it can't take anymore, it goes into freeze. 

What freeze looks like is a possum playing dead. You appear to be dead. You see it in the animal kingdom. Your brain activity slows to near nothing. Your heart rate, blood flow, and movement slow and you appear dead to your attacker. What that looks like for a human being in everyday life is you become emotionless. You become a zombie. It had gotten to the point where I couldn't read a sentence. I could not read the sentence and absorb the information. That continued the fear of what am I going to do? What am I going to do with my life? 

I was in such rough shape that I didn't possess the ability to ask for help, the thought didn't cross my mind. I was just that miserable. Now, I know the importance of asking for help, but also recognizing when someone else needs help and doesn't have the capacity to ask for it.

When help arrives, take it.

[When my loved ones intervened] I said, "Thank god." It was such a relief and I didn't know that I could've asked for that help, because the human brain is wired to reach for pleasure and run from pain. When it is faced with that choice, it will 100% of the time, choose pleasure. I knew that I was miserable and that wasn't sustainable, but my brain kept finding excuses. 

"You can't leave work that long. You can't do blank, you can't do blank." You believe it when you're in such a low place. The human brain is fascinating.

Do the work—but serve yourself, for once.

I was gone for 45 days. I went to human university. I went to life university. I heard rehab and my brain immediately went to Dr. Drew or whatever that show is. I was like, "I can sit by the pool." But the place that was chosen for me is one of the most special places on earth. It's called The Meadows. I was in school. It was college. I was studying, I was going to seminars and lectures. It was one of the coolest things I've ever done. I often wish I could go back and do it once a year. But, you wake up every day at 6 a.m. and then from 6:30 or 7 until 11, you're doing the hardest work you've ever done in your entire life.

The core of the program is based around understanding codependency, which we all suffer from. I don't care if you think you don't suffer from it. I don't care if you've read 15 books about it. You still suffer from it. It's the way we're wired, it's the way we're raised, especially Southerners. We take care of other people first before we take care of ourselves, especially in the restaurant industry.

You do two two-hour group sessions per day of intense therapy. And, then you do some individual ones, and then there are also a couple lectures each day on understanding why your nervous system can't handle those things and understanding how your brain and nervous system works, how they communicate, and what happens when you don't take care of yourself. The education that I received there gave me the gift of self-compassion.

The key to that door didn't appear until about five days before I left. I was still struggling with the idea of putting myself first, taking care of myself first. I just could not wrap my head around it. Also understanding the negative power of shame and guilt. Those two things, especially when they work together, are the most dangerous emotions that exist and there is no healthy shame. Those things can keep you in a terrible, terrible, terrible place and self-compassion helps you fight those villains every day. I'm still studying psychology and self-care the way I studied culinary arts as a kid.

Your brain isn't magically healed, but your chef skills may come in handy. 

As I was leaving rehab I wrote my aftercare plan all of the things that I was going to do when I get home; all of the self-care schedule gets written out. Mine was, of course, this long [holds hands far apart]. My counselor looked at me and said, "Your next tattoo needs to say 'moderation' and it needs to be on your forehead."

Not understanding moderation is a form of coping. So, when I feel that coming on, I know that there's a screw loose somewhere, something haunting me that I haven't processed, dealt with, faced, and made amends for. It happens every day.

Consequences can keep your brain in check.

I've been so lucky because my obsessive brain has also made me obsessive with self-care and fully understand what that means for me. In counseling, they refer to it as the gift of consequences. I write down those three consequences and I put it in my pocket, and any moment—luckily it's never happened—I have the urge to stop taking care of myself or start to maybe be a little jealous of the person drinking the 25-year-old bourbon across from me, I just ask myself, "Which one would you rather have, the three things on this list or that?" And, it's very easy.

The party can go on without you, and that's OK.

We have this hardwired desire to be a part of something, to feel like we belong somewhere, and for people in the hospitality industry it's that clique, that party. Walking away from eight restaurants—eight teams, eight families that you feel you're responsible for, things that you founded, things that you started from an idea on a piece of paper—took a lot of courage, but I will say it was a really easy decision. I didn't struggle with it at all. 

I've learned to know when I'm suffering. It's somatic, I feel it, I know when it's happening and there was a moment where I was boarding a plane to the eighth restaurant and I was just like, "This is the opposite of what I'm supposed to be doing." Normally those villains would've shamed me or guilted me into staying in that place of suffering for the rest of my life, but luckily I have new super-human powers and I was able to make that decision.

One of the most valuable things that I've learned recently is asking the question, "Who told you you have to do that?" Most of the time the answer is "I told myself that."

You can use this power to help others who are struggling.

I think about how I used to behave and hurt people. That's usually the first sign. Complete quietness can also signify that for me. That's where it gets very tricky—understanding what Alfred Alder refers to as the separation of tasks. "What is my task? What is that person's task? What happens on my side of the road? What happens on their side of the road? How do I not interfere with their task?" 

The answer is encouragement. If we start by instilling courage in someone, that's all we need. If we can cultivate this idea of encouraging people to be vulnerable, to take better care of themselves, that's going to be pretty amazing. Communication is where we stumble. We're not taught how to communicate with boundaries and vulnerability, and with empathy. In the new restaurant I'm building a classroom where we will teach people how to speak when there's a conflict, how to ask for help. Education is the answer. We can't be expected to know these things.

If you or someone you know in the restaurant industry struggles with substance abuse, Ben's Friends is there for you.