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I Had to Leave the Kitchen to Get Sober

Larder Delicatessen & Bakery, Cleveland, Ohio

Jeremy Umanksy is the James Beard-nominated chef, owner, larder master and wild food forager at Larder Delicatessen & Bakery in Cleveland. He is the author of the book, Koji Alchemy: Rediscovering the Magic of Mold-Based Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020). 

I recently wrote an article for Edible Cleveland about my journey to sobriety. In that piece, I detailed my struggles with drugs and alcohol and what it took for me to get and stay sober. Since the article ran, I’ve heard from many of my colleagues detailing their own adventures and escapades. Many culinarians, from chefs to servers, have asked me how I can do the work that I do and not be tempted to use drugs, especially alcohol. I do, after all, spend a considerable amount of time working with and creating fermented foods, even fermenting alcohol.

I’ll start by explaining that my journey in early sobriety was, at best, severely turbulent. Going back into the kitchen after I got sober simply wasn’t an option for me. The various kitchens that I had been working in at the time were filled with people who were what I didn’t want to be anymore, and they were bursting at the seams with various triggers that would send my mind into a place obsessing about using drugs. Kitchen environments then—and unfortunately, at large, are still—not a good place to be if you are wanting to get and stay sober.

Simply put, I had to leave the line in early sobriety to stay sober.

This pained me horribly, but it was a blessing in disguise. I ended up spending a few years working in my uncle’s funeral home (yes, you read that right: I was a mortician for a time). I studied anthropology at a local college and a few times a month picked up odd catering jobs. I simply couldn’t allow myself to be in environments that would effectively allow my confused and foggy mind to justify stepping into the downward spiral of use, abuse, and general destruction.

Kitchens weren’t the only place that I avoided; I was so militant in my self discipline that I wouldn’t let myself go to any event at which people were openly imbibing, including ballgames, concerts, weddings, and funerals. It took me a few years to be comfortable knowing that I could be around alcohol (drugs took considerably longer) without internally obsessing about how great it would be to just have a drink (or two or three for that matter). I came to the realization that if I wanted to reach my goals in life, one of which was to become a chef, I needed to put my sobriety before everything and anything else in my life.

As time went on, I found that my obsessions with drugs and alcohol were starting to become secondary and tertiary in my thoughts and desires. I no longer felt the wickedly intense cravings for intoxication throughout my body, nor gave them much thought. I had reached a point where I was comfortable in knowing that drugs and alcohol were bad for me, but not necessarily for those around me. Should other people choose to use them, that was their prerogative, just as not using them was mine.

Getting to this point took intense amounts of therapy, from counseling to 12-step meetings, plus meditation and other modes of self-help and personal investigation. I reached a turning point when I knew not only what triggers would cause me to obsess about using, but also what I could do to relieve that obsession in a positive and constructive manner.

As far as I’m concerned, therapy and time are the only ways to deal with this obsession and the cravings that accompany it. If you were looking for a gentler, softer answer, then you are out of luck. Sobriety doesn’t work for the individual; the individual must work for their sobriety. Should you find another way, then by all means embrace it, but this is what has worked for me and the other people that I know who have long-term stable and prosperous sobriety.

I eventually found myself being drawn back to my love of the art, craft, and scholarly pursuit of all that gastronomy encompasses, and was ready to start cooking again professionally. When I made the plunge back into the kitchen, it was fairly easy for me to take steps to avoid having to work with alcohol intimately. The chefs I worked under and with were more than helpful in this. They would taste my sauces for me and do their best to assign me work that didn’t involve alcohol. After proving to myself that I could be in a kitchen and work next to someone who was using sherry to deglaze a pan, I set to allowing myself to do the same. I gradually started to cook with white wine and beer with no issue or desire to abuse it. I did run into a hurdle with red wine and brown spirits; for some reason no matter how grounded I was inside my head, the aroma of those two things induced cravings in me. Knowing one’s triggers—and finding ways to either avoid them or be at peace with them—is of the utmost importance.

At some point, I’m not exactly certain when, I found myself managing my cravings and thoughts for drugs and alcohol in such a way that they were fleeting; they held no meritorious impact on my being. This is when I felt truly comfortable being sober in a professional kitchen. It’s also around the time that I started to really embrace fermentation. I was in culinary school and had the opportunity to study with Sandor Katz, who outside of my grandmother has had the greatest gastronomic influence on me. I held onto everything that Sandor showed and told me. I devoured his book, Wild Fermentation, and set out to make everything covered in it. It was then that I started to brew alcohol.

For some reason, my thought process did not involve thinking about brewing alcohol to make alcohol. I was, and still am to this day, focused on the final ferment: vinegar. I view the brewing of vinegar as a way for me to enjoy the taste, flavor, and aroma of alcoholic beverages without the alcohol. I could brew and consume a vinegar that had its taste, aroma, and flavor firmly rooted in the spirit from which it came, without the disastrous consequences of a relapse which I’m convinced would surely lead to a young death for me. I became infatuated with the art and science of brewing vinegar and with the craft of using it in the cuisine that I was creating. I attribute this to embracing styles of meditation that taught me to focus on keeping a mind free from distraction.

During this point in time, I had an epiphany and discovered what passion is all about. I came to the realization that passion and obsession are intensely intertwined, much like ying and yang. For me, obsession leads to acting on your primal and unfiltered emotions and thoughts, while passion leads to acting on thoughts and emotions that are well thought out and logically rationalized. If I could embrace my passion for fermentation over my obsession, I could safely and confidently work with all manner of fermented foods, including alcohol.

This realization, combined with the alleviation of my mind and body obsessing over using drugs and alcohol, is what drives me still. As I said previously, time is one of the things needed to treat alcoholism and drug addiction, and enough time had passed for this to start to happen to me. In saying this, I don’t want to belittle or downplay the struggles that I still encounter in daily life: I am and will always be an alcoholic and drug addict who struggles. The thing is that, today, I fully comprehend what using will do to me and cherish what I have now more than any high could offer me.

If you are struggling, maybe you need to take some of the more drastic measures that I did and leave the kitchen for a time. Focusing on yourself while battling to stay sober overrides anything else in the recovery of an addict and alcoholic.

This is especially true of early sobriety in a profession that for decades has applauded and celebrated the use and debauchery associated with getting wasted. I would be amiss for not mentioning the loneliness that comes with being sober in professional kitchens. While your friends and colleagues are looking forward to their shift drink … you are not. You are focused on keeping your sobriety safe and intact. This is a hard place to be in. Both using and sobriety are more fun with like company. When you’re sober, you not only have the universal struggle we all embrace with work/life balance, the missed birthdays, holidays, etc., but you also have the missed personal connections with the people you spend the majority of your time with, your fellow cooks.

To this day, I struggle with this and I’m not sure what the answer is. I’d love to hang out with my colleagues in a setting that was non-threatening to my sobriety and talk about the finer points and love that we have for gastronomy, but until that setting changes from the bar down the block, I’ll have to find ways of coping with the loneliness. In reality, it’s the least of my concerns but the most chased dream that I have. Maybe one day we’ll see real change in our industry that will allow that to happen.

Jeremy Umanksy is the James Beard-nominated chef, owner, larder master and wild food forager at Larder Delicatessen & Bakery in Cleveland. He is the author of the book, Koji Alchemy: Rediscovering the Magic of Mold-Based Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020). 

Good luck to you on your journey
Prayers for a continued recovery. It would seem that the entire kitchen mentality needs to change.
I've got 8 years, it is hard every day, especially being a chef. I rediscovered disc golf and that keeps me sane. Keep on Rocking it out, one day at a time.
your doing great!
Well Stated. I found solace and company in endurance fitness.. early mornings with myself or cherished companion