Jesse Schenker: Famous Chef & Recovering Addict


Written By: Lighthouse Editorial Team

Our editorial team includes content experts that contribute to Lighthouse Recovery Institute’s blog. Editors and medical experts review our blogs for accuracy and relevance. We consistently monitor the latest research from SAMHSA and NIDA to provide you with the most comprehensive addiction-related content.

Who is Jesse Schenker?

Jesse-Schenker-Famous Chef - Recovering Addict

Who is Jesse Schenker? Lighthouse Recovery Institute was lucky enough to grab a few minutes of Jesse Schenker’s time. Jesse, if you’re not familiar with him already, is a world-famous chef. He’s also been sober for over ten years. His biography is almost too stuffed to list. Jesse’s one of the few Iron Chefs. He’s also worked in Michelin rated restaurants, including Gordon Ramsey’s London restaurant.

He also owns and operates two restaurants, Recette Private Dining and The Gander. He has received praise in places like ForbesDetailsThe New York Times, and also New York Magazine. As if all that wasn’t enough, Jesse Schenker published a memoir, All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme. So, we asked Jesse about life, cooking, and recovery. Bon appetit!

First Addiction: Food Or Drugs?

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
My original grand-sponsor was real big on this phrase, “you’re sober, now what?” The way I took that was to follow our passions. It seems inspirational that you have this passion for cooking, making food not only tasty but that people love. That’s pretty cool.

Jesse Schenker:
Yeah, it saved my life. I think about everyone I got clean with or people I see today at meetings that are struggling to find their way. I feel blessed that I have an outlet. Because I’m still an addict, I just changed substances. Now, I’m all about the food and working. Also, my family.

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
Absolutely. So, that goes into one of my questions – which came first, your love of food and cooking, or addiction?

Jesse Schenker:
Well, I think I was born with an allergy. I probably had an addictive personality from early on, but my love of food came first, or at least my passion. When I was super young, my great grandmother used to come to watch me. I would be mesmerized by her in the kitchen. I remember sitting on her lap and watching her peeling an apple with a paring knife. The feeling I got from playing with food, from watching her in the kitchen and being around her was very peaceful. When I was in the kitchen, my thoughts slowed down, and my foot stopped tapping. As a result, I was able to focus, and that was the first real outlet I found for serenity.

Jesse Schenker’s Addiction

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
That makes sense to me. It’s the whole idea of addiction manifesting itself before picking up drugs and alcohol.

Jesse Schenker:
Yeah, growing up, I chased that feeling. I was always watching food shows, playing with food, and always wanting to read menus and read cookbooks. All my friends were outside playing, and I wanted to be cooking in the kitchen. Around holiday time, I wanted a mixer. I didn’t want Legos or toys. When I was twelve, I came up to New York. My family’s from upstate, and I would come up every summer. My older cousin was sixteen, and he said, “Come on, we’re going out to a rave.” I said, “Cool, I’m all about it,” and went.

I hit a joint for the first time, and that was when the world turned. The clouds parted, light shinned down, and it was like “OHH,” this God moment. All my demons, anxiety, and also my insecurities washed away. It did the same thing cooking did for me, but obviously, it was a substance that was way stronger. From then on, they were working parallel. I was working in kitchens and cooking, but I was also smoking pot and chasing that feeling.

The pot led to pharmaceuticals and pills and also LSD. When I was sixteen, cooking and working in the kitchen, with twenty-five-year-olds that were getting messed up, wasn’t the best atmosphere. Eventually, drugs took over.

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
What was it like working, cooking, and also getting high down here [in Broward and Palm Beach County]?

Jesse Schenker’s Attempts At Sobriety

Jesse Schenker: Finally, I got a job at a place called P August in Coral Springs, which is no longer around, but at one point in the ’80s, it was one of the best restaurants in Coral Springs.

I worked the fry station and washed dishes, and I loved it. When I was in vocational school, I’d ask, “Where are the best places to work?” Everyone said, “You have to work at Café Maxx in Pompano with Oliver Saucy. You have to work with Mark Militello,” all these Broward county chefs who were James Beard winners [a prestigious cooking award]. I went to work for these guys at sixteen. I’d go to school in the morning, get high all day, drive to work at three o’clock and work all night, getting high after work, and doing the same routine. I was too young for it.

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
It seems kind of like zero to one hundred really fast.

Jesse Schenker: It was zero to one hundred. I remember being in tenth grade, and it was pot all the time. Eating acid on the weekends and eating mushrooms, and eventually, it was Xanax and Valium. I loved to trip, but I was not too fond of the benzodiazepines. I remember smoking pot one day, and it didn’t work. It didn’t have the same effect on me. I was high, but I was still kind of uncomfortable, and I wanted something else. Again, I had the genes, so the gateway thing was real. I remember going to the medicine cabinet and drinking Nyquil in the middle of the day. Anything I could get my hands on – Nyquil, Benadryl, Robitussin. 

Addiction Genes

I should have known then I had a problem. The biggest turn for me was when I tried opiates for the first time. That’s when I found what my drug of choice was. My sister got her wisdom teeth pulled. I saw a little prescription bottle, and it said oxycodone five milligrams, and I was like, “oh, what’s this?” I snuck one, and fifteen minutes after I took it, my stomach warmed up, and I felt like Superman. That was it. Basically, from that point on, I just searched for opiates.

Generally, if you let me in your house, the first thing I did was go to your bathroom and go to the medicine cabinet. The sick part about it is that ten years later, I celebrated ten years [sober] in July 2014, I still to this day will check medicine cabinets. It’s one of those things I can’t kick.

Progression of Drug Addiction

Jesse Schenker:
Generally, the disease of addiction is progressive. Everyone’s bottom is different. Every time I thought I hit bottom, there’d be a trap door, and I’d continue down the same path. I remember my friends coming out looking for me and being like, “Let me take you to rehab. Let me take you home. Let me help you out.” Because I had $5 in my pocket that I’d just panhandled and I knew I was that much closer to getting high, I said no. That’s how sick I was, and I was also okay with that. That’s the power of addiction.

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
Let me ask you then, what was your experience with going to treatment and getting sober? Because it sounds like you went to rehab once and then relapsed.

Jesse Schenker: No, I didn’t relapse because I never got clean. I went to three rehabs. What happened was, in January of 2000, I was working at Café Maxx in Pompano. I thoroughly had an OxyContin habit. I got set up with someone and ended up buying fifty OxyContins from an undercover cop. They nailed me. I got charged with trafficking OxyContin, which was pretty serious.

Jesse Schenker On Coming Clean To Family

Jesse Schenker: I had to own up to my parents, tell them what was going on. They got me an attorney and sent me to the fourth floor of Ft. Lauderdale hospital. The fourth floor, they call it the flight deck, with all the mentally ill patients. I had twenty-eight days on the insurance card, so I went there to dry out. As soon as I got out, I managed to manipulate my way into getting high. I don’t know how I did it. Us addicts are smart, but we keep messing up.

So, I didn’t relapse because I never had any intention of getting clean. I was just there because I had to be. From there, the attorney was like, “Get him into long-term treatment. It’ll look better for the judge. I’ll take care of the legal aspect. You need to take care of yourself.” I went to this Florida Drug Rehab for six months, but I would smuggle OxyContin in. Eventually, everything came crashing down, and I was in and out of multiple other treatment centers. 

Addiction’s Rock Bottom Moments

Jesse Schenker:
Eventually, my parents started to go to Al-Anon, and Al-Anon was like, “Cut him off at the knees. Stop enabling him.” I’ll never forget, it was April 2002. My dad was like, “You’re out of control. You need to go.” I packed a bag and walked out the door. My dad, I remember him standing in the garage door. He said, “Jesse, go to a hospital and get some help,” and I just walked out of the house. I didn’t see my parents for over two and a half years. I didn’t see any of my family. They said, “Drugs or family,” and obviously, I was picking drugs.

I bounced around for the next year and a half, being homeless. I stopped showing up for probation. That original charge resulted in five years of probation. I remember picking up the phone. I’d respected my parent’s wishes the whole time, but I wanted my family back. I didn’t want to get high anymore. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t working. I picked up the phone to call them and my mom, as soon as she heard my voice, she hung up on me. I called back. My dad picked up and said, “Jesse, we can’t help you. Go to Broward General” [a large hospital serving Broward County], and then he hung up on me. I began bawling like a baby and said, “God, please help me. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

The Last Time Jesse Schenker Got High

Jesse Schenker: Without Drugs, I began experiencing physical withdrawal. So, I went out that day, and I remember coming out of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd [a large road in Ft. Lauderdale] that night. I also remember watching a cop roll by in his car and flashing his lights. Instead of running and hiding, I just sat on the curb and surrendered. The cop pulled up and asked me what I was doing in this neighborhood, and I said, “What the heck do you think I’m doing in this neighborhood?”

He asked what my real name was. I told him my real name, and I said, “There’s a warrant out for my arrest,” and he called it in. Sure enough, it came back there was, so he stood me up, and I remember the feeling of those cold cuffs hitting my wrist. I also remember this feeling of peace that came over me. I remember smiling, and the cop put me in the back of the car, and I have this smirk across my face. And he was like, “Why are you smiling? You’re going to jail.” I said, “I’m going to jail, but I’m getting my life back. I’m getting my family back. I also get me back.”

One Last Florida Drug Rehab Facility

I remember asking him to turn the radio on, and Pearl Jam’s “Alive” came on. That just blew it out of the water for me. I tattooed “I’m still alive” on my arm with the little Pearl Jam guy. I’m a Pearl Jam nut. And that was it. I did six months in the county [jail] and did another six months at a state-funded rehab, which is a work release therapeutic community. Then I also did another six months in a halfway house in Ft. Lauderdale.

I remember, when I got locked up, I detoxed in jail. As a result, I asked to transfer to the rehab program facility, where there’s a drug rehab program. Thus, I went to a ninety-day drug rehab inside the jail. H&I [Hospitals and Institutions, an arm of Alcoholics Anonymous] brought in a meeting to the jail the first night I got there. I remember sitting in this meeting, and I’d been to hundreds of meetings, but I never heard the message. I never heard anything. But sitting in that meeting, in jail, and this guy telling his story, and I got the chills. “He’s telling my story,” I thought.

Jesse Schenker Describes Freedoms From Addiction

Jesse Schenker: They say the teacher appears when the student is ready. I was ready. I remember the spiritual awakening, call it whatever you want, I heard it. That was it. I never looked back. When I got out, I got a sponsor, went to two meetings a day, lived at the twelve-step house, and also began cooking. I was working and cooking and going to meetings, and that was my life.

It was just, you know, it was terrific. Again, I channeled that same aggressive tenacity, all or nothing mentality, that brought me so down so quick, that same attitude of perseverance I put into my career. I got clean over ten years ago, and now I own two restaurants in Manhattan, have two kids and a wife. My life is, it’s beyond my wildest dreams. The gratitude I have, it’s crazy.

Lighthouse Recovery Institute: It’s very appropriate you mention the two restaurants. I also have a list here of the different accolades, accomplishments, and awards that have. You’re an Iron Chef, a James Beard nominee, you’ve worked in world-famous restaurants, including a Gordon Ramsay restaurant.

You’ve also received praise and awards from media outlets like The New York Times, New York Magazine, Forbes, and Details. Additionally, you’ve opened two restaurants of your own, and you’ve published a critically acclaimed memoir with a major New York publishing house. How does all that factor in with humility? Because humility is what we need to stay sober and stay clean. So, how’re you able to stay humble?

12 – Step Recovery Program

Jesse Schenker:
A day at a time, man, a day at a time. For me, I think because of what I’ve been through and my past, there’s nothing that can shock me. Generally, “Acceptance is the answer,” right? The one-story I always come back to in the back of the Big Book. Thus, your serenity is in direct proportion to your acceptance. I could go out there, try my best, make all the right decisions, learn the food, but I can’t control if people are going to come in. You can only go so far and then it’s out of your hands. Because I have to be okay with the results. Ultimately, it’s a daily reprieve. It’s so cliché, and everyone says it all the time, and no one understands the real meaning, but it’s so true.

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
My favorite part of the Big Book is the tenth step promises part. At the end of that, it says, “We have a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.” That’s what you’re getting at. That daily reprieve as opposed to the “one day at a time, white-knuckling it?”

Learn how to pay for rehab without insurance!

Jesse Schenker:
What am I going to do? I’m going to think about what I did wrong yesterday, or what I want in the future, and be uncomfortable and forget about the moment? Everything is good right now. That’s all that should matter. If I can hold on to that, life is excellent.

Jesse Schenker Explains Recovery From Drug And Alcohol Addiction

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
The aim of our sites [Lighthouse Recovery Institute and also Sobriety For Women] is to offer hope that recovery is possible. Additionally, that recovery is within everyone’s grasp. So, let’s say there’s somebody out there in active addiction, active alcoholism, who stumbles across this interview. What do you want them to know? What do you want to say to them?

Jesse Schenker:
I want to tell someone in active addiction that you don’t have to suffer. There is hope. Also, that anyone can find recovery. It’s just about being honest with yourself. It’s hard. I was on a radio show the other day, and people were calling in and asking me questions like, “How do I get clean? I want to get clean, but…” From my experience in it, there wasn’t anything anyone could have said to me if I could have heard that I didn’t have to go so far down.

You know the saying, “you can get off the elevator at any stop, you don’t have to take it to the basement.” I want to say that. I want people to know that. I know what you’re feeling, and there’s hope for you. Because you don’t have to suffer. It’s tricky, if someone’s an alcoholic, if someone’s physically hooked on drugs, they need to get to detox. They need to get it out of their system. Then they need people like us to be there, surround them, show them support, give them a chance, give them hope, and walk them through those early days when you struggle to stay sober.

Florida Drug Rehab Center

Addiction is a complicated and often misunderstood disorder. Thus, quality addiction treatment requires a comprehensive and compassionate approach. Fortunately, that’s where Lighthouse Recovery Institute steps in. We provide Comprehensive Addiction Treatment at a variety of levels.

We also offer Dual Diagnosis Treatment Services. Call us to find out about our individualized and inclusive substance abuse programs. Generally, recovery is possible for anyone. So, learn how we help you or a loved one take the first step towards a new life.

Lighthouse Recovery Institute: Guiding You to a Brighter Tomorrow

Cite This Article
Lighthouse Editorial Team. "Jesse Schenker: Famous Chef & Recovering Addict." Lighthouse Recovery Institute., Published on Jan 4, 2020,


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