Jesse Schenker is a South Florida native, owner of multiple restaurants including his restaurant recette, Oyster Bay, and The Gander, then opened 2 spring, American cuisine with modern influences. As a young man, he requested menus from his parents’ dinners and invested in a cookbook collection that has grown to 350 volumes. 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 working alongside Gordon Ramsay at the London restaurant.
He has received praise in places like Forbes, Details, The New York Times, and also New York Magazine. But his success doesn’t come without struggles and ups and downs along the way. He recently published his first memoir, All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme. We had the fantastic opportunity to sit down with Chef Jesse Schenker to talk about food, addiction, and recovery.
First Addiction: Food or Drugs?
LRI: My original grand-sponsor was really 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 tasty and that people love.
Jesse: Yeah, it saved my life. I think about everyone I got clean with or people I see today at meetings 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.
LRI: So, that goes into one of my questions – which came first, your love of food and cooking, or addiction?
Jesse: 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, 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, which was the first real outlet I found for serenity.
The Early Days of Addiction
Jesse confesses growing up; he was always chasing that rush—watching food shows, playing with food, and always reading menus and cookbooks. While all his friends were outside playing, Jesse wanted to be cooking in the kitchen. He recalls how he didn’t want Legos or toys by holiday time — he wanted a mixer.
He remembers when he was around twelve years old; a cousin invited him to a rave in upstate New York. “I hit a joint for the first time, and that was when the world turned,” he adds. Suddenly all my demons, anxiety, and 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,” says Jesse.
Eventually, Jesse’s marijuana use led to pharmaceuticals, pills, and 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,” says Jesse.
After some time, Jesse found a job at P August in Coral Springs, which was one of the best restaurants in the area back in the 80s.
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.
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.
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 travel, 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.
LRI: Addiction genes?
Jesse: 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.
Trying to Find Sobriety
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.
Jesse recalls his 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.
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’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,” 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.”
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 began cooking. I was working and cooking and going to meetings, and that was my life.
“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. Finally, 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,” shares Jesse.
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.
Recovery Advice to Others
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. 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 from my experience in it.
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 that if someone’s an alcoholic, they need to get to detox if someone is physically hooked on drugs. 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.