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Jesse Schenker: Famous Chef & Recovering Addict

Who is Jesse Schenker?

Recently, 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 just over ten years.

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His biography is almost too stuffed to list. Here’s a quick recap – Jesse’s one of the few Iron Chefs. He’s worked in Michelin rated restaurants, including Gordon Ramsey’s London restaurant. He owns and operates two restaurants of his, Recette Private Dining and The Gander. He’s been praised in places like Forbes, Details, The New York Times, and New York Magazine. As if all that wasn’t enough, Jesse recently published a memoir, All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme.

We asked Jesse about life, cooking, and recovery. Bon appetit!

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 really inspirational that you have this passion for cooking, for making food that’s not only good, but that people love. That’s pretty cool.

Jesse Schenker:
Yeah, it saved my life. I think about all the people early on 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. ‘Cause I’m still an addict, I just changed substances. Now, I’m all about the food and working.

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

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Jesse Schenker:
Well, I think I was born with the allergy. I think 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 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. I was totally memorized by it. The feeling I got from playing with food, from watching her in the kitchen and being around her, was very peaceful. ‘Cause I was very young and rambunctious and throwing stuff and running around like a maniac. When I was in the kitchen, my thoughts slowed down, my foot stopped tapping. I was actually able to focus. That was my first real outlet I found for serenity.

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

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Jesse Schenker:
Yeah, and as I got older, I just chased that kitchen. I chased that feeling. I was always watching food shows and playing with food and always wanted to read menus and read cookbooks. All my friends were outside playing and I wanted to be cooking in the kitchen. Around the holiday time I wanted a mixer. I didn’t want Legos or toys. I wanted food stuff, you know? 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 worm turned. I remember the clouds parted, light shinned down and it was like “OHH,” this God moment. All my demons and all my anxiety and insecurities washed away. It did the exact same thing cooking did for me, but obviously it was a substance, so it 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 LSD. Obviously, cooking and working in the kitchen when I was sixteen, 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]?

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Jesse Schenker:
Well, I loved cooking down there. I went to Atlantic Vocational [Atlantic Vocational Technical Center, a culinary school] in Coconut Creek from seven to ten in the morning. Then, I had a break and I had to go back to Stoneman Douglas [Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School] from twelve to two-thirty for academic classes. I’d go home in-between and rip the bong and I wouldn’t go back to high school. Then I’d go to work. I started at McDonalds when I was fifteen. Then, I got a job at a place called P August in Coral Springs, which is no longer around, but at one point in the 80’s, it was one of the best restaurants in Coral Springs. I worked the fry station and washed dishes and I loved it. Everyone was older. 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, seventeen years old. 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.

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

Jesse Schenker:
It was totally 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 didn’t really like all that. I loved to trip, but I hated the benzo’s. I remember smoking pot one day and not feeling it. 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 really true. 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. I remember robo-tripping, drinking a whole thing of Robitussin, and that was the stuff I did when I was sixteen. It was weird. I should have known then I had a problem.famous chef drug addictThe biggest turn for me was when I tried opiates for the first time. That’s when I really 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. If you let me in your house, the first thing I did was go in your bathroom and go to the medicine cabinet. The sick part about it is that ten years later, I just celebrated ten years [sober] in July, I still to this day will go check medicine cabinets. It’s one of those things I just can’t kick.

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
It’s an ingrained habit.

Jesse Schenker:
Yeah. I was doing Percocet, OxyContin, Darvocet, Roxi’s [Roxicodone]. Obviously, the Percocet’s led to the OxyContin. I got into that OxyContin epidemic before it went nuts. It was 1999 when I tried Oxy for the first time. They still had the 160 milligram ones on the market. It was out of control. I remember, I was working at a restaurant in Boca and one of the cooks was dope sick one day and I didn’t understand. He was sweating and asked if I could get him Perc’s. I called my pot dealer and he’s like “I don’t have any Perc’s but I have OC 80’s” [an eighty milligram OxyContin pill]. They give them to cancer patients. They’re crazy strong.” I looked at my coworker and said, “He has OC’s” and he was like “I’ve never heard of them, forget it.” We hung up and little did we know what we’d turned down. This was before there was this crazy epidemic. I remember that weekend I couldn’t get his voice out of my head. I remember he kept saying, “They’re strong painkillers you give to cancer patients.” My wheel was turning.

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So, that weekend my parents were going out of town and I was with my girlfriend. We stayed at my parent’s house for the weekend and I’d do two things when they went away. I’d go to the Fresh Market and buy all sorts of stuff and make some crazy meal for us and cook. That’s what I got off on, but getting high and cooking was the best. I was in my ultimate happy place. So, I stopped by the dope man. I asked him “What’s the deal with these OC’s?” He pulled out a little cigar box and there was a pill cutter and an 80 and he cut it in four and handed me a quarter of it. He said, “Give me $5. Take this, smoke a little pot, and just chill.” I went home and I did it, swallowed it, and I remember I watched Godfather One and Two. We’re talking about a marathon of Godfather’s. I was like “I found it!” I was in heaven. I was like “Oh my God.” I remember itching my face off and being like “This is it. I struck gold.” Obviously, a quarter went to a half, a half went to three quarters, three quarters went to a whole one. It went from doing it only on Monday, to doing it Monday and Tuesday, to doing it Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday, to chewing it, to snorting it, eventually to getting arrested, to rehab, to learning how to shoot it. Eventually, it led to heroin, to homelessness, to shooting it and smoking crack and shooting dope. I spiraled out of control hard and fast.

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
You’re talking about the progression?

Jesse Schenker:
Yeah, this disease is progressive. Everyone’s bottom is different. Everyone’s special pain is different. Every time I thought I hit a bottom, there’d be a trap door and I’d just shoot down. I used to sleep behind the amphitheater in Mizner Park [a large shopping and nightlife area in downtown Boca Raton]. I would literally sleep behind one of the walls. I’d literally go to a close Goodwill thrift store. I’d go in the back and steal clothes and stuff from the drop off box. I’d set up shop behind this wall and I’d get high and sleep behind the wall and wake up to bug bites and sprinklers and take my shower at Burger King. I’d go to the church on Camino and Dixie [two main roads in Boca Raton/Deerfield Beach] and get a shaving kit, get a razor, but I was okay with that and 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 okay with that. That’s the power of addiction.

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

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Jesse Schenker:
No, I didn’t relapse because I never got clean. I went to three rehabs. Well, I went to a bunch. What happened was, in January of 2000, I was working at Café Maxx in Pompano. I thoroughly had an OxyContin habit. I was shooting ten a day. It was bad. I got set up with someone and ended up buying fifty Oxy’s from an undercover cop. They nailed me. I got charged with trafficking OxyContin, which was pretty serious. I had to own up to my parents, tell them what was going on. They got me an attorney and they sent me to the fourth floor of Ft. Lauderdale hospital. It was horrible. 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. It was torture. As soon as I got out, the day 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 just keep messing up. 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 just need to take care of yourself.” I went to this place Challenges. It’s near the Coconut Creek casino. I don’t know if they’re still around. We lived in apartment complexes and they’d van us over to facility on 441 [a major road in south Florida, also known as State Road Seven], right by the 441 Clubhouse [a twelve-step clubhouse], and we’d go to meetings, therapy, the whole deal. I was there for six months, but I would smuggle OxyContin in. We had a stipend of money we were allowed to have and we’d take it to Publix to go shopping for groceries. I’d horde the money and cook for everyone, because I knew how to cook, obviously, and just eat what I’d cooked for people. So, I was always eating. I’d get Oxy’s delivered. They’d literally come to me and I’d sneak out at night. I figured out when they would do round checks. I figured out how to get them in. This was before the drug tests were picking up Oxy’s. Oxy’s are synthetic and they weren’t coming up on the drug tests.

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
You were getting away with it, it sounds like.

Jesse Schenker:
I was getting high for six months worth of treatment. I didn’t catch a habit and I didn’t get physically hooked, though. I was only able to get high on Fridays. So, I’d hoard the money all week, look forward to Friday, get high, and chain smoke all night. I got released and went to a halfway house. I went to Incentives in Boca. I was at Incentives and I started working at this place in Boca, this restaurant. It’s not there anymore, it was on Glades. I can’t think of the name. Again, doing the Oxy thing. I was peeing clean for Bobby [the house manager at Incentives], which was messed up. I got introduced to heroin when I was working at this restaurant. I got fired for getting high in the bathroom. I had to come clean with my parents. They tried to control me at this point. After Incentives I got an apartment on Verde Trail in Boca. That didn’t last long. From there, I went to my parent’s house. They were like, “We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to control you. We’re going to save you.” I kept relapsing. I went to that place in Boca to dry out. CARP [Comprehensive Alcohol Rehabilitation Programs, a Palm Beach County funded treatment center in Boca Raton]. That was horrible. So, my parents had me at their house. I was pawning all their stuff. They’d drop me off at meetings. I’d go Sandlefoot Plaza. I can’t think of the name of the meeting place.

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
Boca Pines.

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Jesse Schenker:
Boca Pines! Boca Pines (laughs). They’d drop me off at Boca Pines and leave. I’d run across the street to the pawn shop, pawn the jewelry, get the dope man to meet me, get the drugs, run back across the street to Boca Pines, and they’d pick me up. I’d get in the car and be like “Oh, it was a great meeting.” From there, I’d just get high. Eventually, my dad found out I pawned my mom’s Rolex. They’d 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 “what the hell is this? You pawned mom’s Rolex? 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 was like “Jesse, go to a hospital and get some help” and I just walked. I didn’t see my parents for over two and a half years. I didn’t see any of my family. They basically said, “Drugs or family” and obviously I was picking drugs. Eventually, I ran out of places to go and my good friend Sam, who I love to death, he put me on his couch. He detoxed me for three days and brought me to BARC [Broward Addiction Recovery Center, a Broward County publicly funded treatment center in Ft. Lauderdale]. I stayed there for a week and went from there to IRC, which is in Coral Springs, another twenty-eight day program run by the city or state or whatever. I did that for twenty-eight days, again with no desire to get clean. I got out, got a voucher to a halfway house. I was there for like a week. When I got out of BARC I was supposed to check in [with probation] and I went to Overtown [an area in Miami known for its open-air drug trade] and got high. When I came back, there was a garbage bag full of my clothes on the doorjamb and they wouldn’t let me in. I went to Florida House [another south Florida treatment center] and basically put on my best game face. I played it up. “I’ve got nowhere to go. I want to change my life. My parents kicked me out. I don’t have any money.” They were like “Okay, stay here. You’re going to get a job and pay us as soon as you get your first check.” As soon as I got my first paycheck, I never showed back up. I screwed them over.

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I bounced around for the next year and a half, being homeless. It was just horrible. Again, crack, shooting coke, in and out of the hospital with abscesses. All kinds of horrible stuff. I stopped showing up for probation. That original charge I got, they got me off with probation for five years. So, I was wanted by the cops and I was in a motel room in Deerfield [Deerfield Beach] and I’d been running and hustling and stealing and smoking crack and it was horrible. I remember getting on my knees and crying and being like “Holy s**t, I don’t want to live like this anymore.” I’d overdosed the weekend before. Everything was just all messed up and it stopped working. I really hit the ultimate bottom at this point. I remember picking up the phone. I’d respected my parent’s wishes the whole time, but at this point I wanted my family back. I didn’t want to get high anymore. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t working. I wasn’t getting off on it anymore. It got so bad. 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 remember just bawling like a baby and going, “God please just help me. I need help. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

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I was so dope sick, I mean I was physically withdrawing from everything. I was so scrawny and shot out. I had to keep hustling because I didn’t know any other way to go. So, I went out that day and I basically did what I did and I remember coming out of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd [a large road in Ft. Lauderdale] that night and I remember watching a cop roll by in his car, 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 basically said, “What the hell 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 definitely 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 and it was 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 “What are you smiling for? 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’m done.” 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 actually 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 Turning Point, which is a work release therapeutic community, in Pompano Beach, which is horrible. Then I did another six months in a halfway house in Ft. Lauderdale.

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I remember, when I got locked up, I detoxed in jail. It was horrible. It was torture. I asked to transfer to the rehab program facility, where there’s a rehab program. So I went to a ninety-day drug rehab inside jail and 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. I remember sitting in that meeting, in the jail, and this guy telling his story and I got the chills. I thought, “He’s telling my story. I have the same exact story.” 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. You name it. I was just involved, involved, involved. I was cooking, too. I started working at Big City in Ft. Lauderdale when I was in work release. I was working and cooking and going to meetings and that was my life. It was just, you know, it was amazing. 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 literally got clean ten years ago and now I own two restaurants in Manhattan. I have two kids. I have a wife. My life is just, it’s beyond my wildest dreams. The gratitude I have, it’s crazy.

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Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
It’s very appropriate you mention the two restaurants. I have a list here of the different accolades, accomplishments, and awards that have been given to you. You’re an Iron Chef, a James Beard nominee, you’ve worked in world famous restaurants, including a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, you’ve received praise and awards from media outlets like The New York Times, New York Magazine, Forbes, and Details, 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? ‘Cause humility is what we need to stay sober and stay clean. So, how’re you able to stay humble?

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, so to speak. Does that make sense?

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
Absolutely.

Jesse Schenker:
I mean, I still am anxious. I still struggle. I’m still the same person. I kind of just switched it all. I go to a Big Book study every Thursday, or most Thursdays, I do my best to get there. I talk about it with my sponsor all the time. Just like I couldn’t control the consequences of my behavior when I was using, I can’t control the consequences of my behavior when I’m doing the right thing. They happen to be very good. I have to give back. I think that was the big reason for writing the book, to show people that we can recover. We can accomplish things. I remember being in that motel [in Deerfield Beach]. I remember struggling and thinking, “I’m done. My life is over. I have no chance.” Right now, for me, I’m not afraid of being accomplished. I’m not afraid of going to jail. I’m afraid of having that craving, that’s what scares me. The fact that the craving isn’t there, I’m just blessed for that. ‘Cause I know once that can of worms opens, I’m like a tornado. I’m going to destroy everything around me. To wake up everyday and not crave to get high is a blessing. It’s such a blessing.

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Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
That’s a very twelve-step take on it. The consequences of my actions, be they bad in active addiction or good in recovery, they’re out of my hands. Let me put in the footwork and see what comes of it.

Jesse Schenker:
Right. Ultimately, “Acceptance is the answer,” right? The one story I always come back to in the back of the Big Book. It’s true. Your serenity is in direct proportion to your acceptance. It’s so true. I could go out there and do my best and try my best and make all the right decisions and stack everyone up and learn the food and everything, but I can’t control if people are going to come in or not. You can only go so far and then once it’s out of your hands. I just have to be okay with the results. I have to accept 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, right? That daily reprieve as opposed to the “one day at a time, white knuckling it.”

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Jesse Schenker:
It works. 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 just be uncomfortable and forget about the moment? Right now is all I have. Right now. Everything is good right now. That’s all that should matter. If I can just hold on to that, life is great.

Lighthouse Recovery Institute:
To wrap things up, the aim of our sites [Lighthouse Recovery Institute, Sobriety For Men, and Sobriety For Women], is to offer some hope and the idea that not only is recovery possible, but 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:
Well, when you’re in it, you’re in it, so it’s hard to say. I’d just like to tell them that you don’t have to suffer. There is hope. 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…” I know, from my own experience being 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. You don’t have to suffer. You really 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, to kind of surround them, show them support and give them a chance, give them hope and kind of walk them through those early days where you struggle.

Addiction is a complicated and often misunderstood disorder. Quality addiction treatment requires a comprehensive and compassionate approach. Fortunately, that’s where Lighthouse Recovery Institute steps in.

We offer Comprehensive Addiction Treatment at a variety of levels. Call us today at 1-844-I-CAN-CHANGE or 1-(561)-381-0015 to find out about our individualized and inclusive substance abuse programs.

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