Mixing Drinks With Work and Staying Sober, Too
FOR Del Pedro, a bartender at the Pegu Club in SoHo, Mondays are especially challenging.
That’s when he allows himself careful tastes of new drinks at the bar, where cocktails are designed with precision.
Mr. Pedro, an alcoholic with almost 15 years of sobriety behind him, is part of a quiet brigade of people who are trying to live a sober life in a business that is soaked in alcohol. Although the hospitality industry has itself calmed down and has outgrown many of its hard-partying ways, nondrinkers and restaurant work don’t always mix easily.
Mr. Pedro, 50, learned early on that it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the bartenders and the customers.
“When I first started, a guy I worked with turned to me and said, ‘Look, you better be able to count money when you’re drunk,’ ” he said.
So he did. About seven years later, he looked in a mirror and had what alcoholics in recovery call a moment of clarity. He was miserable, sick of waking up bloated and hung over. A friend took him to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, which he attended for about two years.
As he lived a sober life privately, his reputation around New York as a great mixer of both drinks and customers grew. He started in an era of easy-to-blend vodka drinks, where he could rely on recipes and taste memories from his drinking days. For trickier cocktails and wine buying duties at places like Les Halles and Grange Hall, he used a panel of tasters whose opinions he trusted. Sober, he even invented some drinks. One, called the Bedford, has made it into two online compendiums.
People would ask how he could be around all that booze and not drink.
“They just don’t have the experience of having to deal with it,” he said, talking about alcoholism, “and knowing what going back to that would mean.”
Then, in October, a chance to work at the Pegu Club came along.
If Mr. Pedro didn’t taste, he wouldn’t be able to succeed at a bar that is considered the Harvard of mixology.
“When I saw what they were doing, how refined it was, I knew there was no way I could guess anymore,” he said. So he decided to begin controlled tasting. That means spitting, and no recreational drinking. If Mr. Pedro ends up back pulling beers at a neighborhood pub, he will stop tasting.
It hasn’t been easy, and he knows that by Alcoholics Anonymous standards he is not technically sober. And Mr. Pedro likens himself to a vegan friend of his who is a private chef. Sometimes, she has to taste pork.
Of course, he realizes the analogy isn’t perfect.
“People don’t lose everything because they eat too much pork,” he said.
Leaders in the hospitality industry have long acknowledged that alcohol and drug abuse are dangerous byproducts of a stressful business with ready access to both. Food service workers have the highest rate of illicit drug use and the third-highest rate of heavy alcohol use among major occupations, according to the latest data from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. (Construction workers and miners drink the most, and installation and maintenance workers are second.)
“It is one of the downfalls of our business,” said Gale Gand, the executive pastry chef and a partner in Tru in Chicago. The restaurant is part of the Lettuce Entertain You group, which, like many companies, trains managers to help employees with addiction problems.
Ms. Gand and others say that sober waiters, cooks and bartenders are more common than they used to be. They attribute that in part to the growth of an industry that now employs about 13 million people and has become more professional as its profile has grown.
Restaurant culture is shifting, too. Drinks in the kitchen or at the bar at the end of a busy night are still routine, but fewer restaurants pay for them. And imbibing during shifts has become less acceptable.
Some restaurant owners say they have no problem making room for employees who don’t drink (although no one suggested that a sober sommelier would be a great hire). Chefs can ask other cooks to taste dishes with alcohol, bartenders can follow formulas and waiters can gather pairing suggestions from knowledgeable colleagues.
“Service is so much about reading other people and verbal skills and eye-hand coordination,” Ms. Gand said. “We have waiters who are allergic to chocolate and they can still serve chocolate desserts. And certainly, when Beethoven went deaf he could still write music.”
But a stigma exists. Bartenders, waiters and wine experts who are in Alcoholics Anonymous contacted for this story wouldn’t talk publicly — not only because the organization’s traditions suggest they don’t reveal their membership to the media but also because they don’t want to jeopardize their livelihoods.
At the Culinary Institute of America, administrators are examining how to accommodate students who don’t drink. Jeremy Umansky, 26, who has been sober for seven years, is a semester away from graduating with a culinary degree. One thing that stands in his way is an intensive, three-week wine course. He tried to take it last June, but says he found it too stressful.
“I have an unhealthy mental obsession with alcohol,” he said. “Being in a room with that much alcohol is not healthy for me.” Armed with doctors’ notes and his family’s support, he asked for an alternative to the class that never materialized, he said. In March, he filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights.
In keeping with the state’s guidelines, Tim Ryan, the president of the school, said he could not confirm or deny that such a case exists. But he said that students are not required to drink alcohol or even smell it to graduate, whether they are abstaining for religious, health or other reasons. Wine lectures could be taped so students wouldn’t have to be in the same room with alcohol, he said.
Liz Scott, who was once a private chef for Brooke Astor, hasn’t had a drink in 10 years. She recently gave a lecture at the Culinary Institute about her own recovery and how to cook without alcohol.
The idea, she told the students, is to approach it as a challenge in the way they might adapt recipes for diners who are vegan, kosher or allergic. After the lecture, half a dozen students came up to her and said they, too, had quit drinking, she said.
The end of Ms. Scott’s drinking life began when she was working as a private chef for the DuPont family in New York on Fishers Island. After a night at the local bar where the service workers hung out, she crashed the family’s S.U.V. and broke several bones.
When she got sober through a combination of rehabilitation and 12-step meetings, she didn’t want to stop cooking. So she figured out how to work in a kitchen without alcohol, turning her experience into three books, the latest of which is “Zero-Proof Cocktails” (Ten Speed Press, April 2009).
Unlike Mr. Pedro, she believes in complete abstinence. One sip or even a bottle on a counter can trigger intense cravings in some people, she said. And she points to studies that show alcohol never completely burns off in a dish.
So she uses substitutions. For example, strongly brewed blackcurrant-flavored tea mixed with simple syrup and caramel-flavored syrup can approximate Madeira.
Not all recovering alcoholics are as strict as Ms. Scott or as loose as Mr. Pedro. Valerie Hill, a pastry chef at Johnny’s Half Shell in Washington, uses alcohol in some desserts.
She stopped drinking 20 years ago. “I just realized, Wait a minute; this is ruling my life,” she said. “We all know you can’t do anything until you get to that point.”
At first, she felt shaky and ashamed at work. But now her sober palate is a point of pride. “I believe you can taste things better if you don’t deaden all your senses with alcohol and drugs,” she said.
It’s tougher for people in the front of the house. “After work, they just sit there and pound cocktails,” she said. But she doesn’t mind being around her friends who drink.
“I’m not going to be shut out because of that,” she said. “I just get Pellegrino with lemon.”
The trick, say people who navigate the restaurant world sober, is to get support from other people who have also stopped and to never forget what might happen if they pick up another drink.
That’s the religion Michael Quinn, one of England’s original celebrity chefs, preaches. In the 1980s he had a Michelin star and was the first Briton to run the kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton in London. But by the 1990s, he had drunk himself out of a job and literally, he says, into the gutter.
In 1996, he was in a Leeds clinic with a host of medical problems. As a priest was reading him his last rites, he had his moment of clarity. He has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous ever since.
In 2001, he started the Ark Foundation to help other chefs and restaurant workers with alcohol problems. He and volunteers give hundreds of lectures a year at Britain’s cooking schools. Chefs like Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal are supporters.
Mr. Quinn says that once someone gets sober, there is no reason to stay away from restaurant jobs and the culture of drinking that goes along with them. If someone really wants to drink, he will find a way, whether alcohol is easily accessible or not, he said.
“The key is to admit we need help and start that path of recovery,” he said. “Then we can go into any situation and feel protected. We have nothing to fear.”
Being around alcohol doesn’t faze Harry Denton, either. Good thing, because he runs the Starlight Room, a popular nightclub atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco.
“I don’t know if it’s God’s blessing or what,” he said. “I don’t want to drink and I’ve had no problem with other people drinking. It just doesn’t bother me at all.”
Although Mr. Denton, 64, still toys with a few other addictions, food among them, he stopped drinking after a stint in a 12-step-based rehabilitation center 14 years ago. He relies on a manager whose opinion he trusts to taste for him.
“I’m a raging alcoholic who sells booze for a living, but it works for me,” he said. “I love the opposites in my life.”
source: New York Times