Kitchen confidential

When you're dining al fresco this summer, spare a thought for the chef sweating away in the kitchen. Alcohol and drug abuse in Berlin restaurants is an open secret. But is it the stress of the job that leads to the habit, or vice versa?

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Photo by Francesca Torricelli

On a mild Saturday in May, Steven* woke up early and headed to his job as a chef at a Berlin hotel. Like many mornings, his head ached fiercely from the previous night’s drinking. Shaking off his hangover and arriving at the kitchen to start setting up, he could tell something was wrong. He found one of the front desk staff, who told him 
it was in fact 8pm on Sunday, a full 36 hours later than he had thought – he had blacked out for a day and a half, and later discovered that he had suffered a concussion. At 33, after 12 years in the restaurant industry, he was having what people in recovery refer to as a moment of clarity. The following day he attended his first AA meeting.

Now 58 and sober, he is the owner of a popular Kreuzberg restaurant. A slight man with an engaging presence, he speaks candidly about
 his personal struggles with drug and alcohol dependence and his continuous effort to keep his predilections in check. About stealing money to feed his addiction, about endless lies and compromised principles, and about the darkest moments when his thoughts turned to suicide. He has the rapturous aura of many adherents of the Alcoholics Anonymous programme, describing his recovery in terms of acceptance of a higher power. While his tale of overcoming his demons to succeed as a business owner is impressive, his story of addiction is not a rare one in the industry – the high stress, the often long and grueling work hours and easy access to alcohol and drugs tend to encourage overindulgence.

Brian*, a young professional chef who came
 to Berlin for a restaurant position four years ago and has worked everywhere from “top places 
in London to shit houses in Kreuzberg”, claims that stress and overwork is what led him to start using speed. “You know, I’m working my fourth double shift in a row, the head chef doesn’t care what state I’m in as long as I’m producing.” His drug use wasn’t because he wanted to be happy and high at work, but because he was “running out of juice and just needed it to keep going.” At one restaurant, the head chef used their Christmas tips to order “500 dollars worth of fucking cocaine for the staff. That was our holiday bonus.” He says rampant drug use was equally 
as likely at quality restaurants as at the holes-in-the-wall, but that compared to other cities where he’s worked, Berlin is especially prone to the phenomenon due to sheer availability. “It’s part of the culture. Here, everybody takes drugs.”

While Steven agrees that kitchen work can be stressful, he says the people who claim that stress drove them to drink or do drugs on the job are often making excuses. Growing up in Ireland, he learned how to “drink like a gentleman” from his alcoholic father, who raised him nearly solo while his mother was in and out of the hospital with cancer. Preparing for his high school exams, he would take his books to the pub where his studies would be sidelined by the third or fourth pint. Forced to choose a profession where grades didn’t matter, he entered catering college. “I felt like the career chose me.”

Pierre*, the owner of a small French restaurant in Berlin, has stayed clean for the last 20 years. He agrees that access to substances attracts certain types of people to the kitchen. These days he encourages his staff to follow his lead of sobriety, and to that end no longer offers them a shift drink at the end of their workday. He says that too often it would end up in multiple toasts and more booze for the road. “It’s a slippery slope. 
I find it’s just easier this way.” Other drugs were common in the kitchen during his time as a young chef, including cocaine. At one restaurant and bar where he worked, the dealer would give free cocaine to the barmen in order to keep them quiet about selling on the premises, and the barmen would in turn distribute the product among the staff. “It’s a bit of a classic, really. I know too many guys in the business who fell into the abyss that way. It starts with a glass or two but soon enough they’re totally wasted on the job on a daily basis. One day, you hear they’ve got to close down –
 and sometimes it was very popular places. 
Of course, some will never admit that the problem was their alcoholism. Many are
 in total denial.” Pierre says he recently 
had to fire a young cook who had 
taken up the bottle. “It was becom
ing difficult for everyone. Until
 they admit their problem, there’s
 not much you can do.”

So where can kitchen workers in Berlin turn if they find themselves falling into self-destructive patterns? For alcoholics, at least, there is some help. While it had been recognized that alcoholism is likely rooted in the restaurant industry’s workplace culture, alcoholism itself is not considered an occupational disease under Germany’s Berufskrankheiten-Verordnung (Occupational Diseases Ordinance). However, employees can go on a detoxification programme prescribed by their doctor if they can prove they are alcohol dependent. Their Krankenkasse will cover the cost of detox while state pension insurance will pay for rehabilitation.

For Steven, this kind of support was non-existent when he was cleaning up 25 years ago. And when he bought his restaurant in Berlin nine years ago, he knew the stakes of a relapse had become higher. These days, his staff is aware he’s a recovered alcoholic and, in fact, he occasionally dispenses “little wisdoms” to those he can see slipping into the patterns he once knew all too well. Asked why he’s decided to stay in an industry where alcohol and drugs are so prevalent, Steven says it’s a matter of self-awareness. “I’m 
a stubborn son of a bitch. I decide not to drink way more often than you decide to drink.”

* Names changed

Originally published in issue #138, May 2015.