Zero Proof

The “work hard, play hard” culture in the restaurant industry has driven some to addiction, but that culture is shifting as attitudes around sobriety are changing.

Photography by Michael Butler Jr.

If you ordered a cocktail at The Cove a few years back, it was likely mixed by award-winning Memphis bartender Evan Potts. And he was likely drunk (and possibly shirtless) when he made your drink.

Potts, now two-and-a-half years sober and working as a general manager at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, was in a dark place back then. His hangovers from post-work binge drinking were so bad that he had to drink first thing in the morning to feel “normal.” When his then-fiancé (now wife) encouraged him to leave the bar scene for another job, Potts landed at Andrew Michael, in the hopes that the fine dining industry would help him clean up his act.

“But if you’re an addict, you always find a way to do what you’re going to do,” Potts says. “They had just done a big bar expansion, which is why they wanted me out there. It was great. I got to meet new clientele and learn so many new things. But I wouldn’t stop drinking.”

He had his first wake-up call when, after leaving work one New Year’s Eve, he stopped at The Cove to slam a few drinks before attending a house party with his wife. “I knew she’d count what I was drinking at the party or institute a ‘no shots rule,’” he says.

He left The Cove after a few too many drinks and stopped at a gas station to buy cigarettes. “I fell asleep in my car, and I got a DUI for that. In my eyes at the time, I didn’t get a real DUI because I wasn’t moving, so I asked the officer if I could just drive a few feet so I could earn it,” laughs Potts.

While a DUI arrest may have been the motivation some would need to get sober right away, it would be months before Potts would give up booze once and for all.

These days, Potts is one of several Memphis restaurant industry workers who have been outspoken about their own struggles with alcohol and/or drugs, a sign that the “work hard, play hard” culture of restaurants, both in Memphis and on a national scale, may be shifting toward a healthier environment for chefs, managers, servers and other staff.

The classic picture of hard-boozing, drug-addled chefs à la Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential is changing as more and more chefs and kitchen staff are getting sober.

There’s celebrity chef Sean Brock (the Southern culinary revivalist and founder of Husk restaurants in Charleston, Nashville, Greenville and Savannah), who, according to a 2017 New York Times article, got sober after years of excess by going through a good, old-fashioned intervention from family and friends. These days, Brock works to help restaurant industry workers with mental health issues.

Or David McMillan and Fred Morin—the legendary (and now sober) chef-owners of Joe Beef in Montreal—who in February of this year wrote a column for Bon Appétit titled “My Restaurant Was the Greatest Show of Excess You’d Ever Seen and It Almost Killed Me.”

“The snapshot I had of a chef when I was younger has changed,” says Interim executive chef David Todd, sober for 11 years.

“The chef doesn’t have to be the screaming, lunatic, pirate alcoholic dude in the kitchen. There are a lot of chefs who work out and eat right and cook for a living. I go to the gym now, and I see wait staff there before work. Healthy lifestyles are inserting themselves more and more in American society.”

Todd, who has worked in restaurants for all of his adult life, turned to alcohol and drugs at an early age but got sober on August 4, 2007, after a family intervention led him to seek treatment at a rehab facility in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

He considers himself a sobriety “OG” (that’s “original gangster”) in the local restaurant scene, and in his years sober from booze and drugs, he’s seen many of his peers get clean as well.

“Earlier in my career, the road seemed a little lonelier. I worked in some restaurants where I was the only person who wasn’t drunk or high and was definitely the last person who hadn’t drank or gotten high in the last 24 hours,” Todd says.

The long hours and intense pressure in restaurant kitchens, coupled with the allure of shift drinks and the temptation to party all night at after-hours bars with co-workers, have led plenty of workers down a dark path. And that’s certainly still the case for many chefs and restaurant staff.

“It’s such a high-stress industry, and you need to unwind. You get off so late, so it’s not like you can just go home and eat dinner,” says Potts, who, in the darkest days of his alcoholism, would often work until 4 a.m. and then go to Alex’s Tavern and drink until “the sun was coming up and kids were going to school at Snowden Elementary.”

So what’s changing?

“These days, everybody knows somebody who has been to rehab. Self-help is a much larger thing. Acceptance of mental health issues has skyrocketed. We seem to be cool around understanding people doing things for themselves,” Todd says.

As more and more chefs and restaurant staff are getting sober, others who may be struggling suddenly have positive role models in the kitchen.

“I’ll be in dry storage sometimes, and I’ll turn around and someone will just be standing there, and you know they have something to say. They got a DUI or got too drunk the night before,” Todd says. “I’ve had a lot of conversations where people would ask me about sobriety. I can be a confidante, not a counselor.”

“I can’t fix you, but I can show you some places that can.”

Those chefs are also creating safer kitchens, where the temptation to drink is lessened. That’s the case with any kitchen David Krog runs these days. Krog has cheffed at Interim, Terrace at the River Inn, Bari and The Tennessean (now closed), among other restaurants. He struggled with alcohol, cocaine and heroin for years, until he finally got clean five years ago when he was fired by famed Memphis chef Erling Jensen. These days, he says his kitchens are safe places for others in the industry.

“I don’t run a specifically sober kitchen, but I’m sought out by people who are looking for a place that’s safe and the chef isn’t drunk,”

says Krog, who is slated to open a new restaurant, Dory, on West Brookhaven Circle with his wife Amanda this fall. “They can be safe in my kitchen at least for those 12 hours. There’s nobody drinking on the line or doing drugs in the bathroom or smoking bowls at the dumpster. At places where I am the chef, there is no shift drink. There is no drinking on-site by any of the staff after the shift.”

Despite the beginning of a culture shift, those who have turned to sobriety in the restaurant industry have to make a concerted effort to stay that way. For Todd, that means staying active with the 12-step program and avoiding negativity in general.

“I’m not saying I’m some zen person, but I can’t choose to engage in negativity,” Todd says.

“The only thing I’ve consistently shown in my life is, with anything, I’ll take it too far. If I want to choose to participate in dishonesty or negativity or toxic behaviors, I’ll take it past the point of hurting others around me to the point where it hurts me.”

Todd says he’ll soon be launching a podcast titled Lost in the Sauce, which will deal with all sorts of topics that may be of interest to chefs, but he says he’ll also be “exploring the avenues of sobriety and personal growth, largely in terms of the restaurant business and other creative careers.”

Potts says sharing his personal addiction story helps him stay sober by reminding him just how terrible things were.

After the DUI, he knew he needed to stop drinking, so he made all sorts of rules for himself: He could only have two drinks after work, or he could only drink beer. “If you have to give yourself rules, there’s probably something wrong,” he says.

He started going to AA meetings, but all the while, he was still drinking and hiding it from his wife and work. Then one week his wife left town for a conference; Potts viewed that week as his “green light to go out with buddies and really tear it up.”

“I went on the spree to end all sprees,” he says. “I was going out every night until 7 or 8 a.m.”

During that time, he consumed all of the high-end whiskey he and his wife had put up for special occasions. He remembers taking an Uber to Buster’s to restock the stash so his wife wouldn’t find out, but he then drank all of the replacement bottles before she returned home.

“I drank myself into almost a psychosis,” Potts says. “I remember being sick in the sink and hearing voices asking me who I was and what I was doing. It was the weirdest thing, but it gave me a moment of clarity. I realized this wasn’t who I was. I wrote my wife this long text saying I wanted to go into treatment and told her what happened.”

His wife took him straight to Lakeside Behavioral Health System when she returned. After treatment, his bosses, Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, sent him to work at one of their other restaurants, Hog & Hominy, to wait tables and take a break from bartending. But he was eventually welcomed back to Andrew Michael with a GM position.

“I came full circle, except I was sober Evan instead of drunk, entertaining Evan,” he says. “It was hard being around alcohol for a long time. Every once in a while, I’ll have a regular ask me to make their favorite drink, which definitely strokes my ego.”

“I will go back and make drinks, but I don’t taste what I make. I have to go with my muscle memory.”

Though the kitchen culture is slowly shifting, there is still plenty of work to do. According to research from Fair Kitchens—a Unilever Food Solutions-backed initiative to create healthier work environments in kitchens across the globe—53 percent of kitchen staff feel pushed to the breaking point, and 74 percent report feeling sleep-deprived; 63 percent of chefs say they’re suffering from depression.

“You’re being worked quite hard, and and there’s not a lot of room for sick days and vacation days or work-from-home days,” says Memphian Kristopher Hassett, who works with Fair Kitchens and formerly was vice president and general manager of Chefwear. “It’s a very machismo atmosphere and it’s like, ‘You’re screwing us by taking off.’ And that pressure can drive people to drink and do drugs.”

Fair Kitchens works to address these issues from a top-down approach in corporate kitchens.

“We talk with the executives and the owners because they can set the tone and culture of an operation,” says Hassett.

“It’s about changing the mentality of what the work is and what it means. And if someone needs a day off to spend with family, they should have it, like any other workplace.”

On a local level, Hassett believes Memphis restaurant culture will continue a positive shift toward sobriety, and he hopes to see new, healthier social outlets spring up for restaurant workers looking for alcohol-free, late-night ways to unwind after work. Not much exists in Memphis in that arena yet, though more and more bars, such as Art Bar at Crosstown Arts, are adding zero-proof drinks (or mocktails) to their bar menus.

“We’ll have a huge influx of hospitality folks moving into Memphis with all of our development projects that are underway, and that will hopefully drive a more wholesome late-night scene,” says Hassett.

Bianca Phillips writes about vegan food (and shares images of everything she eats) on her blog, Vegan Crunk. She’s the author of Cookin’ Crunk: Eatin’ Vegan in the Dirty South. By day, she works as the communications coordinator for Crosstown Arts/Crosstown Concourse. She and her partner, Paul, are the proud parents of five cats and one very stubborn (but adorable) pit bull.

Michael Butler, Jr. loves everything Memphis. His goal is to show the beauty in Memphis that others overlook. He’s a photographer, videographer, Memphis tee collector, foodie, lover of tacos and mayor of South Memphis.