Alcohol and chefs: a real kitchen nightmare

Ifirst talked to Craig Strippel back in the spring on the day before he was due to run in the London Marathon. Anyone who signs up for those 26 miles has a kind of reckless determination, but for Strippel, who had worked as a head chef in Cornish hotels and restaurants for much of his career, the challenge had become a very singular mission. That mission had begun just seven months earlier when, aged 37, Strippel had been within one small step of taking his own life.

Sitting in a cafe in London, he could recall that evening in September 2018 both as if it were yesterday and as part of another existence entirely. At the time he was working on his own in the kitchen at a hotel restaurant near Penzance. It had been a long hot summer and Strippel had, for as long as he could remember, been in the habit of trying to drown all the tiredness and stress of the kitchen in alcohol.

“Working on your own in the summer in a kitchen is bloody hard,” he said. “There was just a kitchen porter and me. Most days I’d have a whole long row of tickets for orders. The kitchen was open 11am until 8.30pm. I could handle it all, but only if I never talked to anyone while I worked. I had a massive charcoal grill, two fryers, a fish fryer, two big hobs, a grill and an oven and I would be working the whole lot myself. I was getting £10.65 an hour.” When the kitchen eventually closed he would do his cleaning and get the ordering done and would be finished at 10.30pm. His mates were behind the bar and in front of it. It was always: are you having a drink tonight, Craig? Of course he was.

The truth was that he’d have been drinking most of the day already. When he got in, a colleague would offer him a beer and he would probably have had three or four pints before the lunch rush began. He’d ask for a pint of wine for the cooking, but he only needed a splash of it for his crab linguine so he would drink the rest. People would tip him with drinks, so by the end of the week there would be eight or nine pints waiting. He only used drugs when he was drinking, he says. He’d take something to sober himself up enough so he could drink some more. Sometimes he lost two or three days in this way – he could spend £500 in a weekend, no problem – but mostly he just kept going to work; he had a partner and three young kids at home.

As with all addiction, Strippel thought for a long time that he could cope with it, then he knew for a terrifying fact that he could not. “The last summer it just got worse and worse,” he said. “I got to the point in September when I honestly could not see a way out. I went out drinking with my mates and I was saying to them, ‘Big party tonight because it is the last night I will drink.’”

Strippel left his mates in the early hours and walked to a place along the coast. “I stood there and I wanted to jump but my legs wouldn’t do it,” he said. And then there was a kind of It’s a Wonderful Life moment. “A guy who was out fishing spotted me and shone a torchlight on me from his boat,” Strippel recalled. “He just kept the light on me, and I felt I couldn’t move.” The fisherman called the lifeguard and soon there was a helicopter, a lifeboat and police negotiators. After an hour and a half Strippel was talked down with the promise of a cigarette.

The story is not a wholly unusual one in an industry that has long had disturbing and disproportionate levels of addiction and mental health problems. Chefs are nearly twice as likely to be addicted to alcohol and drugsas the wider population and 9% more vulnerable to suicide. In a 2017 surveya shocking 51% of people who worked in kitchens confessed to debilitating stress and depression.

Some of these statistics have been fuelled by a working culture which, through the 1990s and 2000s fetishised extreme pressure and made the kitchen seem like a war zone. The suicide of Anthony Bourdain last year, the chef who did so much to create that high-adrenaline charge around cooking, provoked a lot of soul-searching. Bourdain had conquered a heroin and crack-cocaine addiction; he had never given up on a love of booze: “You see me drink myself stupid on my show all the time … When I indulge, I indulge.” There has since been a series of confessionals from high-profile chefs, who have acknowledged the potential self-destructiveness of that mythology. David MacMillan of Joe Beef – who Bourdain called “the rogue prince of hospitality” – had made his restaurant a byword for excess of all kinds. “The community of people I surrounded myself with ate and drank like Vikings,” he said. “It worked well in my 20s. It worked well in my 30s. It started to unravel when I was 40. I couldn’t shut it off.” Now, after a period in rehab, he has become an evangelist for greater duty of care in the heat of the kitchen.

Tom Kerridge, of the Hand and Flowers, has been frank about a similar personal reckoning. “Alcohol had gained a grip,” he said on Desert Island Discs. “I was drinking colossal amounts. I would always be the last man standing, driving it on. At the end of service I would order a pint of negroni, just as a starter … I have completely destroyed alcohol for myself. I’m untrustworthy with it.”

Live CNN Talk Show “Parts Unknown Last Bite” Hosted By Anthony BourdainLAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 10: TV Personality Anthony Bourdain attends “Parts Unknown Last Bite” Live CNN Talk Show hosted by Anthony Bourdain at Atomic Liquors on November 10, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 24280_001_0202.JPG (Photo by Isaac Brekken/WireImage)
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 Anthony Bourdain: he had conquered a heroin and crack-cocaine addiction but had never given up on a love of booze. Photograph: Isaac Brekken/WireImage

One result has been a generational shift, even among alpha-males who run kitchens. When Gordon Ramsay, another prime mover in that previous culture, made a heartfelt documentary in 2017 about the destructiveness of the cocaine trade – after a young chef he had worked with fell to his death after taking the drug – he talked about efforts to outlaw the “food industry’s dirty little secret”. Neil Rankin of the pit-barbecue pioneer Temper suggested bluntly in a Facebook post that Ramsay’s fondness for long-hours culture hadn’t helped: “Oh fuck off Gordon. Try doing something positive rather than glorifying kitchen abuse, telling chefs today they have to work the stupid hours that you did (and probably hated) and now saying everyone’s on drugs. Things are looking up for chefs. We’re trying to treat them like adults, partners and employees for the first time in decades and give them a future beyond burning out at 30.” Ramsay recently acknowledged the changing roles: “There’s a responsibility we all have to ensure that there are areas of support for when people stumble and struggle – and that includes in the workplace … and that includes me.”

The statistics – and stories like Strippel’s – suggest that across the industry there is still plenty of work to do. Like many chefs, Strippel drifted into the kitchen. He had a live-in job as a commis chef at 16. One of his early jobs was as a kind of troubleshooter, pitching up in failing kitchens in his whites, checking out the fridges, raising standards before moving on. The real sleep deprivation – and the compensatory drinking – kicked in when he worked as a senior chef, starting at half five in the morning and finishing at half past one five days a week.

Craig wearing his London Marathon Finishers Medal
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 Craig wearing his London Marathon Finisher’s Medal Photograph: Phil Fisk/The Observer

“There are probably side effects with every job,” he says. “But with chefs it was usually drugs and alcohol. I would have the weekend off and I was living in Warminster, near the barracks, so there were always squaddies around. I made a lot of friends who weren’t friends.”

When he moved to Cornwall he worked for a while with Rick Stein in Padstow – “probably the most laid back of anyone I worked for” – and then jobbing around various hotels. I wonder if he was infected by that Bourdain “life on the edge” mythology.

He says he recognised it, but it wasn’t the main reason. “The money was really good to start with,” he says. He was getting £32,000 a year at that senior chef job and only a few hours of free time to spend any of it.

The day after the suicide attempt Strippel called Addaction, a charity that helps addicts one-to-one. He went to his first AA meeting. And he called into work to explain why he wasn’t coming in that day, or any day. Though he had sometimes gone awol over the years, no employer had once asked if he needed help.

Strippel was never a runner before he stopped drinking. But not long after his crisis his eldest son asked if he would join him in a charity 10k. He ran it in an hour and it almost killed him, but he was hooked and started running the coast paths every day. “I have got that care inside of me, I care about myself again.”

When I spoke to him before the marathon he suggested that he couldn’t ever work in a kitchen again, but three months later he had changed his mind about that and felt strong enough to take a job at Mackerel Sky, the noted fish restaurant in Newlyn. He was going to work as a kitchen porter to begin with, just to see how it felt. “I need to work,” he said, “and this is Cornwall so there aren’t that many options. It’s all I can do.” He was hopeful it would be fine. “It’s a minute’s walk away and my shifts end at 8.30pm.” He would be sure to head straight home, he said, because he liked to get up early these days for a run.

He had other marathons in mind, New York, Paris, Boston, now he knew what was involved. Before London he had never run more than 16 miles. On the day itself it was at about that point that his legs went, he told me, but a girl running alongside him insisted: “Your brain is telling you that you are done, but your legs don’t have to believe it.” Strippel had heard that particular voice in his head once before. The final 365 yards down the Mall were the longest he has ever contemplated, but there was not only an end in sight, but also a new beginning.

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org

[“source=theguardian”]