BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Falling out ...

So, maybe it's “just me”, but this seems to be an example of how fickle the serendipity of the dollar store can be. I allow the “just me” option, because I really don't do a lot of “due diligence” when eyeballing a book there before it goes into the cart. Is it non-fiction? Check. Is it a subject that I have an interest in? Check. Does it look like a reasonable read (i.e., not 600 pages or in some itsy tiny font)? Check. Is the physical copy in good shape? Check. … That's pretty much it for how deep I get into analyzing a dollar store book purchase.

And, sometimes I get surprised.

When I picked up Jesse Schenker's All or Nothing: One Chef's Appetite for the Extreme, I assumed it to be another memoir of a life in the culinary arts. The dust cover flaps were heavy on the author's achievements in the restaurant field, James Beard, Zagat, Forbes, New York, and Iron Chef all get referenced. Sure, his problems with drugs and the law are mentioned, but the sense was more “talented Chef overcomes youthful challenges to become trendy restaurateur”, which is also the tone of the back cover quotes. However, out of a 260-page book, about 150 of those are pretty much Schenker's “drug journal”, reminding me of an extended “drunkalogue” that one might hear at an AA meeting (in fact, this book fits neatly into AA's “Big Book”'s “Our stories disclose in a general way what we were like, what happened, and what we are like now.”). While a passion for the kitchen does weave its way through the main part of the book (approximately chapters 2-11 out of 16), the main take-away here is a harrowing tale of substance abuse, eventually redeemed by cooking skills.

Given that the early growth of his culinary experience runs in parallel with the less-addled times of his drug experiences, the book is pretty much half and half, which is confusing to an extent. If one takes the bio from his web site, one could walk away with no sense of the depths that he ended up hitting, and yet this book is plainly plugged on the same page (and elsewhere with a YouTube video that featured pictures of Schenker that really should have been in the book to help envision the version of him that's featured through most of its pages) … pushing out a story very different than that of the star chef.

{Arrgh … I had 2200 words written and the netbook went into some sort of spasm during which it managed to lose 2/3rds of my brilliant blitherings the review at the above point (despite the wordprocessor supposedly saving progress every 10 minutes) … I'm now attempting to pick up mid-stream three weeks later, all of which really sucks. Technology … can't live with it, can't eat it instead of cereal in the mornings!}

If one just picked up Schenker's book and flipped to the table of contents, one might assume it was primarily about cooking, as the sixteen chapters each have a culinary term as a title (and each chapter starts with a definition of the associated term). However, none of these have more than passing connection with the contents of the chapter (well, with a few exceptions, the first chapter is Mise en Place, which is the term for setting up a kitchen workstation). The book starts out at his restaurant Recette, as he's getting the staff ready for a 27-course tasting menu, and makes the segue to his back story with his getting ready to check on how a sauce is coming, pulling a tasting spoon out of a pocket:
      There had been a spoon in my back pocket for as long as I could remember, but the spoon's intended use had changed so completely that even I was caught off guard at times. Once I had carried a spoon to cook drugs on the streets of Florida, and now it was there to prepare haute cuisine for Manhattan's foodie elite. …
He starts the telling very early, with how, at age one, he had to be locked into his room at night to keep him from getting out and falling down a steep stairway right outside his room … in the mornings his mom would find him asleep on top of some furniture, where he'd spent most of the night stripping the wallpaper off the walls … he notes “I've never felt comfortable in my own skin and have always needed an outlet for uneasiness.” He soon found one outlet, although the timing seems iffy to me – he claims that at age four he became fascinated with cooking, and especially that of his great-grandmother, “Nana Mae”, who died when he was eight, so I guess the things he reports doing with her must have happened. He reports:
      For me, being in the kitchen was like taking a Xanax. I finally had an outlet for all of the emotions that were too uncomfortable for me to really feel. I had never known what to do with those feelings. In the kitchen I had a sense of freedom and space and, most important, order and clarity. It was the only time the restlessness within me subsided.
Schenker grew up in Florida, but every summer his family headed back north, and he and his sister spent June at the house of his aunt and uncle (and cousins) in New Paltz, NY. This was ideal for him, as he could be in constant motion, keeping up with his older cousins … who also introduced him to his other passion – drugs – with his first experience with marijuana at age twelve:
… as soon as I stopped coughing, it felt as though a part of myself had suddenly been lifted away. Ever since I was a baby peeling wallpaper from the walls of my room, I had never been able to get rid of that twitchy, anxious part of me. The big wool blanket that I'd been carrying around my whole life like a fucking disease suddenly lifted, and that feeling trumped any escape I'd previously found through acting out, clowning around, or even cooking.
… I was changed forever and there was no turning back.
Upon his return to Florida, his behavior changed, and while he was still way more interested in culinary arts than most kids his age, he also became a great fan of pot, and began hanging out with others who shared the latter interest. Run the calendar ahead a couple of years and he's discovered girls and found that it's a lot easier to stay supplied with weed if you're selling it, plus he “never felt so popular or important” as when kids looking to score clamored around him in the hallways at school. As one might expect, this sort of notoriety tends to spread, and he soon (at age 14) had his first arrest:“… I felt a sort of perverse excitement about being arrested … All I could think was, Wow. This is fucking cool.. He, as at this point was usual, manged to talk his parents into fighting for him, and they ended up sending him to a hippie psychologist that he actually liked, and who warned his family that he probably needed long-term rehab – warnings that they ignored. Soon after he was caught with marijuana in school, and managed to avoid getting expelled, just serving a one-week suspension during which he and his family went on a ski trip to Aspen … teaching him the lesson that he could get away with anything.

By freshman year in high school he was “young, full of nervous energy, with no respect for boundaries and a lot of extra time on {his} hands” and he “filled the void with pot, cooking, music, and sex”, and soon had another drug bust on his record – resulting in only being sentenced to 50 hours of community service, which his father managed to make go away before he'd clocked even an hour. Despite having no consequences from his actions, Schenker eventually hits that scary point in the addict's life – when his substance of choice stops working for him … this is a classic description (when he and his girlfriend are passing a bong back and forth in the bathroom at a party):
… this time something wasn't right. Finally it hit me. I was high, but I still felt the anxiety. The emptiness and anxiety were back; they were there even while I was smoking. This had never happened before. It struck me that pot was no longer enough to fill the gaping hole inside me.
He wastes no time in looking for a replacement, digging through the medicine cabinet, starting with various cold medicines but moving up to the Oxycodone that had been prescribed for his sister following dental surgery. He notes: “Nothing relieves emptiness like opiates.”, and obtaining these becomes his new obsession. In eleventh grade he starts attending a technical school which has a Culinary Arts Program, and he takes to the material immediately, and soon was cooking at an area restaurant, but he “could feel the pull in two directions, between the serenity of the kitchen and the euphoria of the drugs”. While he was a natural in the kitchen, and moved up to better restaurants, that environment provided him with access to people with access to drugs, and he moved to Percocet, Darvocet, and OxyContin, and was physically addicted by 17. He dropped out of the academic part of school (opting for a GED), while continuing with the cooking classes. He kept getting better positions at fancier restaurants, but the drugs started to make him (and his kitchen pals) a less reliable employee … so one of his buddies and he decided that a long trip to Europe would be a good idea, and connived the travel costs from their parents. They flew into London, but soon moved to Amsterdam because they figured the drugs would be easier to get there … eventually he talks his way into getting pain killers from a local doctor and “the rest of the trip was a drug-filled orgy of food, booze, sex, and of course pills” – although he did pick up a lot of culinary ideas on the way.

When he returns, he moves to Tallahassee, and soon hooks up with a methadone clinic, which eventually boots him out after a random urine test showed he was dabbling in other drugs … he notes: “Heroin gets all the notoriety when it comes to withdrawal, but kicking methadone is actually much worse.” He finds a “pain clinic” that provides him with something for the withdrawal, but he's needing more, and tries to work a deal for drugs that ends up with him being arrested as a opiate dealer – despite his not having any. His father (and therapist) steps in again and gets him into a rehab facility. He, of course, finds a way to get drugs there, using his food budget to buy them (and being lucky that the urine tests of the day didn't show OxyContin), and running a side-hustle of cooking for other folks in order to eat. He moves from rehab to a halfway house, and is able to get a job cooking again, and then convinces his parents to rent an apartment for him. The new job first exposes him to a guy who's dealing in cocaine, which Schenker uses, and eventually to another employee who hooks him up with heroin; he describes his first fix: “Pushing the plunger into that single vein was perhaps the most gratifying experience of my entire life to that point. … There was no going back from here.”

He starts stealing to support his addiction, goes through a number of drug centers, always just playing the game to get by, and ends up getting into another halfway house that lets him work, and he's back in a kitchen, but he bails on both to crash with a friend, and remarkably gets yet another job, savoring his time cooking “despite being completely drowned in drugs”. However, this doesn't last, and he ends up “running” for a dealer, who he eventually rips off for a whole safe full of drugs. Amazingly, in all this time he keeps getting hired to cook, although most of these gigs don't last long for obvious reasons. He keeps getting in deeper and deeper, discovers crack, starts posing as a male prostitute (although he only reports stealing from the Johns), and can't even keep a job at a deli. He and his buddies move to following around dealers to rip them off (while not getting killed). The sordid stories continue for pages and pages and pages, and he eventually hits bottom, there's a warrant out for his arrest, and when a cop picks him up in a horrendous area of Fort Lauderdale, he ends up smiling in the back of the car saying “I'm going to get my life back.” He spends three months in county jail before getting transferred to a jail-based rehab program where he starts to get the AA/NA message: “… I was dry and sober for the longest time since I was twelve years old, and something was different. I had been beaten down so low that I knew the only way was up from here, and I was finally willing to do whatever it took to get there.”

He discovers that there is a “kitchen detail” and he gets on the midnight to 5am shift, and he starts to organize the processes there. This makes that part of his rehab … although hardly gourmet … passable for him, and after another six months he's transferred to a work release center, which was still very rigidly confined. He was all of 21 at this time. After a couple of months his parents came to visit, after four months, he'd earned the ability to go get a job … which, of course, he got immediately, and after a while he gets offered a position of sous chef at another property the owners were opening. His passion for cuisine began to accelerate, and he writes: “Without drugs to spend my paychecks on, I bought cookbooks instead, devouring at least ten new cookbooks each week.” Soon after, he moves out of the halfway house and gets a small apartment in Miami.

His sister moves to New York, and his parents set up a celebratory dinner, which Schenker pleads with them to be at Gordon Ramsay's eponymous restaurant there. He is totally blown away by the menu, and on the way out, he button-holes the manager to say he's a chef from Miami and he'd love to work there … and the manager tells him to send an email to him, that he'd forward to Ramsay. Schenker doesn't expect much, but as he's just about to board his flight back to Florida, he gets a call offering him a “stage” (a sort of trial run) … he goes back to Florida, explains he's going to need to take some time off, and is back in New York a couple of days later. This (after 70% of the book) is where the culinary story starts.

If it seems remarkably lucky that he got that call back, after one day (and voluntarily staying until 1am cleaning), he's hired. What follows is a look into what happens in a restaurant kitchen of that caliber, highlighted by Chef Ramsay being the demanding perfectionist with every bit of the “charm” he exhibits on TV. Schenker stayed (despite the pressure, and sometimes outright harassment) for quite a while, but the idea of moving out to his own place was gelling in his mind. He began “staging” in other restaurants, and goes into detail about several of these, and the techniques he picked up at them. He and two other chefs were talking about options, and they ended up with the idea of doing an after-hours dinner service at a bakery location where they hung out and sometimes cooked … and this became Recette, initially being a one-night-a-week event, but soon expanded, as the management at Ramsay's restaurant essentially forced his resignation there. Recette presented a particular challenge, as the space operated as a bakery until 5pm, and they had to spend the time to clean the place up, convert over to culinary cooking, and switch to a fine dining setting … every night.

A gal he'd been close to in eighth grade also re-entered the picture, both as his girlfriend and something of a manager for the non-cooking parts of the Recette operation. He was also doing a fairly strenuous program of private dining, both for events and as a “private chef” for a (wealthy) guy in New Jersey … a drive he'd make with all the food. Schenker details some mind-numbing schedules and points out that his attending AA/NA meetings tailed off to nothing … always a bad sign:
      Of course, recovery requires rigorous honesty, not only with other people but also with yourself. As I slid down the slippery slope of addiction once again – this time to work instead of drugs – I stopped being honest with myself. Instead of accepting that I was powerless and relinquishing control, I feverishly grabbed the reins and drove myself further and further away from the peace I had finally found.
Obviously, the situation with the original Recette wasn't scalable, and he began thinking of a free-standing restaurant. He pulled in his dad as a business partner, who hooked him up with an old friend who was a venture capitalist, and got his New Jersey client financially involved as well, and soon had the money to get a place. He goes into a lot of detail of getting ready to open a new restaurant, still called Recette, and it was a success as soon as it opened. He keeps dipping into perceptions about his recovery, and the chaos of the restaurant. There's a long section about the process of getting reviewed by the New York Times, and the excitement of the resulting star rating (and rave).

More family stuff follows, engagement, wedding, pregnancy, his mother's cancer, his grandfather passing, etc.; the industry kudos as well, nominations for James Beard awards, Iron Chef, etc. He also has some health issues (getting sent to a diet doctor), which escalated to what seems like outright hypochondria. His internist finally sends him to a shrink who prescribes an antidepressant, that he's, understandably, hesitant to get on: “I worried that Celexa would lead to a stronger pill, and then a stronger one, and then a stronger one, and then an even stronger one after that.” He does start taking it, with good results, and his wife points him back to AA, along with working with various therapists.

He eventually finds “a dream” space in a restaurant that was about to go under, and he and his backers manage to get it, and he opens his second (much larger) place, The Gander, right as his wife is having their third child. And, the book pretty much just ends there (admittedly, that's in April 2014, and the book came out that September, so it is arguably “up to the moment”). As I indicated above, this is pretty much two books, the descent into a drug-fueled Hell, and his exploding onto the New York restaurant scene. While the latter is only about 30% of the book, there is plenty of “food porn” (although, sadly no pictures) to enjoy in the telling for those looking for the kitchen memoir material.

All or Nothing has only been out about 3 years at this writing, so I guess I really lucked out in getting a copy of the hardcover at the dollar store. It's still in print (both in the original and a paperback edition that came out mid-2015), and the on-line big boys presently have both at deep discounts (72% and 58% off respectively) … however, if you want to go lower, the new/used guys have new copies of the hardcover for under five bucks delivered. Which, of course, means that if this sounds like something you might enjoy, you don't have much of an excuse for not picking up a copy.

While I wasn't expecting this to be the book that it was, it does touch on two of my interest areas, addiction/recovery and restaurants/cuisine, so I found it fascinating on a number of levels (if it not being a particularly comfortable read at numerous points). You might find it similarly engaging.

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Tags: book review
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