Sipping my Saturday morning coffee a few weeks ago, watching snow quietly settle over the city, my wife asleep in bed, I learn that my former boss has died of an overdose.
Facebook has that second inbox — ostensibly for messages from people you don’t know, but mostly a convenient way of losing timely information. A chef had written me in response to a story I was working on, something about restaurant labour. After, he added: “Also, did you used to work at ____? If you did I took over for you after you left. My best friend and I ran that place for almost a year until Jake finally managed to run it into the ground and then die of an overdose shortly after.”
It was so abrupt. A decade had gone by since I’d seen Jake (not his real name). And even though our business relationship had ended as a result of his addiction, with the entire staff quitting the downtown Toronto restaurant en masse, I’d always hoped he’d gotten the help he needed, that he was frolicking somewhere, clean and sober on a farm or a beach.
Anthony Bourdain did so well with his breakout memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, that people still ask me if everyone in restaurant kitchens is on drugs. Sure, drug abuse exists. (Partying was a euphemism that never made sense to me, because it means “doing cocaine.” And if you like cocaine so much why not call it cocaine?)
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But that was never my experience. Except for Jake, everyone I ever worked with in a kitchen was too stressed by the constant physical and creative workload, too focused on getting ahead in their careers, to be diluting that focus and energy with drugs.
Jake had hired me over a drink. That should’ve been a sign. He was always drinking.
At first it was just beer. He’d be sipping a pint as I prepped in the afternoon, another when we opened the door for dinner. It made him giggly. He’d clumsily shuffle through the kitchen, where I was trying to work, making a mess as he fixed himself a snack. “Sorry, little buddy,” he’d say, patting me on the back.
But soon it was whisky or chartreuse, which made him mean. It transformed him from gentle giant to intimidating bully. He’d block my path, lean in too close, and ask if I knew who was in charge. When $20 or $30 at a time would go missing from my change jar, we weren’t sure it was Jake — until he started walking in during dinner service and taking cash straight out of the till.
Whether we were slow or busy, he’d sit at the bar and drink. Hurt that he wasn’t more involved in operations, he’d occasionally insist on helping out by serving food. But he could never remember where the tables were, or what was in any of the dishes. “I’m just the owner,” he’d say, offering to pour chartreuse for single women or telling them how he’d built the bar himself.
He could be charming. And he was an excellent carpenter: everything he built was physically solid and beautiful. If he found a flaw in his construction, he’d start again, insisting on perfection. He really had built the restaurant. But he was also destroying it.
When our paycheques bounced, we asked for new ones. When we found him passed out in the bathroom, it was over.
One day we all decided, as a group, to quit. I’d been working six 12-hour days a week and was owed two weeks pay. Looking back, it almost seems comical that I asked for it.
I never saw the money. But I did see Jake one more time.
He was walking through my neighbourhood, a long plank of wood tucked under his arm. That’s how I’ll always imagine him: a giant striding the earth, so much larger than life that he could carry an entire tree.
The situation had been bad. But I’d done well by it. I learned a lot — about asking questions before taking a job, about creating boundaries, about fixing dishwashers. And when it became unacceptable, when my colleagues and I feared for our safety, we walked away.
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It was financially difficult for us to quit, and most people don’t have that option. Looking online, there is so much advice for dealing with employee substance abuse, but very little in coping with an addicted employer.
The reason, I think, is the balance of power. When our boss is an addict, we cover for him, make excuses, absorb some of his workload, attempt to plan against his unpredictability. We do all that because we don’t have power to change things. Not really.
“If they’re accountable to someone else, you can go to that person,” says Donna Ferguson, a clinical psychologist at the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health. “It’s easy with corporate. There’s always HR, or a supervisor above a manager.”
In the small-business, entrepreneurial world of restaurants, there usually is no one else.
Ferguson advises documenting the problem: write down instances of forgetfulness, irritability and aggression, absenteeism, visible signs of intoxication such as slurred speech. And if you have a good relationship, it’s worth attempting to speak to your boss directly, showing that you care about them and want them to get help. If you don’t, consider talking with your boss’s spouse, friends, or family members about an intervention.
“If you don’t have that kind of relationship, and if there is no one to go to, then often people do what you did: they quit,” says Ferguson. “Because you can’t work with someone in the long term who has a problem and is not willing to get help.”
It’s unfair to have to walk away. But nobody should have to put up with a boss whose physical and mental state puts them in danger. And if they are unwilling to change, it will only get worse. And addict's temperament and unpredictability create problems in any workplace. But a restaurant exacerbates that with a constant availability of intoxicants and danger.
For Jake, with shelves full of booze at arm’s reach, all day, every day, there was never more than 30 seconds between temptation and consumption. And a kitchen full of hot, sharp objects presents a daily opportunity for disaster. Too often, he’d appear next to me in the tight kitchen, turn on a stove element, borrow one of my knives and begin chopping tomatoes. I would just hold my breath and hope to not be accidentally stabbed or burned.