Issues concerning substance use disorder and anxiety affect many people in the restaurant and hospitality industry. David McMillan, is chef and co-owner of Joe Beef restaurant in Montreal, a legendary palace of food and drink. Davud realized, after years of running a restaurant known for excess, that he was dealing with something serious in himself. He joined Francis Lam to talk about coming to grips with alcohol use disorder, how his restaurant community responded to his sobriety, and the challenges of supporting mental health in the industry.
If you are dealing with substance use disorder or another mental health condition, we have a list of resources at splendidtable.org/mentalhealth.
Francis Lam: For pretty much as long as I can remember, in the food world the story has always been, “Hey if you really want to party, like really want to party, go to Montreal and go to Joe Beef.” The reputation you guys have had for good times is legendary. So, let’s start there. What do you think guests saw, or still see, when they come to the restaurant?
David McMillan: First, it’s the way that we practice the restaurant business in Montreal. There is very cold-climate cabin culture and a certain French-Canadian hospitality that is of Quebec that we are brought up in, that we understand and practice in the restaurant business. So, yeah, Joe Beef is a special occasion, a festive restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously, where we cook very good food, and we like to celebrate life. That means aperitif, that means champagne, that means white wine out of magnums and red wine out of magnums, it means cheese before desert, it means dishes for two or for four, duck for four, rabbit for two, shared appetizers, just cover the table in food. We practice bistro French cooking in a celebratory way.
FL: That sounds amazing. You also say that you built the restaurant on your liver. And that you took in and took part of that scene, but eventually it started to affect you in a way that was different than the guests.
DM: Everything was fine for many, many years. Of course, I apprenticed under great chefs that lived the wine and food lifestyle. I lived the wine and food lifestyle. When I traveled it was to go to other restaurants. When I wasn’t in restaurants I was in vineyards and wineries and distilleries. And, it went really well until it didn’t.
I felt like alcohol was a constant. My life, being David McMillan of Joe Beef, the social pressure of having chefs from all over the world visiting the restaurant and wanting to partake in this legendary Joe Beef experience became daily for me. It became when I went to the lake up north with my neighbors, it became that way when I received family at my private home, it became that way every night at the restaurant. I realized I lived a grandiose eating and drinking lifestyle seven days a week, 28 days a month, 364 days a year. I drank wine and eat rich every day to the point where I was no longer interested, to some point, in the rich foods of the world. There wasn’t a wine that I found interesting anymore – and I had been drinking some of the finest wines in the world. I got to a place where I was no longer happy, where I had trouble breaking away from my daily life of being David McMillan of Joe Beef.
FL: Suddenly you weren’t a person, you were a persona.
DM: Correct. I used to turn the show on. I lead a fairly private life; I’m an introvert during the day. I focus on business. I spend a lot of time alone in an office. I spend quality time with my family and my children.
But then, one of my wine bars opens at three and it’s quite busy, so at three o’clock all the wine kids start to show up and the tasting of wine would begin. At six o’clock more people would show up to the restaurant next door, Joe Beef. My other restaurant, Liverpool House, fills up at 6:30 p.m. So, then I’m hopping from one restaurant to the other, I’ve got glasses of wine on 20 tables, I’m telling stories, I’m entertaining.
And there’s always someone. There’s always a visiting chef or winemaker. There’s always one of my peers coming. There’s always someone to entertain. There’s always someone to put the show on for. Even if I didn’t feel like it, it became this is how I make my living. I get paid by being this legendary tavern keeper who celebrates life with everyone.
I was getting to a point where I’d assumed that role, that I was going to be this unhealthy Orson Welles type chef who eats and drinks himself to death. I was going to be carried out on my shield like Bacchus. It just became unsustainable. I didn’t enjoy the restaurant world anymore. I didn’t enjoy the act of cooking. I didn’t enjoy wines. I’d build this really cool company with my associates, and I blamed the company for my misery. I got into a dark place where I could no longer see joy in.
by Frédéric Morin, David McMillan, and Meredith Erickson
FL: At some point you thought you really had a problem.
DM: Yeah. I’d seen a friend of mine, Ryan Gray, who owns a restaurant called Elena – he’d worked with me for a decade. We drank together famously running the restaurant. He got sober a couple of years before I did. At first, he scared me. He knew something that I didn’t. He had some information that I should get but wasn’t ready to get yet. One thing led to another. I felt like the people around me started realizing that I was caught in a trap, that I was going out on the shield for the people.
A couple of managers in the restaurants got together and they called a friend of mine, who actually was a famous interventionist, and they intervened me one day. One morning they said, “We feel like you’re not happy. We found you this help, it’s local. We’d love you to go there. You seem unhappy; you seem in a rut. Will you take the help that we’re offering you?” And I said, “You know what? Absolutely.” Because I’d been to the point where I Googled “stop drinking” a few times or I’d tried to make changes in my life but I could never string together more than four days of sobriety. Like, I literally have to isolate myself at the lake with no friends and white-knuckle it.
I was always very high functioning and always got my work done. I worked a lot; I did restaurant work 12 or 14 hours a day. But always under the haze of the depressant called alcohol, so a steady stream of depressant day-in and day-out, month after month, year after year. I ended up at 47 years old inside of a beautiful company serving terrific food surrounded by terrific people, the most miserable person sitting at the top of the pyramid of the restaurant.
I took the help that was offered to me. I learned an amazing amount of things in rehab. I went to Chatsworth Pavilion rehab center here in Montreal. I learned about alcoholism. I learned about the 12 steps, which I knew nothing about. I learned about codependency. I learned about traumatic events in my life that might have put me in an area that would be sensitive to abusing alcohol.
Once I figured out all of these things it was very clear to me that I had a problem and I could get through it. I took a little bit of time off. I sought counsel with my friend Ryan Gray, who worked at a restaurant and is a sommelier who buys wine sober. I spent time with him in his restaurant – not one of my restaurants but his – just to get my legs back. I did the pass; I put on an apron and dispatched food all night for about a month. I did my 12 hours of hard kitchen labor. I drank bottled water. I went home exhausted at 11 p.m. and found the bottom of Netflix.
I got my confidence back to be able to go back to my restaurants. And today I can say that while I encourage overeating and I encourage over-celebrating, I realized that I’m one of the people that historically does not drink alcohol responsibly. Now that I know that, and now that I’m surrounded by people and partake in meetings, I have a tightknit group of sober people around me, I can participate and enjoy this gift I’ve been given.
One of the most interesting things that happened after my participation in sobriety, I’d say maybe 16 weeks into it, people around me and inside my peer group and inside the restaurant started seeking me out. I started getting direct messages from my peers. I started getting calls from people who wanted to get coffee with me. I started realizing that a lot of people in the industry were living what I was living in a parallel way. I noticed that if I was the Viking leader of Joe Beef restaurant and I drank out of magnums every night and I ate and I drank with the people and I celebrated daily, I was setting the precedent and example inside of my business to the young cooks that look up to me, who follow me and work for me.
As I walked away from that and as I walked back to the fish market, the farms and into the forest to go foraging for mushrooms again – doing sober man’s activities – as I started loving the restaurant industry again and these beautiful businesses that I’ve built, there was a general “come to the light” across the company. I noticed staff drinking went down noticeably in all of the restaurants across the board. People started opting out of the glass of wine or beer at the end of their shift for kombucha, or nothing at all. People were texting me that they wanted to go fishing with me now, they wanted to mushroom picking, they wanted to know information that I had.
FL: Instead of getting blasted with you at the end of the day.
DM: Right. Instead of spending their paychecks at the bar across the street, they would go home early and wake up early – as I did – and ask if they could go to the fish market with me or go to the airport to pick up mushrooms, or go to the lake to learn what kind of mushrooms you can eat. Can I go to the lamb farm with you this weekend? Can I come pick ramps with you? All of this started happening.
As the leader at the top of the pyramid yet sober it seems like there was a general feeling of wellness across the company. If you look at it – and other people have reached out to me – you could apply it to many other businesses. The culture of a business, not just a restaurant business, but any other business just might be defined by he who is the appointed leader.
A mood board produced as part of putting together the Joe Beef book, Surviving the Apocalypse. Provided by David McMillan
FL: You have a new book that’s been out for a few months. You guys are hilarious. The Joe Beef guys are known to be hilarious, so the fact that it’s a cookbook called Surviving the Apocalypse is funny. I thought it was just a joke, but so much of the book – now knowing this – is about getting away from the restaurant. In what ways has it been hard to be back in the industry and back in the restaurant?
DM: Absolutely. I look back at that book and it’s a funny book, but it was put together at possibly the height of my darkest alcoholism and there’s a plea in that book in the title of the book and direction, even how we pitched the book was somehow escapism. When we were pitching that book we were already exhausted and fed up. The book was about not being at the restaurant, it was about everything against the restaurant, it was about “the end is coming,” it was about going to the cottage and being close with our families – it was like an anti-restaurant book that we pitched. We made damn sure that if we were going to work on this book it’s going to be all stuff that doesn’t chain us to a six-burner stove next to a deep fryer underneath neon lights in a white tiled room. Kitchens can feel like insane asylums really quickly. I don’t know if I’d write or pitch that same book right now. I might pitch something more joyous. [laughs]
FL: More salads.
DM: Exactly. Maybe an avocado toast book.
FL: What has been hard about staying sober? Were there people who pushed back on you for changing, people who want “the old Dave” back? How do you deal with that kind of thing?
DM: I have to say that people are amazing. I think that my friends who drink well are fine with it. As long as I don’t preach to them or try to recruit them into my program, they’re all good with it. I can sit at the table with anybody and they can drink as much as they want. I just don’t drink. It’s strange for two minutes at the beginning because people don’t know if they should be drinking around me or not. And to break the ice I say, “Listen. Drink your face off. I’ll make sure you get home okay.” I do my kombucha and my sparkling water. The jokes are just as funny. If anything I’m sharper and I don’t repeat myself. I enjoy it.
I do feel when if comes to my peers, when it comes to line cooks like myself, I sometimes wish that I could’ve drank a bottle of wine with a line cook that came all the way from San Francisco or all way from Florida or Paris or London. But I get over that pretty quickly. Because I look back at it and I know that I have more years not sober than sober, and this year has been just a wonderful year. I’m very content and happy. I’ve obtained all the goals that I wanted to this year. I feel that I’m in love with food and wine again. Not that I drink wine, but I’m in love with the geography of wine and the history of wine and the organic viticulture of wine.
I’m excited about the wellness and happiness of the kitchen crews that we oversee. When I was selfish in my addiction and alcoholism, I paid less attention to the mental health of the ten boys and girls working in any said kitchen. It was more about me and my drinking and what am I doing and who is drinking with me and who do I have to drink with tonight. Whereas today, with that selfishness taken away from me, I am more concerned about how the kitchen is doing, how are the boys and girls doing on the line tonight, was it a difficult service.
The same amount of vigor and work that I now put into drinking and celebrating I put into other things; I put them into running that restaurant well, and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it. To be in love with the restaurant business again, something that I thought was killing me. In fact, I found out that it was a disease – alcoholism – that was killing me. It was so much fun to walk out of rehab to realize that I have this wonderful company of six restaurants that are fun places to be at full of dynamic, amazing people.
FL: What thoughts do you have for someone who might be struggling with these issues?
DM: It’s so dark. We’ve set up inside one of our restaurants now a meeting on Sunday nights that is kind of like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It’s for people in the restaurant industry and in our peer group that want to be sober or that are sober, a support group to talk much like we talk in A.A. but about the restaurant experiences and triggers, the night life, how to navigate the marketing of alcohol and being the marketer of alcohol. All of those things. This group addresses that.
Again, with the selfishness of alcoholism gone, I’m very aware that there are a lot of people that have issues. When I look back at how unhappy I was, I really want to help people. It’s a slippery slope. It’s hard to help people unless they want to help themselves. I have a list of people that I have an eye on that are aware that I have an eye on them, and that know that when they’re done and they want to come in from the cold I have a warm jacket for them. It’s difficult to watch people that have a problem not getting help.
I also understand one thing, that because of who I am I had a rehabilitation of privilege. I had many managers on my payroll help me go to a very good, very expensive rehabilitation program. Spending money on therapy on a weekly basis to see therapists who understand addiction counseling is expensive. I can afford it. And also because I don’t have one fixed job – I’m not holding a salad station or I’m not in charge of halibut for the night – I can take the time to go to recovery and do that work that I need to do to stay sober. So, when I see young people struggling in the kitchen that are not paid very much money, that can’t take a week off to seek out therapy, who can’t afford therapy or who can’t afford rehab, and once they do to go rehab, they can’t even pay their month’s rent, electricity or cell phone bill. Taking 30 days off of your life has costly implications. For a lot of people it’s impossible, especially young line cooks.
That is something that’s been bothering me a lot because we raise a lot of money – chefs across the world are the first people that charitable organizations call to raise money with. We are highly solicited to participate in a number of charities. We’re happy to do what we can and we work with a lot of different charities historically every year. I’ve spoken inside my peer group of restaurant friends and said that it’s funny, because this year I’ve noticed that I’ve had to take kids off the line and send them to a therapist, I’ve had to asked for favors and send people to rehab, I’ve had to take money out of my own pocket to help some of my friends.
It’s funny because we raise so much money for so many different charities – for kids, for salmon, the library behind the restaurant, on and on – but when it came time to actually having to help employees, not only of my restaurants but of my friends’ restaurants, there are no funds available. Zero. We probably participated in raising more than two million dollars for various charities last year, but I can’t scrape together three thousand bucks to send 30 kids for one hour of therapy. So, we’re working on that. We’re working on setting up a big dinner and charity and having money available to be able to assist young people in being assessed for addictions and alcoholism and having their costs covered as they go and making sure they have a job when they’re back.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.