Meet Chef Jesse Schenker: An All-Star Chef in Recovery
Partnership for Drug Free Kids
APRIL 21, 2017 BY JULIE
We recently met up with Chef Jesse Schenker, executive chef and owner of The Gander and author of All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme. We’re thrilled that Schenker will be the VIP chef at our All-Star Tasting event on May 31, 2017 in New York City and are grateful for his honesty in sharing his recovery story with us.
PARTNERSHIP FOR DRUG-FREE KIDS: Could you first give us a little background on yourself, both personally and professionally?
CHEF JESSE SCHENKER: Growing up in South Florida, I experienced epicurean pleasures that quickly ignited my passion and set me on the path toward becoming a chef. I began requesting menus from my parents’ dinners and invested in a cookbook collection that has since grown to nearly 350 volumes.
I channeled my excitement for food into a Culinary Degree at the Atlantic Technical Center in Coconut Creek, Florida. While in school, I was introduced to my first professional kitchen experience at Café Maxx under the tutelage of Chef Oliver Saucy. I then moved on to hold positions in the kitchens of some of Florida’s most celebrated restaurant like Chef Mark Militello’s James Beard award-winning restaurant Mark’s on Las Olas and City Cellar Wine Bar & Grill. I then moved to New York to refine my skills in some of the world’s finest restaurants. I accepted a position as Chef de Partie as the two-Michelin star rated Gordon Ramsay at the London where I stayed for a year and a half.
I opened my first restaurant Recette, an intimate, urban American restaurant in New York’s West Village, in January of 2010. Just months after its opening, Recette received glowing two-star reviews from both The New York Times and New York Magazine.
In 2014, I wrote my memoir, All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme to reflect on my journey from growing up as an anxious child in a tight-knit family to a homeless teenager with a heroin addiction by the time I was 19 years old — and the journey back.
PARTNERSHIP: Tell us about your recovery story. What helps to maintain your recovery today?
SCHENKER: I first smoked pot when I was about 11. I knew something inside of me was forever changed. It wasn’t typical experimentation; I became different. I became me without the anxiety. The marijuana use escalated over my teenage years. I used acid, took painkillers, pretty much whatever I could get my hands on. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was OxyContin. I quickly became hooked to this powerful opioid and when I couldn’t get my hands on any, I did whatever any person with a burgeoning addiction did in the 90’s: I switched to heroin and developed a full-blown heroin addiction by the time I was 18.
Things had to get very, very bad for me to get to a place where I was ready to begin recovery. I had been through rehab/detox a number of times. Didn’t matter. My parents gave me a choice: drugs or family. I chose drugs. From that point on, I was on my own until I was arrested. I served six months in jail and then another six months in a drug rehab facility for inmates. Following that was six months in a work release/halfway house. The moment I was arrested was the moment I decided to turn my life around.
I was ready — I was cold, alone, homeless and unemployed. I was determined to rebuild my life. Jail saved my life. I was very ill initially from the withdrawal of heroin, it was extremely painful. Once the physical withdrawal passed, I had intense drug dreams and flashbacks. I immersed myself in the 12-step program, and everyone said, “Keep coming back.” Well, I did, and I still attend AA/ NA meetings to this day. I learned to take what I need, and leave the rest. I learned that as long as I stayed clean and sober, I could rebuild my life.
And I did. I went from track marks and jail stints to a fulfilling life as a New York City chef with my wonderful wife and two kids, Eddie who is 6 and Liv who is 2.
PARTNERSHIP: Why are you excited to be working with us?
SCHENKER: Because I’m passionate about ensuring that people have the resources and the community around them to deal with this issue head-on. I want to see the shame eliminated from the families and individuals who struggle with drug addiction. Kids (and their parents) aren’t the sum total of the bad choices that they have made. We need competent mental health counselors who understand the complex issues of addiction today.
I remember being in a clinic when I was on methadone and someone asking me how a nice Jewish kid from a nice family ended up this way. Drugs don’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter how much socio-economic wealth you had or didn’t have. It doesn’t matter if you are Christian, Jewish or Muslim. It doesn’t matter if you attended an Ivy League university. We are all vulnerable to the effects of drug addiction.
PARTNERSHIP: How does your recovery impact your approach to parenting?
SCHENKER: I am very honest with my kids, in the most age appropriate way that I can be. Drugs and alcohol will be a part of our conversation once it’s more appropriate. I think it’s up to us to really educate our kids about the dangers, and the pitfalls, and also what it means to have an addiction. There’s definitely a biological component, so just as you would want to know if your parents have high blood pressure, it’s important that they understand that I struggled with addiction.
There’s also this overwhelming desire that parents have today to make their kids happy. This is not the paradigm by which my wife and I parent. Happiness, something so fickle and so different for each individual, must be cultivated from within. Our children will have to figure that part out on their own for themselves. What we can do, is to teach them how to lead moral and productive lives. That is what we strive for one day at a time.
PARTNERSHIP: Do you have any advice for parent with a child who is struggling with drugs or alcohol?
SCHENKER: I get asked this question quite often. The truth is that every family is different. I think the best thing a parent can do is have their eyes wide open. Denial is powerful. I remember something my parents told me: You can only blame yourself and feel guilty for so long. When I was out on the street, they decided to get into Al-Anon and work on themselves, so that when I came around, they too would be healthy. They had to learn all over again how to set healthy boundaries for themselves and what it means to be a parent. What they needed to provide and what they didn’t. Thank God they did, it saved my life.
PARTNERSHIP: What do you like to cook with/for your kids?
SCHENKER: We are a big barbeque family. Every Sunday we cook on an open outdoor grill. My son will collect the firewood from our yard. We will roast potatoes, fresh leeks, onions and whatever meat or fish looks most appealing that day: sausage, langoustines, octopus, a whole pig — you name it, we’ve done it.
The best thing as a parent is to watch your kids eat really good, nourishing food. I’ll throw together a salad with arugula, cashews, fresh ricotta cheese, mint and I’ll dress it with lemon juice and olive oil. My kids will actually eat it — it’s a win-win.