How Writing a Graphic Novel Saved My Life as a Chef
The lessons I learned from hitting rock bottom, and what they say about life in the restaurant industry
Having one’s mise en place under control is inseparable from being successful in a professional kitchen. Loosely translated as having “everything in its place,” the term reflects the spirit of working in a clean, timely, and organized fashion. But for our first five years at my Chicago restaurant, EL Ideas, the phrase held a second, more blasphemous meaning. For us it meant: “Let’s stop prepping and go do a shot.”
As EL quickly became known for the intimate interaction between diners and chefs, it became customary for us to do shots with our guests both during and after service. Many customers would bring bottles of bourbon as thanks to our cooking team, so there was never any shortage of booze. Pretty soon, we had a motto that if we opened a bottle, we’d finish it. There were nights where our team would do a shot per course on a 12-course tasting menu. I’d be so inebriated by dessert that I’d sloppily slur my description to the dining room. But it was fun, guests were loving it, and I felt like a rebel. Consistently earning a Michelin star and receiving James Beard nomination nods were all the enabling I needed.
The kitchen, like it is for many chefs, was where I ran away from my problems. From my divorce. From the pain of only seeing my daughters two days a week. From the failure of my food truck business. From no longer being the hot restaurant in town. From being knocked off the James Beard Award finalists list. From knowing deep down I was a terrible boss. From my struggles in connecting with my wife.
When you’re cooking you keep your head down and focus only on the act of chopping carrots or peeling potatoes. Everything else fades away…until it doesn’t. And that’s when I masked it with alcohol. One day you realize booze is just painting over dry combustible wood; you don’t see what’s underneath anymore, but it’s still there, ready to burn.
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” — Johann Hari
Within days of the incident, I enrolled myself in an anger management class. One of the first products of those sessions was prying myself away from the social media vortex. I was outspoken, snarky, wasn’t afraid to call out other people — only when people responded negatively or fought back, it left me an emotional wreck. It was an addiction in the clinical sense: I felt my thumbs reflexively opening up Twitter on my phone without any conscious thought. So where the Twitter icon was on my phone, I replaced it with a chess app. I taught myself how to play.
In this long process of taking my life back, I learned that drinking was only a symptom of my real issues, and most of those centered around being unhappy about feeling disconnected from myself. Underneath mountains of anger was just a sad and misunderstood kid. I can still enjoy a drink today, but it’s no longer anywhere near what it was in the past, and no longer as a means of escaping my pain.
If I had to attribute one thing in reversing my downward spiral, it was discovering meditation. A year earlier if you told me I would meditate for more than two hours every day, I would have dismissed it as hippy-dippy nonsense. But I tried it and stuck with it. First a few minutes of controlled breathing, then five, then 20, and now more than an hour at a time. The more I did it, the more I was able to reclaim control of my emotions. Meditation does not make your struggles disappear; it only helps to make sense of them. I now view much of life as something I have to deal with in between meditations.
Over the next few years, I effectively disappeared from the Chicago dining scene, quietly cooking at my restaurant because that’s what paid the bills. I avoided media attention and did few events. Throughout it all, I wrote. Writing was the creative outlet that allowed me to find that inner voice. For almost two years, I wrote 90,000 words in memoir form. It told the stories and lessons learned from an imperfect life and career, but it felt terribly overblown and highbrow. Then, during a family reunion in 2015, I met my cousin Tim Foss for the first time in decades. I learned that he was a comic book artist, and always in search of stories to tell. He learned that I was in the process of rebuilding my life. What if?
Every morning I was up by 4 a.m. I meditated, played a few games of online chess, and sketched out a story. In my head, fairyland characters in the form of a white Alba truffle goddess danced with deceased chef heroes of mine…cut to a scene of me hanging onto a rickety boat in a violent stormy sea of anger…then Jon Favreau from “Chef” even shows up at some point. I’m certain it was all a metaphor for something deeply ingrained and kept behind a cage. Month after month, Tim and I traded storyboards and dialogue, trying to make sense of it all.
I still don’t know how for sure how Tim and I got there, but three and a half years later, it all finally came together. A graphic novel, called “Life in EL,” is the end product of a lifetime of lessons learned in the restaurant world and in life. I call it an autobiographical culinary fantasy, where the protagonist loses touch with reality and is saved by two chefs, inspired by Jean-Louis Palladin and Charlie Trotter. As I write this, the first shipment of books arrived hours earlier. It feels hefty in the hands, but between the covers it weighs a metric ton, containing all my triumphs, neuroses, and creative energy laid bare. It was the hardest, most time-consuming, and painful thing I ever saw through from start to finish. But more than the critic’s reviews and Michelin star, this book I’m holding is the proudest thing — other than my daughters — I’ll ever create.
It is my hope that “Life in EL” serves as a call to arms for my fellow cooks:
- It is time that we as a restaurant industry stop the abusive and cutthroat environment of the professional kitchen. The caricature of the screaming chef existed long before “Kitchen Confidential” and Gordon Ramsay, but the perpetuation of the abusive kitchen in popular culture did us no favors. Sure, it was funny and entertaining to watch, but in hindsight, it was excruciating to experience. So to all the young restaurant cooks, on behalf of chefs of my generation: I’m sorry. Many of us were brought up in an abusive culture, and when it came time to lead, we mimicked what we knew. It’s not masculine. It’s a cover for our own vulnerabilities.
- We need to do everything we can to achieve some semblance of work-life balance, especially if we’re parents. I write this graphic novel for all the forgotten chef’s spouses. When others find out you’re married to a cook, their reaction of “Oh, it must be so nice to be cooked for!” is one of the biggest lies sold to the public. Most partners of chefs cook dinner for themselves, alone. (This is why the divorce rate among chefs is so high.) And God help you if you’re a parent, because we’re not around during traditional parenting hours. To be honest, I don’t know what the solution is, because your situation will be different from mine. The only thing we can do as both parents and working chefs is to be aware that a problem exists. Only then can the potential to make changes be possible.
- You can’t go through life nurturing others but not yourself. It’s funny and it’s not funny: To be a chef is to serve the public and bring them pleasure. It’s a profession of giving, giving, giving. One day you wake up and realize you’re an empty vessel. You become a broken shell of a person, depleted of emotional and psychic energy. So chefs must make time for self-care. For me, meditation has been a godsend, and there is no cheaper way to begin rewiring your brain in a constructive way.
Do I have aspirations of getting rich from this graphic novel? No. I’ll likely never see back the printing costs and hundreds of hours spent. But that’s not the point. My goal is for chefs to know there’s a better path forward, and for the dining public to see that beyond the intricate plates and luxury experience is often something that’s a lot less glamorous. Mostly, “Life in EL” is my apology and my repentance, a piece of work I hope will tell the world that I’m trying my damndest every single day to make things better.