#MondayMotivation: To Hell and Back

How Speedy Romeo's Justin Bazdarich battled his demons and found the Pizza Promised Land.

February 23, 2017 ● 3 min read

I dropped out of college in 1998.

I was at one of the biggest party schools in the country, and I wasn’t the best student. I needed money to pay the bills, so I started working at a restaurant called the Pita Jungle. The kitchen was tiny, people were always running around in circles — but what I did enjoy was after work, when we would all go as a group to the bar together. Then the hard drugs started to come in. It was just part of the lifestyle.  

It started with just a little bit of this, a little bit of that — that’s how all these addiction stories start. I went to work at a steakhouse because I was a regular there and they gave out two free shift drinks every night, and that’s when it started to get out of control. I knew I needed to get out of Arizona to get away from the drugs, so I moved to a small town in Texas to work at a restaurant of this woman named Marie Claire. But the same thing happened. I found everything I needed in Austin, which was a short ride away — I would go there on all my days off to party. That’s the disease: it’s so hard to get away from it and act like it doesn’t have a hold over you.   

Marie Claire gave me a week’s vacation, so I went back to Arizona and took Valium, did cocaine, and drank for a week straight. I didn’t come back to work. I had to call my parents to tell them I was broke; so they came, we drove to Texas, picked up my stuff, and I left town. I moved to New York to start culinary school, but again, I quickly went back to partying. I broke up with my girlfriend at the time over it. Even in the fine dining kitchens, 80 percent of people did drugs. I was the worst in the room.  

I thought that maybe if I owned my own restaurant — if people’s lives were in my hands — that would save me. But it was the exact opposite. I designed a kitchen with a bar attached to it, so I didn’t even need to leave the kitchen to get a beer. I would go on benders for three days straight and not come back to my apartment.    

One day, I re-connected with one of my best friends from growing up, and he told me he had been sober for 12 years. He recommended that I do a 12-step program. At first, I never went. Then it got so bad that I stopped coming to my own restaurant. My dad had to bail me out of jail. I could either just live the rest of my life doing drugs, or I could go to rehab. I chose the latter, and it was the best decision I have ever made. That’s where I was exposed to my first 12-step meeting, and from there it stuck — it had to. There was a point in which my drug use was so bad I thought I was going to die. If I hadn’t gone to rehab — who knows what would have happened?

The recovery period was hard. I had been smoking weed every day for 20 years. Then there’s was progression of not drinking, going to meetings, and finding habits like meditation and healthy eating to replace the bad ones. Now, I am celebrating five years of Speedy Romeo, my restaurant, and it is just crushing right now. We opened another location in the Lower East Side, and we’re expanding it to add 60 seats. I’m engaged to get married. All of that is because I am sober.

The best part of sticking around with recovery is that shit just keeps getting better and better. There are ups and downs when you are sober, you have to feel all of the feelings, but overall — life’s great. 

As told to Priya Krishna | Original photo via Gabi Porter