#MondayMotivation: Testing The Limits of Your Own Resilience

How the world of cooking has the power to both condemn and redeem.

March 27, 2017 ● 3 min read

As early as I can remember, I’ve been rambunctious.  

I always had to be the center of attention when I was a kid. I was always feeling a little out of control. But when I first stepped into a kitchen—I was able to focus. The craziness in my head, the anxieties, they would go away.  

As I got older, there was this power struggle between my passion for cooking and the regular pressures of a teenager kid — partying, girls, the social scene. So as I was experimenting with cooking at home, I was also experimenting with smoking pot and alcohol. I was only 12 years old. When you are young and impressionable, drugs are a quick fix — instant gratification for your anxieties.  

From age 13 to 18, I got a lot better at cooking. I started interning for some of the best chefs; but at the same time, I was partying harder and harder. Being a 16-year-old in a professional kitchen with 20-somethings doing cocaine and Xanax and Percocet, I got into that life pretty early. I remember my sister got her wisdom teeth out, so there was a bottle of Percocet lying around. I chewed up a few of those tablets and I remember the feeling I got — it was this peace for me. At first, I was able to get a job no matter what, even if I had done those bad things. I was even trying to get my GED as I did my restaurant work. But with that lifestyle, I hit rock bottom pretty quickly.  

I was homeless, smoking crack and shooting dope by age 20. But then, I remember very distinctly, something happened on July 4th, 2004. I was out on the street. At this point, I was so hardened to drugs I couldn’t keep a job. I was 140 pounds, I had track marks up my arms, I was sick, I didn’t want it anymore. I got pulled over by the police. As they put me in the cop car, I started smiling. The policeman goes, “Why are you smiling?” I respond, “Because I’m getting my life back.”

Going to jail was the best thing that could have happened at that time. I spent a while in there. I requested to get into kitchen duty, and that’s where it really flipped. I channeled my all-or-nothing desire for drugs into cooking. I was making food for 4,000 inmates across three different facilities. I wasn’t making anything fun — just bagging ham sandwiches, making hard boiled eggs — but I earned some respect in there and eventually got out of prison on work release, and got a job working at a tavern in Fort Lauderdale.  

I remember working the grill and feeling the rush, the sound of the tickets printing, and that’s when I was like, Holy shit. I know this is what I want to do. That desire to be a chef led me down a rough path initially, but it also ultimately saved my life. I worked my way up at that restaurant in Florida, then took a job with Gordon Ramsay in 2008, and eventually I opened my own restaurant, Recette, in New York’s West Village. We got two stars from the Times, I got married, I had a baby, I opened another restaurant, had another baby. I understand now that life is about the resilience of the human spirit, and not knowing how capable we are until we are pushed.

I wrote a book about my experiences, and to this day get letters from incarcerated people, from parents of addicts, from addicts themselves, thanking me for my candor and telling me how much it helped to read my story. Now, being in the restaurant industry—where things are always changing and evolving, and pipes are always bursting—nothing shocks me or rattles me. When you’ve been through the depths of hell, you learn to just deal with everything as it comes, one day at a time. The only choice I have is to charge forward. 

As told to Priya Krishna by Jesse Schenker