Ten years ago, Jesse Schenker sat bloodied in the back of a police car, with track marks in his arm and any number of illicit substances swirling around his system. Now, he’s the executive chef and owner of two Manhattan restaurants, Recette and The Gander. It’s not been an easy run. Schenker’s new memoir, All or Nothing, chronicles his rise and fall. It recounts his younger years in Florida and how, as a frenzied, fidgety kid he fell into a world of hard drugs and homelessness before cleaning up and following his one true passion: food. It’s a visceral, unflinching story that stays with you like the palm-blistering burn of a grabbed skillet, winding through heroin dens and halfway houses, police cruisers and prison cells before ending up in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and, finally, Schenker’s own.
Larceny, crack use and sex make more appearances in the book than foie gras and ramps, but throughout the engaging memoir food — as well as Schenker’s innate passion for it — is the driving, redemptive force. We spoke to Schenker about writing the book, his unrelenting hustle and the lasting beauty of a perfectly pared apple.
Why did you want to write this book?
I wanted to share hope. I’d share my stories in meetings where ten or 15 or 50 people in would hear it. Maybe it would touch one. I have a platform now and I thought if more people like me would come forward, we’d have a better chance of helping more addicts. When I was 18 or 20 and working in restaurants, I followed everything chefs did. If there was an All or Nothing for me to read maybe things would’ve been different, maybe I wouldn’t have gone down that far.
What was the process like?
It was difficult, but cathartic — something I really needed to get done. What I did was record myself talking and then transcribe it. Reading it back would spark up a lot of feelings. In the book I mention the point in my life when I started to actually begin the process of writing this book and how I became a hypochondriac and would get very anxious. I don’t think that was a coincidence. Writing the book helped me in some ways mourn the loss of my addiction and also realize that I’m still an addict, I just switched substances.
Yeah. Now, it's just all about the kitchen. My days are spent tweaking everything – bouncing around from my chefs de cuisine of both restaurants, to my mangers, to my publicity people, to my wine directors, my event manager, to this one, to that one, to looking at the QuickBooks with my wife, to my accountant. It’s all-consuming. And I’m always thinking of more. So when I get home and I’m thinking in bed, my brain just goes 1,000,000 miles an hour. Some would say I’m always adding something to my plate, some would say that I’m just being a prudent businessman.
What would you say?
It’s a combination of both. I’m very humble about this and I think it's very important not only to my recovery but to my life in general, but I didn’t get this far by not being prudent. Luck will only take you so far, but it’s more than luck. It’s been decisions I’ve made and the hard work I’ve done.
Your extreme behavior is the driving force of both your previous drug problem and your success.
You know, I went to see a few therapists when I was a kid. But when I was 16 or 17, my parents sent me to this new guy because they knew I was doing more than just pot, that I was taking oxytocin and other things. And I remember this guy looked at my arms and inspected me and he obviously knew I was shooting drugs. This therapist told my parents, “Your kid might be doing drugs now, but when he flips the switch, I know he’s going to run in the other direction; he’s going to put all the energy into something positive.”
Work has always been your sanctuary. In the book you described the rare calm you’d feel working in a restaurant as like taking a Xanax.
Totally. Every kitchen I ever worked in was a sanctuary. After recovery, all I did was work. When I was working at the Ramsay, I would work like seven doubles for a month straight, have a day off, and then go back in and work another six days. I could be in the kitchen and preparing food for people and no matter what in that hour or 20 minutes time comes to a halt.
What is it about food that calms you?
The first memory I really have is of my Nana Mae, and there was something in the way that she cooked food for me. It was more symbolic and less analytical. I don’t know how to explain it: The way she held an apple with a paring knife, the way she fed us. It was a nurturing thing and it stuck with my forever. And I always wanted to prepare food. I would prepare meals and cook things even though I was fucked up out of my brains.
And now today you’re cooking for hundreds of people a night and have two incredibly well received restaurants.
I’m just blessed. I’ve got a beautiful wife, two amazing kids, two restaurants and my dreams came true. I never could’ve imagined this. If you told me a year ago, I’d be here today I wouldn’t believe you. If you told me two years ago where I’d be in a year, I wouldn’t believe you. I don’t know, I’m just happy.
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