When rising Seattle chef David Nichols started his culinary career in New York at the age of 21, he both worked and played hard — but the after hours lifestyle took its toll. “Everyone ate late, and at 2:00 a.m., you would go out and you’d party with your cooks and your servers,” he says. “It was just years and years of that, burning the candle at both ends.”
For Nichols, there was no “come to Jesus moment,” as he explains. But the physical and mental burdens became too much to bear, and he felt shame in being labeled as an alcoholic. “I just saw and noticed that I was kind of wasting away, and I didn’t want to do that anymore,” he says. Eventually, Nichols went to rehab and cleaned up. But he admits he still struggled to avoid falling “into deep holes” even years later, after he moved back to the Pacific Northwest.
Now, 10 months sober and running his exciting new Green Lake farm-to-table restaurant, Eight Row, Nichols feels that he’s found his footing — with help from a support group for hospitality industry workers who struggle with substance abuse. On November 4, he and manager Kate Willman launched a Seattle chapter of Ben’s Friends, a nonprofit organization founded three years ago by acclaimed South Carolina restaurateurs Mickey Bakst and Steve Palmer, who lost close friend and chef Ben Murray following a struggle with alcoholism. The group has since grown to 11 chapters across the country, with the latest effort in Seattle.
A restaurant-specific recovery support group means people can share similar experiences in their own sobriety journey. “We in the hospitality business are very tight,” says Willman, “We’re together for long hours every single day, and we’re able to identify with each other.”
Willman, who is seven years sober, says being in a late-night industry around alcohol all the time presents challenges. She felt isolated when she first stopped using. But having the built-in community through Ben’s Friends helps. Though the Seattle chapter is still in its early stages, Willman and Nichols say turnout has been good so far, with 37 people showing up to one recent meeting.
The organization is unaffiliated with Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous (AA), but the same spirit of mutual trust and creating a safe space is prevalent. As Nichols and Willman view it, some in AA may use Ben’s Friends as another level of support, and others who may not be comfortable with other programs or forms of therapy might find it to be a more welcoming environment. No matter what, Nichols says, the key to the program is to be open about substance abuse struggles in the restaurant industry: “I think talking about it is the best thing that can happen right now.”
For his part, Nichols still finds that he needs help “every day.” But he still doesn’t shy away from the aspects of his business that have caused problems in the past. “We still talk about booze, whether it’s the fresh hop beer dinner we’re launching or something else,” he says. “Actually, I get to have more fun now because I’m able to be so much more present.”
Ben’s Friends meets every Monday at 10 a.m. at Eight Row. Anyone from the food and beverage industry is welcome to attend. For those who would like to learn more, information on meeting times and contacts are listed in this flyer.