Top Manhattan chef reveals secret junkie past

150812 Jesse Schenker

Before opening acclaimed Manhattan restaurants Recette and the Gander, Jesse Schenker, 31, was a drug addict living on the streets. A winner of the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” in 2011, he has revealed his dark secret in his new memoir, “All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme,” out Tuesday. He tells about his addiction and recovery.

I was only 12 years old when I started using drugs. I was stealing my parents’ booze, skipping class and staying home to watch TV. Even then, my favorite shows, such as “Iron Chef Japan,” were always about cooking.

By 10th grade, I had moved to stronger substances. I’d dig through our medicine cabinets in search of NyQuil, Tylenol PM, Robitussin, oxycodone — anything to calm my racing mind. Meantime, I started cooking classes in high school. Aside from getting high, the only time I was truly carefree was in the kitchen. By the time I was 17, I could barely function without pills. I dropped out of school and began working at a cafe on Pompano Beach.

I’d been arrested before. But as soon as I was out, I was in search of a bigger and better high. I found it in heroin. After that, I could barely hold down a job, so I’d steal from whoever was naive enough to get close to me. I’d spend all the money on drugs, hanging out with dealers and hookers and having repeated run-ins with the law.

All the time, I’d plead with my increasingly desperate parents to give me money. But after a number of shameful incidents, including stealing my mom’s Rolex to buy crack, they were told to cut me off. With no cash to afford a room in even the seediest motel, I slept on piles of cardboard boxes behind a gas station.

They say you’ve got to hit rock bottom before you can accept help. I had a whole series of rock bottoms. There was the night I tricked a guy into thinking I’d give him oral sex for $50 before I robbed him. I waited for him to pull down his pants and then ran off with the money. Or the night a fellow addict got struck by a car. We ran off, leaving him lying in the road before the cops showed up. There was a warrant out for my arrest for violating the terms of my probation, and I couldn’t get caught.

But following a yearlong binge of drugs and debauchery, my arms full of track marks and oozing abscesses from dirty needles, it finally dawned on me that I was going to die. I felt exhausted and utterly alone. One day, sick from the withdrawal and needing to start the whole tortuous process again of getting high, I dropped to my knees and prayed.

Then I dialed my parents’ house. Mom answered, but when she heard my voice, she hung up. Right away I called back. This time Dad picked up. “Jesse,” he said. “I can’t help you. Go to the hospital.”

I sobbed uncontrollably. I was 21, homeless, broke, sick, wanted by the police and unwanted by my family.  The next day, I was looking for a hit in a bad part of town and was set upon by a gang of kids. Dripping blood, my clothes ripped and caked with dirt, I was picked up by a cop.

This time, as I sat in the back of the squad car, I gave him my real name. “There’s a warrant out for my arrest,” I told the officer. I knew I was going to jail. But instead of being scared, I felt peaceful, almost relieved. It was finally over.

I served six months and went through a painful detox. But my love for cooking was reignited when I was assigned kitchen detail. Leaving jail, I entered a halfway house, reunited with my long-suffering family and got a steady job as a line cook in a restaurant.

Things were finally getting into a healthy routine, so I took a trip to New York with my parents to visit my older sister, Joee. I begged them to take us to Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant at the London. After a mind-blowing meal, I asked to speak to the general manager. “I work at a restaurant in Miami, and I would do anything to work here,” I told him. At the airport, I got a call on my cell, asking me back for an interview. They invited me into the kitchen and I cooked like my life depended on it. I was hired. I dove headfirst into my career — working around the clock at Gordon Ramsay’s and apprenticing at other prestigious restaurants.

My friends and I started playing around on our off-nights, experimenting with our own menus. We eventually launched a supper club, Recette Private Dining, using a local bakery during its off-hours.

It was around that time that I reconnected with an old high school classmate named Lindsay, with whom I’d lost touch. She understood and respected everything I’d been through. It started off as a long-distance relationship, but she eventually moved East. With the support of Lindsay, and the help of my dad and some brave investors, I opened my first restaurant, Recette, in the West Village in 2009.

In March 2010, it got two stars from the New York Times. And three years ago, life came full circle when I won my favorite childhood cooking show, “Iron Chef America.” I opened my second restaurant, the Gander, earlier this year and I live in the West Village with Lindsay, whom I married in 2010, and our kids, ages 4 and 1. They mean everything to me.

I no longer drink, I also insist on a clean kitchen. Around a year ago, I discovered that a member of staff was an alcoholic who was stashing bottles of wine left over from the tables. I leveled with him and told him about my past. “You have a choice, just like I did,” I said. He was wide-eyed at my story. After that, there was a new respect between the two of us.

I still have drug dreams and sometimes catch myself peeking into friends’ medicine cabinets — old habits die hard — but I make sure to go to meetings regularly. These days, I know how to deal with uncomfortable feelings. I’ve come too far and have too much to lose to ever go down the destructive path again.

When I FaceTime with my son from my kitchen before he goes to sleep at night, I know that family is worth that daily fight to find balance.




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