busy kitchen

Daniel Cataldo grew up surrounded by drugs. He began using in middle school, and when he started working in the restaurant industry, he found himself surrounded by heavy drugs and alcohol. He jumped right into the familiar territory.

“I couldn’t afford my apartment anymore because I was paying for drugs,” says Cataldo, who works as executive chef at the forthcoming Chow Grill in Elk River, Minnesota. “A friend let me sleep in an extra room and I was freeloading. I was spending so much on drugs and alcohol, I was just eating one meal at work or eating out of garbage cans.”

But the addiction went beyond a lack of money or food.

“I was really thinking about suicide,” Cataldo says. “It became heavier and heavier.”

He’s not alone. According to the most recent statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the accommodations and food industries are number one when it comes to substance use disorder among full-time employees in 2011. It’s no secret that the food industry has a party reputation, and between shift drinks and patrons buying shots for staff, it can be nearly impossible to stay sober.

Veteran clinician Jordan Hansen, a program manager for addiction resource company Hazelden Publishing, says that hospitality industry workers make up a “significant portion” of the people served in center’s treatment programs.

Daniel Cataldo
Daniel Cataldo

“The work environments present some unique challenges for people trying to live a life of recovery,” Hansen says. “It isn’t uncommon for people to have their social life revolve around their place of employment. There seems to be more tolerance for people using or drinking on the job among these types of settings.”

And because restaurant employees can come in contact with so many people with addiction issues, the sense of “normal” can become distorted.

“I remember thinking nothing of somebody using cocaine to get through a shift or somebody drinking at work. It was just another Tuesday,” Hansen says, recalling the days he also worked in the industry. “It turns out that most people don’t consume chemicals the way I, and my friends and coworkers, did.”

At his lowest, Cataldo was one of those employees.

He made “deals” with himself – he’d stop drinking heavy booze and just stick to painkillers and beer. Or just do prescription drugs and alcohol instead of smoking crack. Eventually, he said, it came down to two choices: kill himself or find help.

He called into work and told his sous chef he wasn’t coming back. Three weeks later, after bingeing on alcohol and drugs, not eating, and wildly hallucinating, he called his mother and his girlfriend and said, “I need help. I need to go to the hospital.”

He found his way to an inpatient rehab clinic and spent 45 days learning about his disease and realizing he wasn’t alone. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he said.

Today, Cataldo is in the midst of opening a new restaurant as an executive chef and said it’s the most stressful thing he’s ever done. But he’s still deeply committed to maintaining his three years of sobriety.

“All the advice given to me in rehab and by my sponsor was, ‘You need to change your lifestyle, your friends and your environment.’ But this is the only thing I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t know what else to do,” he said.

Cataldo says he has been honest about his struggles.

“I’m open about the fact that I’m out of rehab, that I’m an addict. I told my bosses and managers,” he says. “I made clear that I’ll never do it again. It ruined my life. It had such a negative effect on the people around me, people I care about. I neglected people who care about me and I’ll learn to repay that my entire life.”

One of the most effective ways Cataldo has found to keep his focus? Connecting with others in the industry facing the same challenges.

Obediah O’Connor, executive chef at the Bad Waitress in northeast Minneapolis, has been working in the industry for about 15 years. He, too, has struggled with addiction fueled by the restaurant industry lifestyle.

“I started as a line cook and fell in love with it and the lifestyle that comes with it,” O’Connor says. “It wasn’t until later that I fell in love with cooking. It was more the camaraderie. I latched on to the crazy pirate-type punk rockers that the kitchens were made of.”

Obediah O’Connor
Obediah O’Connor

Eventually, the lifestyle caught up with O’Connor. He began drinking heavily and lost a job. While unemployed, he lived in a house with 15 people and partied nonstop for months.

“I had a really bad evening I don’t remember. I woke up the next morning and decided enough was enough,” he says. “All my buddies were like, ‘That will never happen. You can’t do that!’ And that was the driving force for me. I thought, ‘I’ll show you. I’ll be sober.’”

O’Connor started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and became dedicated to his sobriety. When he felt he was well enough, he got back into the kitchen.

“I remained sober for two years after that,” he says. “I occupied my time. I played on the Minnesota Men’s Roller Derby team for several years, and that really helped me figure out who I was as a person. It was about the team, less about me. That transfers into the way I work in kitchens, the way I work in life. Everything is easier and better if everyone is working toward the same goal.”

In that spirit, in July, O’Connor started an online support group called Last Call, a coalition of industry insiders committed to successfully maintaining both their careers and their sobriety.

“I’ve got years of AA under my belt, but they don’t understand what it’s like to work in the service industry,” he says. “This isn’t AA. It’s not a meeting; it’s not treatment. It’s for anyone seeking a different way of life. Let’s get coffee. Let’s hang out.”

There are nearly 100 people participating in the Facebook group, and O’Connor is slowly growing the in-person meetings in a variety of locations.

“I figured it would be small at first because not a lot of people are talking about it,” he says. “Every time I’ve gone, there’s been at least one other person there. It’s a shoulder to lean on and someone to talk to. We stayed sober together.”

Cataldo, a Last Call participant, agrees. “We’re already black sheep as addicts. We work long, crazy hours, and what do we do after hours? It made so much sense to me. Cooks, servers, managers – we have to turn somewhere. Late night meetings, during night service – you’ve gotta do what works.”

Despite setbacks and re-starts in their sober journeys, both O’Connor and Cataldo fight every day to advance their restaurant careers while maintaining sobriety.

They want everyone in the industry struggling with addiction to know they’re not alone. “There are many of us out there and all you need to do is reach out your hand,” O’Connor says. “I’m not going to kick the door down and say you need to be sober. Once you realize it, you’re not alone. There are other people successfully doing this – a month, a couple months, years. People in this industry at all levels. We’re around it all day long and it’s not going away if you truly love what you’re doing.”

Cataldo agrees that taking the first step and reaching out is the hardest part. “I was a badass cook, but I was afraid to go into that room for my first AA meeting. There are so many excuses not to show up,” he says. “But there’s no stronger medicine than two addicts sharing their struggles. Isolation is one of the biggest enemies.”

For addiction assessments and resources, visit HazeldenBettyFord.org or speak with a professional by calling 1-866-261-3734.

Have you struggled with sobriety while working in the industry? Share your story here.

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Lynne owns Social Visibility Consulting where she is a writer, content strategist and social media specialist working with businesses and consumer brands. She has a degree in journalism and more than 15 years of experience creating and sharing stories. Lynne is on an endless quest for restaurants around the world with unique takes on simple food.