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Chef Ed Scarpone was running the kitchen at DBGB DC when he learned that his former sous chef had overdosed on heroin at the age of 29. “I got the call in the middle of service,” Scarpone says. “I didn’t believe it, to be honest with you. It’s so sudden. It’s like a heart attack. You don’t get to say goodbye.”
Scarpone first met Eric Evasic in New York City, where they were both working in the kitchen at Café Boulud. They became friends—the kind who support each other like family. When Scarpone moved to D.C. to work at DBGB DC, Evasic followed. The two moved in together, and once again worked together. But it wasn’t long before Scarpone felt he had to confront Evasic.
“We found out he was stealing money from other sous chefs,” Scarpone says. “One day I could tell he was high, and I said, ‘OK, we’re going to watch the tapes and see who’s stealing the money.’ And he said, ‘It’s me. I relapsed.’”
Addiction has been such a persistent problem in the restaurant industry—and for so long—that chefs, bartenders, even owners, are starting to wave their white flags. They are increasingly acknowledging that drug and alcohol abuse is far too ingrained in the culture and is a complex issue whose solution is elusive.
An opioid crisis has made the menu of drugs more lethal than ever before, commanding fresh attention. November 2016 was the deadliest month for drug-related deaths the District has seen in five years. Thirty-two people suffered opioid-related deaths that month, according to the D.C. Office of the Medical Examiner. And the problem has been building—there were 407 opioid-related deaths over the past three years.
It’s not just opium-derived heroin that’s killing people. Opioids are a broad class of substances that include medically prescribed OxyCodone and synthetic surgical anesthetics like Fentanyl that can be many times stronger than heroin. In 2016, D.C. medical examiners found 452 different opioids in the bodies of the 210 people who died of drug overdoses, nearly triple the amount from 2015.
Neighboring states, where many D.C. restaurant employees live, also suffer from the epidemic. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in March because 1,468 Maryland residents died from heroin or Fentanyl overdoses in the first nine months of 2016, a 62 percent increase from 2015. And in Virginia, there were 26 heroin overdoses in Alexandria alone in 2016.
Chef Robert Wiedmaier, the restaurateur behind Marcel’s, Brasserie Beck, Mussel Bar, and others, has been working in and leading area kitchens since the 1980s. “Maybe I sound like an old man and this is just a new wave of drugs, but it’s bad,” he says. “It’s horrible. I’ve never seen it like this.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Wiedmaier says, “everyone was blowing coke up their noses late [at] night to get energized.” That drug culture has since changed. “It started around 2005,” he recalls. “They started prescribing opioids to these parents, and I think a lot of kids got into that stuff, and now it’s rampant. It’s no longer the bikers, gangsters, and low lives. Drugs are hitting across the board.”
Like Wiedmaier, Restaurant Eve’s Cathal Armstrong has been a pillar in the D.C. restaurant scene for decades and says that it wasn’t uncommon in the past for chefs to do cocaine in the kitchen. But when chefs began making their way onto the small screen with the Food Network and shows like Top Chef, they became more like rock stars than hidden, tattooed talent. It’s now the norm for chefs to work the dining room like the guests of honor at a wedding.
“When I started, you didn’t have to talk to anyone,” Armstrong says. “Now we have relationships with guests we never had before and a relationship with press we didn’t have before.” As a result, chefs aren’t using cocaine on the clock as often. But an increasing number of cooks and bartenders are turning to heroin and prescription painkillers—drugs often injected, smoked, or swallowed in private.
While the drugs themselves may have changed, underlying conditions that fuel addiction in the industry have not. Some chefs work 15-hour shifts six days a week and aren’t able to take vacation, leaving them with no escape from high-pressure, physically demanding work.
Then there’s the reality that it’s often de facto permissible to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol at work. Restaurants are in the business of intoxication, after all.
And even when higher-ups recognize an employee has a problem, they sometimes turn a blind eye because they can’t afford to lose a worker in a competitive, rapidly expanding restaurant scene. In the past two years, 500 restaurants opened in the D.C. area, according to Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
Bub & Pop’s co-owner Jonathan Taub stared down this exact dilemma the morning one of his dishwashers showed up high. “We knew he had an alcohol problem, but I could tell he wasn’t drinking because I was checking by smelling his breath,” Taub explains. “But one day he came in and he looked straight doped out.”
Taub recounts that two hours into the shift, his employee pulled out a bag of heroin. “I didn’t know what to do because I was in a bad situation. If I tell him to get out of the kitchen, I’m short-handed for the day. But if I leave him in the kitchen, what am I doing?” Taub let him work because he needed the help, but by 11 a.m. the dishwasher was nowhere to be found. He’d passed out on a bench behind the sandwich shop and never returned to work.
It’s possible for a restaurant employee to use heroin and still function on the job, at least for a while, according to Billie Tyler, a registered nurse. She’s been involved with the addiction community most of her life, and she offers a needle exchange for addicts and others out of the back of her Honda.
“I’m seeing younger people use and it’s a wide range now, not just people who have been using heroin for years and years,” she says. “In the ’80s and ’90s, if you were a female addict, you were double shamed, but now it’s become sort of acceptable.”
She says that when people are on heroin their eyes can roll back, their voices can get raspy, and they can have a hard time getting started when answering a question. “They look sleepy, but they’re fully functioning,” she says. “In an environment where they’re constantly moving around, it would be difficult to tell unless there was a slow period that wasn’t very physical.”
Harper McClure, former BRABO executive chef, has noticed an uptick in heroin use across multiple pay grades. “More and more young kids have these closet addictions,” he says.
“We’re going to see more of it before we see less because it’s so cheap.” A line cook who makes $600 week can actually afford heroin, McClure says, estimating that a hit costs about $10.
Alcohol too is cheap and readily available. While opioids are more lethal, alcohol is still the substance that plagues the restaurant industry the most, according to both Armstrong and Wiedmaier, who calls “alcohol just as bad as heroin.”
Despite catching an employee “with something completely illegal in the basement burning something on a spoon,” Armstrong says, “I’ve met alcoholic after alcoholic in our industry for years and years. So many that have worked for me have had DUIs.” When someone no-shows for a shift, Armstrong calls his favorite police officers. Then he calls the hospital.
“The problem with alcohol is you don’t even know you’re addicted to it,” he says. “But if you’re using it to relieve stress regularly, you’re addicted to it.” The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines “heavy drinking” or “at-risk” drinking to be more than 14 drinks a week for men and more than seven for women. Hospitality industry professionals subscribe to different norms.
Laura Habberstad, who bartends at District ChopHouse, describes a recent date: “We had a cocktail, a glass of wine with dinner, and then went somewhere else and had two more shots of whiskey,” she says. “That’s nothing abnormal for an evening.” Coupled with the bottle of wine she drank the night before, she says she knows she consumed nearly a month’s worth of alcohol in two days. “But would I ever consider that I have an addiction problem? I would say no because I tested it. I went a month without a drink, so I could tell myself I’m choosing this because I enjoy it.”
Meanwhile, Habberstad is in mourning. Three months ago, her close friend and fellow ChopHouse bartender José Alberto Molina Duran Jr. was found dead in his apartment in Northeast D.C. “He loved, he loved hard,” Habberstad says. “He had great energy, was super warm and giving, and when he looked at you and smiled, you felt like he was looking at you—smiling for you.”
She insists that José (who she calls “Berto”) was not into drugs, and his brother Xavier Duran says the same. “José didn’t like to party like that,” Xavier says. “He drank. I’ll even go as far as to say he drank excessively, and he was a weed smoker. But for us to get that call and be told it was a drug overdose, we were like, ‘That’s not possible.’”
Habberstad speculates that José got a bad batch of a club drug like Molly. His roommate was also found dead early in the morning in their home.
“This could happen to the person who decided for one night to let loose and pop a pill and immediately die, as opposed to the next person who could be struggling with the issue [long term],” Xavier says.
Because the restaurant industry is known for employing partiers, bartenders and chefs are slipped things all the time, even from customers.
At a Southeast Asian restaurant, a diner tipped a managing partner, who happens to be recovering addict, a vial of cocaine after the Women’s March on Washington. We’ll call him “Larry” to protect his identity. “It was the first time I was tipped in drugs without asking for it,” he says. “It crossed a lot of lines, and had I not been strong in my recovery it could have been devastating.”
Larry first used cocaine when he was 18 and working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Things spiraled out of control from there, and he eventually got in enough legal trouble that he had to stop using hard drugs. While he tried opioids, he’s grateful he got clean before the especially lethal drugs skyrocketed in popularity.
“It used to be that if you had a drug problem with cocaine, you could recover and be back in the industry after a couple of weeks,” he explains. “It’s a lot harder to come back from an opiate overdose than it is from blow. People are falling off the radar. They’re just disappearing.”
When Larry quit, he didn’t do it cold turkey. He turned to alcohol as a crutch. “When you transfer from coke and crystal meth to alcohol, what’s seven or eight shots of Jameson compared to an eight ball?”
A lot, it turns out. Larry’s alcohol abuse got so bad he was bleeding from his tear ducts because he was going into liver failure. “I was drinking myself to death, and in this industry nobody batted an eye,” he says. “I was functional. I did the job. We made money, so no one cared. As long as you get the job done and you’re a trouper, that’s all that matters.”
Today, Larry has been drug-free for nine years and alcohol-free for four. After his marriage nearly fell apart, he went to rehab at KOLMAC, a private facility with six locations in the region. But because Larry didn’t have health insurance, he had to pay out of pocket. The detox, monitoring, and group therapy that got him clean cost about $10,000.
Afterward, Larry returned to his restaurant job, but he doesn’t recommend that path. “I’d strongly advocate getting out because this industry is probably one of the worst to be in for addiction,” he says. He recommends that cooks and servers who need to get clean run from the industry and don’t look back.
“Your job is nothing compared to staying alive.”
But sometimes quitting doesn’t feel like an option, especially when you’ve invested money in the industry. Such is the case for Kyle Henderson, who is currently working at Indique and making his second attempt at beating alcohol addiction. His father, who has been sober for 20 years, wants him to change careers so he’s not constantly surrounded by booze. Henderson refuses because he owes $25,000 in loans from culinary school and loves the hospitality business, even though he recognizes its toxicity.
“It’s high stress and long hours,” says Henderson, who has worked both as a chef and in front-of-the-house jobs, including as a bartender. “There, you’re just around people who drink all the time, do drugs all the time.” In the kitchens where he has most recently worked, he says he’s spotted some coke and a lot of heroin.
“It’s only going to get worse in D.C. before it gets better,” Henderson says. The more restaurants there are, the more hours people will be expected to work. In a past job, “I had to request off six months in advance for an Argentina trip, and I still didn’t get it,” he explains.
Restaurants can feel like the most “at-will” workplaces—where cooks, servers, and bartenders fear they’re instantly replaceable. This contributes to addicts being terrified to come forward.
That’s why Henderson is advocating for more addiction treatment and recovery resources specific to the restaurant industry. He’s even taking the initiative to start an Alcoholics Anonymous group for restaurant workers. “It has to happen. Otherwise, nothing is going to change,” he says.
Together with a slate of partners, Scott Magnuson started such an organization in 2012 called Restaurant Recovery. Magnuson was an owner of The Argonaut, and in his 17-year hospitality career in D.C., he has also worked at Townhouse Tavern, The Oval Room, and Finn McCool’s.
The short-term goal of Restaurant Recovery is fundraising, according to Magnuson’s wife Shaaren Pine, its executive director. She says long-term, they dream of creating treatment programs and centers specifically geared to the industry professional. But while its website lists helpful resources, meetings have ceased and the organization is largely dormant.
One of the reasons Restaurant Recovery is in a holding pattern is because Magnuson flew to Florida for rehab in December and is still there. He’d previously completed treatment there in 2011, emerging sober and determined to pay it forward. “Me and my wife, we wrote a book and started Restaurant Recovery. Everything was going well,” Magnuson says.
But when things got tense leading up to The Argonaut’s sudden closing in July, he relapsed. “I feel like I was such a voice when I got sober the first time,” he says. But then, “I burned a lot of bridges.”
“It destroyed my marriage, made me a shitty father, a shitty husband,” he says. The first time he went through treatment, his daughter was too young to understand. Now she does.
Magnuson was first exposed to alcohol and marijuana at age 14 when he took a job washing dishes at a restaurant. After graduating high school, the drinking accelerated and he says he started using cocaine in the late 1990s. Then he discovered prescription drugs.
Being in restaurants from an early age fed Magnuson’s addiction. “You get sucked into this underworld you think is normal, but it’s not,” he says. “You never think your problem is that bad because you can always find someone worse to compare yourself to.”
“What we noticed is there’s no place in the industry to get help, nobody to turn to,” Magnuson says. “We need to talk about it. Treatment is not a bad thing. There’s nothing shameful, nothing wrong with saying you need help.”
But even when a line cook is brave enough to reach out to a sous chef or an executive chef, there’s a disconnect between wanting to help and knowing how to help. “People immediately involved in the industry don’t know how to deal with addiction problems if they’ve never been around it before,” explains Ed Scarpone, who is now the executive chef at Fiola.
Almost all restaurants are small businesses operating on slim margins, and they typically don’t have human resource departments that could advise on how to get someone into a Narcotics Anonymous meeting or explain what’s covered by insurance should an employee have it. (The Affordable Care Act currently requires all plans on the marketplace to include substance abuse treatment.)
Robert Lannan, a hospitality industry attorney, says restaurant employees battling substance abuse should find out if they’re entitled to time off for treatment through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or similar state laws. Under the federal FMLA, only employers who have employed at least 50 employees for each working day of at least 20 weeks of the current or previous year are required to comply. An employee is entitled to medical leave under the federal FMLA if he or she has performed at least 1,250 hours of service for such an employer over at least a year.
State laws may provide greater benefits to employees, and legislation pending in the District of Columbia and Maryland may entitle some employees to payment during some portion of their medical leave, according to Lannan.
The medical leave “has to be to address a ‘serious health condition,’ and the Labor Department has recognized substance addiction as [a serious health condition] if certain conditions are met,” Lannan says.
He recommends that people struggling with addiction go first to a doctor, and later approach their employers requesting leave, rather than inform employers of their conditions during or after unexcused absences. “Generally, you can’t fire someone for being sick,” Lannan says. He adds that FMLA laws stipulate that employees have a right to return to work.
Grace Caulfield, the clinical director of the Silver Spring location of KOLMAC, says quite a few of her patients are in the industry. KOLMAC’s six rehab centers treat 3,000 patients annually, a third of whom are opioid addicts.
The outpatient program often starts with detoxing patients with the aid of medications that help alcoholics get through withdrawal or keep opioid addicts safe as they quit. Then it’s onto the Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), which involves group therapy and education sessions that start at three hours per day and taper down over eight to 12 weeks. There’s also continuing care to help patients maintain their sobriety after graduating.
KOLMAC accepts most health insurance, but some restaurant industry employees have had to self-pay, as Larry did. Without detox services, IOP alone runs $5,460 for eight weeks, according to Caulfield.
The D.C. government is another resource for people looking for help. Dr. Tanya A. Royster, the Director for the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, says the city contracts with about 30 providers in the community. Her office staffs a 24-hour help line and an assessment and referral center located at 75 P St. NE.
Royster’s department also has a mobile assessment and referral center that visits 10 locations throughout the city every week. “If we hear from police that people in this park are having trouble, we have the capacity to respond,” she says.
“When people call the access help line or come into the center, we evaluate whether they have Medicaid or other insurance, but we also have tax dollars to put toward it,” Royster explains. “We don’t want anyone turned away if they can’t get health insurance.”
The city announced in January that it would partner with faith-based leaders to promote understanding of mental health and substance abuse disorders and encourage treatment. Royster says that because many addicts confide in a pastor, training the religious community on where to steer people is a good investment. At least 23 religious institutions are participating in the program.
Another way to come at the issue is through harm reduction. HIPS, an organization that promotes the health, rights, and dignity of drug users, teaches opioid users who inject their drugs to “test their shot,” encourages people to shoot up in pairs or groups, and offers needle exchange and emergency medications such as Naloxone for people who are overdosing. Billie Tyler, the needle exchange nurse, used to work at HIPS and also carries the emergency medicine as a means of harm reduction.
Then there are grassroots efforts that come from within the restaurant community. Every year on social media, veteran pastry chef Alex Levin publishes the number of years he’s maintained his sobriety. Last year that status read 13.
“I do that in part because it’s an achievement, but the larger part is that every single time I find at least one or two people that reach out to me that need help,” he says. “Sometimes you just need someone to tell you what to do. Chefs are good at that.”
He’s currently the executive pastry chef for Michael Schlow’s restaurants, which include Alta Strada, Conosci, Casolare, Tico, and The Riggsby.
Levin calls restaurants a set-up for alcoholism and addiction, but has decided to be an open book to build awareness that there are a lot of sober people in restaurants who have figured out how to have happy, well-balanced lives.
He found success by thinking of addiction as a life-threatening allergy. “If someone has a peanut allergy, there’s no way you can get them to eat a peanut because they don’t like the consequences of going to the hospital to deal with it,” he says. “For people who have a problem, once they have one drink they can’t seem to stop.”
The “ism,” in alcoholism, Levin says, is a physical disease that makes addicts incapable of moderation. “Every disease has the same goal, which is to try to kill you,” he says. “Everything deserves a fair fight. … I’ve never met someone unable to recover when they’re willing to be honest about what’s going on and take proper steps to attack the issue head on.”
What recovery efforts can’t solve requires systemic change within the restaurant industry. But there are no quick fixes for low wages, long hours, limited time off, shifts that end during prime late-night party hours, or work environments that feel too competitive for workers to come forward. But there is one thing restaurants and bars can do immediately—confront open intoxication at work.
Lannan says the best way to accomplish this is through an employee handbook stating that being intoxicated on the job is a terminable offense. He suggests all staff sign and review the handbook periodically. Lannan adds that, to avoid discrimination, the policy must be enforced uniformly from the big-name executive chef down to cooks and bussers.
Osteria Morini, where Levin last worked, had such a policy. “If anyone drank on the job, they’d be written up or fired,” he says. “When we communicated this policy, it was a big shift for a lot of people who came from other places.”
Larry adds that a huge percentage of long-term industry professionals will actually move to restaurants where the behavior of drinking on the job is tolerated, even if the pay is less. “It’s an actual job benefit, the same as healthcare or childcare, to be permitted to be intoxicated on the job,” he says. He’s had applicants ask him if “shift drinks” are included.
Magnuson asks with exasperation: “What other industry can you drink while you work?” After a fire first shuttered The Argonaut in 2010, he and his wife updated the bar’s employee manual to make the workplace drug free. They even cut out the allotment of one shift drink after employees clock out.
“What we found is we were able to put together a team that worked well together and stayed together,” Magnuson says. “The last thing I need is for a bartender to be drunk at 2 a.m. and have something happen. Once they do shots with customers and get a little buzzed, they say, ‘Better find the cocaine dealer to make it through the night.’ I know the cycle because I went through it.”
After Scarpone caught Evasic, his longtime friend and colleague, stealing from his coworkers, he asked him to leave the apartment they shared. He also got Evasic into a treatment program. “He was still working with us, but he had to bring me his paperwork every day saying he went to Narcotics Anonymous.”
But then Evasic had to return to Tennessee to serve out criminal drug charges, according to Scarpone. He continued to work in kitchens while meeting with a parole officer.
“I talked to him a couple days a week,” Scarpone says. He was encouraged when he saw pictures of Evasic with a fresh haircut and wearing new clothes. He took it as a sign that his friend was no longer squirreling away all his money to buy heroin. That’s why Scarpone was stunned when he got the call.
Evasic’s mother, Kim Godby, was devastated—but less surprised than Scarpone—when she learned that her son was dead. She’d watched him fight drug addiction for 13 years. “He could have written a biography at 29. That’s how his life went,” she says. When Evasic wasn’t using, Godby says her son had a magnetic personality. “He just had a way about him,” she says. “He was just afflicted by a terrible disease.”
Godby’s eulogy for her son was titled, “Never Turn Your Back.” She chose it for two reasons. First, she wanted the world to know you should never ignore addiction. Second, she says her son Eric never turned his back on anyone or anything—he always helped.
Those seeking immediate substance abuse related assistance can call the city’s 24-hour hotline 1-888-7WE-HELP.