Would you like drugs with that? The dark secret of the restaurant industry

It is a well-known fact food is addictive. Studies have shown cheese triggers the same part of the brain as drugs. It’s like crack. Or if you have felt the sugary rush which comes with a cold glass of Coca-Cola, which you most probably have, then it’s important to know that until 1903 the masterminds behind the famously soft-drink used a different trick to keep their loyal customers they used a significant dose of cocaine. Apparently. But apart from addictive foods, there is a darker, much more complex connection between drug abuse and the food industry.

Sure, on the outside restaurants look luxurious. The gorgeous decor, delicious cuisine, and cheerful staff all seem to be glamorous to guests. Unfortunately, there are issues behind the scenes customers will never know about. The constant effects of long hours in the restaurant industry, the high stress and low pay create a chain of related issues: relationship problems, alcohol abuse, and drug addiction. As the worldly renowned chef, Anthony Bourdain mentions in his book “Kitchen Confidential”, the hospitality industry is “drenched in drugs and alcohol”. He describes the life of a restaurant employee as someone who works all day and parties all night. It’s a work, eat, rave, repeat kind of thing.

In his blog, The Sober Sous Chef mentions that even the most extravagant restaurants are corrupt with law violations and alcohol and drug binges. The easy drug access and the high workplace pressures make you more likely to feel the need to “zone out” for a couple of hours. He, himself staggered into the dark world of drug abuse. “As a somewhat sheltered teenager, I got my first consistent job as a Saturday morning dishwasher and janitor in one of the few restaurants in town. In that restaurant, and the dozen restaurants and over twenty-five kitchens I’ve worked in since I’ve seen and been a part of some things which I am not proud of.

“Drinking, smoking and drugging on the job was something which I started in that first restaurant, and continued until I checked into Father Martin’s Ashley rehab facility in January 2013,” the chef writes.

Alcohol abuse is a tale as old as time and is definitely no surprise. After all, bars and clubs serve up a lot of booze and bartenders are even expected to take part in order to entertain their clients. However, illicit drug use is common as well. The Substance Abuse and Mental Services discovered illicit drug use is the highest among the hospitality industry, with its highest numbers yet. Food services lead the pack. According to the study, 19.1% of workers working with food will have used an illegal drug at least once every month, and 16.9% of food workers are prone to having a substance abuse disorder. That is more than one would expect to see in any other industry. But, if it’s so dangerous why are people so attracted to this industry? As Bourdain further suggests in his book, people are seduced by the illusion that chefs are these tough, pirate-like rebels. It instantly hooks you.


Illicit drug use among 18-64 employees full-time, by industry category in the US, combined 2008-2012 according to The Substance Abuse and Mental Services.

Gordon Ramsey is currently on a mission to change the world. Or at least, to improve the food industry. The celebrity chef has identified cocaine as the “hospitality industry’s dirty little secret”, and plans to get rid of the drug when it comes to food. In a recent interview with the Radio Times, he recalls a time when a couple, at one of his restaurants, requested a plate to snort cocaine off in the bathroom. In an experiment of 31 restaurant bathrooms around the globe as part of his ITV documentary,” Gordon Ramsey on Cocaine”, he discovered traces of the drug in all toilets, except one.


“When the dessert arrived, the couple came to me and said, ‘Look, everyone in the table is happy you’re here, but can you make a soufflé like never before and combine icing sugar with coke and dust it?”.  Ramsey was shocked.

But it isn’t just the overworked and junior level foodies who turn to drugs. Food celebrity Nigella Lawson was banned from traveling to the US after tests came out positive that she had used cocaine and marijuana in the past. Similarly, the culture of cocaine use in the kitchen has personally affected Ramsey, when his head chef David Dempsey died in 2003 following a cocaine overdose.

Similarly, during my time as a restaurant hostess, a co-worker of mine drank so much at a shift once that she fell down the stairs at the restaurant with her intoxication on full show in front of all the guests. She was, of course, fired that same night, but then went on to find a job in sales. She knew the restaurant industry did not have a positive effect on her. But not everyone who works in the restaurant industry will be willing or able to find another career. If leaving the field is some people’s primary path towards improving the issue, then the issue is not actually being tackled. On the other hand, a different worker, who likes her booze just as much, knows she would not be able to work in a different field, but instead is able to control herself and work efficiently without anyone noticing she may sometimes show up to work drunk, or even drink at work. Keeping her identity anonymous, she says:

“I don’t like doing it, but I cannot help it sometimes. It’s really difficult when you have around 50 tables a night, sometimes 10 at once. Drinking helps me cheer people up and make them come back for more, but it also helps me to move around the floor quicker and time passes by twice as fast. Of course, I drink with a limit. I know when to stop. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself and risk losing my job.”

Addiction is a disease and in many ways can be contagious.However, not everybody who workshospitality will be absorbed by the wicked world of drugs after all. It is a point of view which frequently remains unmentioned. Perhaps Gordon Ramsay’s new TV show will shed a light on sober chefs, trying to remove drug usage in the kitchen, in food, and to help other industry workers, just like himself.


Words: Alexandra Baneva | Subbed: Harry Bourner




















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