Drug abuse. Anxiety. Obesity. On their own, these problems can be difficult to overcome. But Jesse Schenker has battled all three.
In his new memoir, "All or Nothing: One Chef's Appetite for the Extreme," the chef behind NYC restaurants Recette and The Gander chronicles his history of heroin and crack addiction, homelessness and jail time in his native Florida, alongside his rise as a celebrated, James Beard Award-nominated chef.
We talked with Schenker, who turned 32 this week, about overcoming these obstacles and how he lives a healthier lifestyle.
Were you hesitant about sharing your past?
At the end of the day, I really wanted to help people. If I can help one to two people, I feel like I did my job. It's important to me.
Who do you imagine reading the book?
I think the demographic is quite mixed. There's the young cook. There's the ambitious entrepreneur who wants to start something but is too afraid to get out of his own way. There's the addict or alcoholic. There's the parent struggling to find peace in helping their child. It's a family disease, it affects everyone.
At the stem of your addiction was an anxiety you self-medicated with drugs. How do you manage your anxiety now?
It's tough. I found the recipe that works with my life. If I miss a meeting or don't spend time with my family or work too much, if I get out of the consistency of it all, I lose the contentment and I start to get uneasy. It happens instantly. I struggle on a daily basis. But I try to put one foot in front of the other and make the best decisions in the moment.
You recently lost 55 pounds. How do you stay fit working in a kitchen?
It's an obsession -- I really, really, really love food. I know a lot of people say that, but I devoted my life to it. For me, when my son was born, it was like, 'Whoa Jesse, you need to be around, you're getting bigger and bigger.' I was 260, very heavy and unhealthy. I decided to lose weight and I did. I went to a weight-loss guy and came up with a great plan that didn't deprive me of eating good food, just certain things I could eliminate -- carbs being one, desserts and sugar being two. When I was dieting and losing all that weight, I still had great meals. I went to Jean-Georges, I just didn't touch the bread, pasta course and dessert, and still had an amazing meal. I still fluctuate, but I made a vow never to get obese like I was. I try to moderate.
Has your new diet changed how you cook?
I'm definitely more conscious of removing unnecessary fat. We have a squash soup on the menu right now. There' no quart of cream in there. If you use cream of course it's going to taste good, but what you're tasting is the cream, not the veggie. I want the food to be cleaner, have more of a pop. Butter and cream is not always necessary.