MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In his kitchen at The Kenwood in Minneapolis, Don Saunders works with precision, with clarity. But for most of his life as a chef, Don worked in a haze, fueled by addiction.
“I would stay high all day, you know? That was constant,” said Saunders, the chef and owner of the critically-acclaimed Minneapolis restaurant.
Alcohol is a nearby temptation for anyone working in restaurants. Drug addiction is common – and so is Saunders’ story.
“Since high school on, I smoked pot every day and drank every day and abused it from day one,” he said.
According to research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, restaurant and hotel workers have the highest rate of drug abuse in any industry. Nearly one in five admit using illegal drugs in the past month.
It’s also among the top industries for abusing alcohol, defined as having five or more drinks in one sitting at least once a week.
“You let loose after work. Then in some cases you let loose at work. Before service,” he said.
Saunders has had tremendous success: he opened his first restaurant as a 30-year-old, Fugaise in 2005. He ran In Season and opened The Kenwood in 2012.
“I almost needed that buzz before we would go in. When the Kenwood opened, it’s packed every single moment,” he said, and there was no peer pressure telling him he was doing something wrong.
The success masked a growing crisis: he was high, he was drunk and it was on the verge of ruining Saunders’s life.
“My rock bottom involved making a decision on whether my family was going to stay together to be quite honest. So, it was a combination of looking in the mirror: ‘Look what I’m doing at work. Look what’s going on at home, and my decisions are why this is happening,'” he said.
For the second time in his life, Saunders started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“What would be great for other people who might be struggling is to know how great the twin cities community is for recovery and how much help there is out there,” he said.
Saunders says he’s been sober now for three years and counting.
“The staying sober part is not that hard. The craving isn’t that hard for me. The trying to be a better person, be a better dad, be a better husband,” Saunders said.
“When I hang out with my son now, it’s a clear-headed focus having fun with him, as opposed to maybe just getting high an hour before and being totally checked out or hungover,” he explained.
Saunders knows that this is an epidemic in the food industry.
“I see myself in so m any young cooks that I work with. Some of them will have addiction problems that they can’t get out of,” he said.
His restaurant still serves beer and wine, but he said guests and fellow cooks have been very supportive of his journey.
“I certainly don’t want to be a preacher, but I want to be open to say, ‘hey, I quit. If you want to talk about it come talk to me about it,'” he said.
Life is better.
“The things that are important to me, I have more time to do. Addiction takes up so much of your time and your thought process,” he explained.
He knows that he can’t go back in time and change the past.
“Even if it is bad decisions that I’ve made: today is today. The only thing that’s going to make the past better is if I help someone out today,” said Saunders.