ON A BLEAK, rain-soaked, Monday morning last November, a group of restaurant industry pals gathered on Zoom for their weekly chat. The day before, Gov. Jay Inslee had once again tightened COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants, retail and public gatherings — another gut punch to an industry staggering from months of hardship and uncertainty. You’d expect the group’s mood to be sober, and it was.
These were Ben’s Friends, members of the Seattle chapter of a nationwide fellowship of recovering alcoholics who work in food service and hospitality.
Up until last March, the group met every Monday morning at the Green Lake restaurant Eight Row. The meetings moved to Zoom but still are led by area chairpersons David Nichols, Eight Row’s chef and co-owner, and Kate Willman, the restaurant’s GM.
Nichols and Willman met while working at Rider in downtown Seattle. When he sought her out for the team at Eight Row in the summer of 2019, he knew she was in long-term recovery. He pitched the idea of starting a Ben’s Friends chapter right from the get-go.
Willman, who is working toward a master’s degree in counseling psychology, was all for it. At that point, she’d been sober for nearly seven years. Sobriety had prompted her to go back to school, and she’d discovered “a beautiful crossover” in being a therapist and working in hospitality. Nichols had less than a year of recovery under his belt. He reasoned it would help his sobriety to help other people.
“I’m a sober chef,” says Nichols. It’s important for him to say it, to be OK with saying it, and he wants that for others, too.
A 2015 study by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that food service and hospitality workers have the highest rate of substance abuse of any profession.
Ben Murray was the Charleston, South Carolina, chef and alcoholic whose suicide was the impetus behind Ben’s Friends. Even before Murray’s close pals, Steve Palmer and Mickey Bakst, prominent Charleston restaurant managers who also struggled with long-term addiction, started Ben’s Friends in 2016, a sobriety movement was emerging in the restaurant industry.
In 2014, Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov revealed that he was abusing drugs and alcohol when he opened much-lauded Zahav in 2008. Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in June 2018 provoked more discussion about addiction and the effects of toxic kitchen culture. Later that year, Solomonov, along with other sober chefs, Gabriel Rucker, Gregory Gourdet, Sean Brock and Andrew Zimmern, headlined the first “Zero Proof Dinner” at the annual Feast Portland food festival.
With more than a dozen James Beard Awards, “Top Chef” appearances and cookbooks among them, they were powerful influencers. Their message: Sobriety is in; getting soused is out. As food writer Karen Brooks put it in Portland Monthly, “Sanity is the new kitchen cool.”
When you work in a restaurant, whether in the front or back of the house, avoiding alcohol is hard. Restaurants depend on alcohol sales, and it’s important to the dining experience for many. The business revolves around it so much that many trying to stay sober typically are advised to switch careers entirely.
Nichols and Willman wanted to promote a healthy culture at Eight Row. “Being a [jerk] chef doesn’t have the same Machiavellian power it used to,” says Willman. “Being transparent about our disease helps convey to others with the same problem that they are walking into a safe workplace.”
Many Ben’s Friends members were or still are in Alcoholics Anonymous. One meeting attendee said that while AA worked for him, Ben’s Friends “kicked the door open.” He realized he was hiding behind alcohol. “I love hospitality. I love playing that part. The real person was harder to live with.” After five years sober, he says, “My skin fits me.”
One woman, new to Seattle and sober for four years, said she loves Ben’s Friends because, “It’s restaurant people. We can swear and talk a bunch of [crap].”
The meetings Nichols and Willman run feel like AA for the cool kids. As people share their stories on Zoom, you get glimpses of how they live: Some are at home, some are out walking, some are at work in their restaurant kitchens. A steady stream of supportive chat messages scrolls alongside their images.
Taking the meetings virtual, while not ideal, has given Ben’s Friends a wider reach. Through their website (bensfriendshope.com/cities), anyone can access any of the local chapter meetings around the country, as well as the daily national meeting. (Nichols and Willman also host Thursday’s national meeting.) There are men-only and women-only national meetings daily, too. And while the goal of Ben’s Friends is to offer “hope to the F&B industry,” everyone is welcome.
On that dismal morning back in November, the mood was surprisingly hopeful. The day’s topic was reflection and resilience: When difficult times come, how are we able to reflect on the past to move forward? Willman observed, “Relapse is part of recovery,” and that this newest wave of restrictions felt like “a relapse for the industry.”
Heads bobbed in agreement. Just being in recovery can make you resilient, someone said. How to find the courage and will to move forward, to accept life on life’s terms, to take it one day at a time, are things you learn in recovery. Most in the group had hit bottom at least once in their lives. They’ve run out of things to be afraid of. As one man put it, “When it comes to your life blowing up, we’re like the Navy SEALs.”
The friendship between Nichols and Willman blossomed into romance. Six months after Eight Row opened, they took time off and went to the Oregon Coast. He proposed with his great-grandmother’s ring. She said yes. They talked about a June wedding. That was in March 2020. They returned to face the first statewide pandemic lockdown and had to let their whole staff go. A wedding is not top of mind now, they say; the survival of their restaurant family is. “When we have trudged through these difficult times,” Willman says, “I think getting married would be a nice cherry on the success sundae.”
The Chance Seedling
Eight Row refers to the largest cherry size found on a standard cherry gauge. Owners David and Ian Nichols grew up picking fruit in their family’s Eastern Washington orchards. The confluence of cultures and cuisines in that area inspires David’s cooking and the wide-ranging wine list Ian curates. Interesting alcohol-free drinks are integral to the beverage program. All the cocktails, with or without booze, are named after a fruit tree varietal. Kraig Rovensky created this zero-proof cocktail made with fresh-pressed apple cider from the Nichols’ orchards.
2 ounces apple cider
½ ounce Seedlip Spice
¼ ounce fresh lime juice
Barspoon (dash) of apple cider vinegar
Topo Chico Sparkling Mineral Water
Combine the first four ingredients over ice in a tall glass. Top off with Topo Chico. Stir.