Coming out of the darkness with chef Danny MongeonPublished on September 17, 2016

Photo by: JVL Photo

Many of us might only face the uncomfortable reality of addiction when we see a high-profile individual heading off to rehab. Yet in Ottawa’s restaurant scene – like many others around the world – there is also a culture of addiction that often gets quietly, but deliberately ignored. Rising culinary star Danny Mongeon, who first made a name for himself at Brut Cantina Sociale and Hooch Bourbon House and garnered much praise for Flux, his ongoing series of inventive pop-up dinners, sat down with Ottawa At Home to share his thoughts about hitting rock bottom and climbing back up.

CAN YOU TRACE YOUR JOURNEY FOR US? I grew up in a dysfunctional family and started using alcohol and drugs in my very early teens. I lived mostly on the street and in shelters between the ages of 13 and 18, surviving on jobs in restaurant kitchens so I could stay out of group homes.

HOW DID WORKING IN RESTAURANTS IMPACT YOUR ADDICTIONS? My story is not unique in this business – if you get a good review, you go celebrate; with a bad review, you drown your sorrows. There are free drinks after work, then you all go out for late-night food and drinks, followed by an after party at someone’s house. “I’ll go out for just one,” is a big joke in the industry because everyone knows you can’t have just one drink after work. So many people in the business overindulge regularly and it’s hard to get help – you’re scared of how it’s going to damage your reputation in the industry.

DESCRIBE YOUR DESCENT INTO THAT ROCK BOTTOM POINT. In the summer of 2013, Shannon and I had just gotten married and I’d just finished opening Hooch, which was a ton of work. Then my best friend Jason Harris died after suffering from addictions and depression. I selfishly felt like I had an excuse for my bad behaviour, but soon, Shannon started confronting me and like every addict, I swore I’d stop and didn’t need help. She’s an amazing person and it was really tough for her to see me suffering and abusing myself. I did cut down a little, but I was definitely not at the top of my game at work, was bouncing from job to job and not pleasant to be around. When Shannon became pregnant in early 2015, I was definitely in denial about being an addict.

WHAT FINALLY LED YOU TO SEEK TREATMENT? When our son was born last November, I was in a complete fog, trying to help Shannon, but using and drinking worse than ever. I was missing work, coming up with excuses to avoid getting fired but hating my job so much I didn’t care. Shannon wisely chose to move out with the baby, which pushed me over the brink. I had no job, fell behind in my rent and started selling things to pay for my next fix. If I had sunk any lower I would have been dead, in jail or in an institution. I finally called Shannon after a week-long binge, in tears, saying I needed help. She brought me to detox (the Ottawa Withdrawal Management Centre) then afterwards I went into the Sobriety House residential program which was invaluable in terms of giving me the tools I need to change my life.

I will make staying clean a part of any contract going forward. I feel energized like never before, partly because I am going to the gym so often, and I have all kinds of creative inspiration that’s finding its way into new dishes. I like to think I’m reinventing a better version of myself and that feels pretty great. Life is so much more meaningful and I am grateful to the support system that’s helping me avoid temptation and manage my disease so I can be the best husband, father and chef possible.

WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO SHARE YOUR STORY? I wanted to shine a light on this issue and let other chefs and cooks know that there are ways to get help. It’s so scary – I feel like employers in this industry are selfish and so demanding; some make it almost impossible for anyone to go to rehab because they won’t have a job when they come back. We also have to speak up when our colleagues need to get help. It’s time for all of that to change.

Paula Roy

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