As told to Ramin Setoodeh
I was lucky enough to go to the Culinary Institute of America in my 20s, and my big mistake was that I was offered a chef’s job very quickly after I graduated, and I took it. I did that rather than going to France—or even staying in New York, but taking a low-level position at a great restaurant and putting my nose to the grindstone. Once I started down that path, years later I was still working in a procession of not-good restaurants. The lowest of the lows is cooking food for people you hate in a restaurant you hate, with no pride.
I was about getting the biggest paycheck then, so I could see music, smoke expensive weed, do cocaine, that kind of life. It was less important to me that I would get good at my craft. I deluded myself into thinking I was good. And by the time it occurred to me that I’d never worked for a three-star chef, I didn’t have the skills. It was late in the day.
After I graduated, I was working with friends in a restaurant in SoHo called WPA. We helped bankrupt the place in short order. We thought we were creative geniuses, and created a very chef-centric menu that was not what the dining public wanted. We were cooking out of our league. It was not a professional operation. We behaved like a cult of maniacs. I liked the life that went with being a chef. I was getting laid, I was getting high, I was having fun. I had no self-control. I denied myself nothing. I had no moral compass. At age 44, I had never had health insurance. I hadn’t paid my rent on time. I was 10 years behind on my taxes. I owed AmEx for 10 years. I was still living like a college kid—worse even. I essentially partied my way out of a big-league career.
A lot of young cooks who have read Kitchen Confidential ask me for career advice. I tell them if you’re serious about cooking and your craft, do the opposite of what I did. I learned a lot of important skills from my mistake that served me well in both publishing and television. I think the skills I learned as a junkie are skills of determining if this person is full of shit or not. I’m never going to be the kind of person who talks about himself in the third person or has the red M&Ms weeded out of my bowl. You know what you see in the mirror when you’re waiting for the lady on the subway to fall asleep so you can take her purse? I’m a pretty good judge of human nature.