From drugs and jail to Iron Chef

Florida native Jesse Schenker is an award-winning chef and owner of fine dining restaurants Recette and The Gander in New York's West Village. He honed his craft at high-end restaurants including Gordon Ramsay at The London, Per Se and Jean Georges.

The 2010 Iron-Chef winner, now 33, wasn't always the pillar of foodie success. In his early 20s, he battled drug addiction that started with marijuana and quickly snowballed into opiates, heroin and crack. He served six months in jail. Here he tells the story of how he pulled himself back from the brink.

Jesse Schenker, Chef and owner of NYC’s Recette and The Gander
Jesse Schenker, Chef and owner of NYC’s Recette and The Gander

After nine years of lying, stealing, and running to deny a serious drug addiction, a cop car stopped me on the street at the age of 21. I didn't want to run any longer. I knew there was a warrant out for my arrest. I told the cop as much, and surrendered. As we drove to the holding cell, Pearl Jam's "Alive" came on the radio and in that moment I had all the clarity I needed.

I served six months in jail, followed by six months in a work-release program, followed by six months in a halfway house and two years of probation. After a painful detox in jail, I was assigned to kitchen duty, and was able to get back in touch with my passion for food.

After being released, I never looked back. I moved to New York and dove headfirst into my career. The same intensity that got me up every morning to do drugs, I put all of that into cooking. I started a private dining concept with two friends out of East Harlem's Savoy Bakery called Recette Private Dining, and after a lot of hard work and good press, we were serving five, seven and 10-course tasting menus to Manhattan's foodie elite.

In 2009, with the support of my wife Lindsay, the help of my father and some brave investors, I opened my dream restaurant, Recette, a 35-seater on a quaint corner in the West Village. My investors knew about my past. I think, if anything, they saw what I went through as an asset. A lot of people don't return from the depths that I visited. It's a gift and a curse. But every day, I get to make a choice to stay sober. I was in my fifth year of sobriety, approaching my sixth, when Recette opened. I don't think there was a concern about relapse. If anything, my investors were concerned about my workaholism.

The satisfaction of watching people smile when you make them something to eat that they enjoy is crazy and I just wanted it to continue. So it did. Recette received a two-star review from both The New York Times and New York Magazine. The success was invigorating. I built trusted relationships over the course of four years with my investors, my staff, and my diners. I went on to open my second and much larger restaurant, The Gander, in the Flatiron District in 2014.

Through my life experiences, I have had no choice but to rise to the occasion. My skin has been thickened and I've learned to make decisions based on facts and not let my emotions dictate my choices. That's proven to be an enormous asset in business. No decision I make is accidental or arbitrary because I've learned that every action I make has a consequence. I know how bad the bottom is, and I don't want to see it again.

I definitely have a dark story but it has a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. My restaurants and my past are intertwined; many of my dishes are interpretations of food I learned how to cook from my grandmother, or along my journey, and all of them are meticulously planned and executed.

Within the business, the people I work with understand that there is no gray area with me. When I flipped the switch away from drugs, I immediately applied the same passion and intensity I'd shown as a junkie to something positive: cooking and running a multifaceted and intense business. I'm just as addicted as ever — it's only the substance that's changed. Coming out with my addiction in my recent memoir, "All or Nothing: One Chef's Appetite for the Extreme," has given me a real platform to help people and opened up opportunities that I never would have had otherwise. Rather than evading reality, I focus on mindfulness, my restaurants and family. Now that I am 10 years sober, I've come too far and have too much to lose to ever go down the destructive path again.

At recette and The Gander, I insist on a clean kitchen. Last year, I discovered that a member of the staff was an alcoholic who was stashing bottles of wine leftover from the tables. I leveled with him and told him about my past to remind him that he has a choice, just like I did. After that sit-down, there was a new respect between the two of us and the situation improved. He ended up going to a rehab facility and then continued his recovery in Alcholics Anonymous. We keep in touch, and he knows I'm always here for a reference.

It takes a lot of strength to turn your life around. As a business owner and a member of the addiction community, I would never discriminate against someone with a past in drugs and I hope that others don't either. I know, firsthand, that some of the hardest workers and most successful people have struggled with similar issues. The ability to overcome such a thing takes more determination than any hard day's work and builds more integrity and discipline than you can imagine.

Today, my life is fuller than I ever thought it could be. If you, a friend, or family member is suffering from addiction, there's hope. You don't have to go to the deep, dark places that I did. Anyone can take all of their bad energy and channel it into something better—something that can even turn into a successful career.

Commentary by Jesse Schenker, chef and owner of Recette and The Gander. He has been an Iron Chef winner, James Beard nominee and a New York Magazine Best New Chef honoree. He is the author of a memoir, "All or Nothing: One chef's appetite for the extreme," published by Dey Street Books, revealing his battle with drug addiction and his rise in New York's competitive restaurant industry. Follow him on Twitter @JBSchef.