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Chef Jesse Schenker On Drugs, Cooking and How to Make a Bed When You're Homeless

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Jesse Schenker headshot .jpgJesse Schenker, 31, the gifted chef behind Recette in the West Village and The Gander in the Flatiron District, has a wild memoir due out at the end of this month, All or Nothing: One Chef's Appetite for the Extreme (HarperCollins). He details how he began smoking pot at 12, lost his virginity at 13, got arrested at 14, then went from heroin to halfway houses to redemption. When we caught up with the Florida native he was at The Gander fueling up on a double espresso.
 
How long has it been since you cleaned up?

I was 21 so I just celebrated 10 years.
 
To support your habit you wrote about pawning your mother's Rolex. Did she get it back?

She got back the Rolex but there was a lot of other stuff she didn't get back.
 
Your parents are well off and kept bailing you out of trouble and in your book you criticize them for not making you pay the consequences. Now that you have kids and they do something wrong, are there consequences?

It's hard for me to discipline them but my son is only 3 and my daughter is 10 months old. My son gets away with stuff but I'm making a conscious effort to be stern and on the same page with Lindsay, my wife. My daughter is going to give me a run for my money.
 
How are things with your parents now?

They were strong enough to let me go and hit rock bottom. Now we have a better relationship than we ever had.
 
When they finally kicked you out, what was it like to end up homeless?

At first I would stay with friends and drug dealers. The first night I was actually homeless was in a park by the beach in Boca Raton. I tried to sleep in an outdoor bathroom on this really dirty concrete floor. I couldn't get comfortable. I eventually ended up in the sand. Moving forward, I learned little tricks like drinking four beers really fast to knock me out. I found a little area behind a park that had mulch and I'd steal stuff from donation boxes at Goodwill, blankets or whatever, and set up my own little room. I'd lay down Burger King fry boxes, then blankets over that to pad the ground. Ultimately I would wake up to sprinklers or gardeners poking me with a rake or bug bites all over my face.
 
How long did it last?

For about eight months to a year I was legitimately homeless.
 
Cooking seems to be what saved you.

It was my lifeline. I'd wake up with the sun and go to Burger King to panhandle and take a makeshift shower in their bathroom. I'd go to a church for a comb and toothbrush and razor and work the lunch shift at a sub shop. I still took pride in what I did because I loved food. Even filling a soda, I did it with passion. I worked in fine dining restaurants at night and would try to see a movie between shifts. I'd eat throughout the day where I worked and then go back to my makeshift home behind the wall in the park. When my paycheck came, instead of getting an efficiency or hotel room for a week, I'd find the dope man and get my drugs and chain smoke all night and wake up with burn marks on my chest. The disease of addiction is very powerful.
 
Since Recette is in the West Village, did you ever see Philip Seymour Hoffman?

Recette is down the street from where he lived so I saw him all the time. If I knew he was suffering I would have taken him to a meeting or lent him a helping hand. He came in for dinner and did takeout, even though I don't do takeout, but I did it for him. It definitely sucked when he died. People who overdose are always found alone. Your breathing stops and you turn blue. There's no one there to smack you out of it, walk you around.
 
Since you used your wiles to trick people into giving you money for drugs, how do you react now when someone begs you for money?

I tell them they're full of shit. I'll give them something to eat if they want it. I'll go into McDonald's and buy someone a supersize meal, call them on their bluff. I don't play that game.
 
How did you end up writing your book?

I went to my doctor, an internist, when I moved to New York and went over every detail of my health for 40 minutes. I divulged everything. He had been to my restaurant and said, 'You've got to write a book.' My father had said it, too, and my friends had said it. Then I went to the weight loss doctor Stephen Gullo and when he heard my story he hooked me up with a book agent. She was going to reach out to me about doing a cookbook, then said, 'Whoa, this is even better.' Mark Chait was my editor and said, 'Don't change a thing. It's fucking awesome.' He compared it to Breaking Bad meets Kitchen Confidential with a little Blood, Bones & Butter.
 
So how are you coping these days?

I'm still stuck with myself every day but my energy is going into restaurants. I'm not going to lie and say I'm content. I don't know how to live in the moment. I try. When I'm with my kids it's a lot easier. They keep me focused and centered. There are great moments when I'm with my wife and we can celebrate accomplishments or milestones. I can breathe and say, 'That's done.' The next morning it's the same thing, this idea I gotta stay on top, keep moving forward. On a daily basis I try to basically hold on.


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