Out of the Fire and Into the Kitchen

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The idea of a 31-year-old person writing a memoir would normally cause one to roll their eyes and dismiss the idea before reading a single page, but Jesse Schenker is no ordinary 31-year-old. His memoir, All or Nothing, tells the story of how in slightly over three decades the acclaimed chef has lived two very different lives—one life as a man struggling with a crippling drug addiction and the other as one of the most promising young chefs in the United States.

“Food is the pulse of my life,” Schenker says. “It’s my ultimate passion which ended up saving my life and giving me purpose.”

Every part of Schenker’s life seems to have some connection to food and he shows this throughout the book by naming each chapter after a different cooking term. In the chapter entitled “Aperitif” Schenker describes the role the kitchen had after he got out of prison.

“I was still on work release and working the grill on days,” Schenker says. “It was just kind of mindless cooking but it still really brought back the passion for me. I just remember the sweat on my forehead, the seasoning on my hands and the feel of the salmon or a burger in between my tongs. I love that and it woke me up.”

As the owner of two acclaimed Manhattan restaurants, Recette and The Gander, Schenker could have easily left his turbulent past behind him and no one would be the wiser. Instead, he opens up about his struggles completely.

“The most important thing was being honest,” Schenker says. “Once I decided to [write the book] I knew that I wasn’t going to hold back. That’s why it’s as personal as it is.”

Not holding back is an understatement. Schenker describes his drug use and the damage it inflicted upon him and his loved ones in excruciating detail in an effort to show the reality of addiction. As someone who has hit rock bottom and been able to recover and rebuild his life, Schenker hopes that his story will be able to remove some of the stigma that surrounds addiction. While that may be a lofty goal for one little book, Schenker understands that even the smallest effect is important.

“I think about when I was struggling out there and how bad it was, what if someone had written a book like this and shown me that I didn’t need to go as far down the hole as I did,” Schenker says. “I just want to do something that might help somebody [struggling], or even a parent. If I could help a parent who is struggling with enabling their addicted child step back and let them hit their bottom so they could get clean, then I have done something good.”

Schenker working in the kitchen.

Schenker working in the kitchen.

Schenker credits his parents for being a major reason he was able to turn his life around. It took years for Schenker to rebuild his relationship with his parents after all of the pain he caused them during his years of addiction. Writing the book reopened some of those wounds as Schenker and his parents would laugh and cry while reading passages during the editing phase, but in the end it strengthened the familial bonds.

“They’ve been very supportive and I am blessed to have them in my life,” Schenker says of his parents. “As I parent I can definitely understand how hard it can be. I don’t know how they possibly did what they did.”

One of Schenker’s favorite pieces of ink is the name of his son, Eddie, written in the same font he has used for the name of his first restaurant on his shoulder. Just how that tattoo fuses two of Schenker’s loves—his son and food—so does the majority of his ink. The lyrics to “Indifference” by Pearl Jam are inked onto his left side; it is the largest of his multiple tattoos related to the band. On his forearm he has the stick figure that adorned the “Alive” single along with the words “I’m Still Alive” and on his wrist he has the words “All or None,” the name of another Pearl Jam song. The words also serve as a personal credo for the chef, hence the name of his memoir.

Like many other chefs, Schenker has a lot of food-related ink including a T-bone steak and a Japanese slicing knife. In addition to the those fairly common chef tattoos Schenker thought outside the box when coming up with the idea for his most striking tattoo.

“The top part of my arm is a crepinette,” Schenker explains. “[The tattoo] is basically caul fat, the stomach of a pig, wrapped around a piece of meat. My arm is essentially the meat. It goes with my extreme behavior.”

A good look at Schenker's crepinette tattoo.

A good look at Schenker's crepinette tattoo.

With the exception of one tribal piece that has since been reworked, Schenker has obtained all of his ink after getting clean. By referencing all of the things that he is passionate about Schenker’s tattoos are visual reminders of why he wants to stay clean. And while the tattoo needle does a small part in the fight against relapse it was a different type of needle that would provide the most motivation for him.

“I still have a couple of scars on my right arm from shooting up,” Schenker says. “I want to keep them. I don’t want to cover them [with ink] because they remind me every day of where I don’t want to go.”

There is an obsessive rumination quality in Schenker’s personality that has done both great damage to his life and made him the success that he is today. Since he has been clean he has been able to harness that trait and use it for positive means; a prime example is when he crafts the menu for his Mondays with Jesse. For one night a month Schenker lets his imagination get the best of him as he experiments with foods and flavors that he wouldn’t be comfortable just throwing on to the menu. As he work his ass off trying to get ready for the night Schenker’s mind will linger on every little detail until he thinks things are perfect; in a former life his mind would use the same approach toward obtaining and using drugs.

Everyone knows that food is needed to sustain a person’s life, but many didn’t think that it would be capable to save a life in the way that it has for Schenker. Food doesn’t merely nourish Schenker’s body; it fuels his passions, invigorates his soul and gives him purpose. After getting a taste of what it was like to have nothing Schenker’s passion for food has giving him the drive necessary to have it all.

All or Nothing can be purchased here.