Drink the destroyer

28 June 2001
Drink the destroyer

Remember Michael Quinn? There was a time when this chef was as famous as his friend and peer, Anton Edelmann. Today, although his talents haven't diminished, he keeps a lower profile, cooking for banquets and functions at Newbury Manor hotel in Berkshire.

It's a far cry from 1980, the year when Quinn trounced the French to become the first British head chef at the London Ritz. Having already achieved a Michelin star at Gravetye Manor, Quinn made short work of livening up the stuffy menu and pulling in business. It was an achievement that helped to win him an MBE, with celebrity status, countless television and radio appearances, and invitations to cook for royalty and stars all over the world. Success and Quinn were, seemingly, synonymous.

No one, not least Quinn, would have dreamt that by 1990 he would be a homeless drunk, sleeping in doorways, parks and Salvation Army hostels. He had lost contact with most of his family and friends, and at the age of 48 the chef who once had everything was being given the last rites by a priest as he lay dying in hospital with liver failure. Alcoholism had stripped him of fame, fortune, family and almost his life.

"In 1990, I was told that I would lose everything [if I didn't stop drinking] - and most of it came true," he says. "Alcohol took me from the pinnacle of the catering world into treatment centres, hospitals and then back into the pub. If I'd got well when I had the chance, my sons would have known me as a top chef at the Ritz. But now they don't."

Only about 3% of alcoholics recover, but Quinn is one of the lucky ones, thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Even so, it was a painful journey. Not the least of his problems was the fact that the industry had labelled him a drunk so initially he found it difficult to get work. Without a string of supporters, including Edelmann, Allan Deegan, head of Stratford Catering College, Lord Rothschild, and Bob Rae, his current employer, Quinn would have found it even harder.

Of course, few alcoholics in the industry have such support, which appals Quinn because the problem is so widespread. Although most statistics are general - for example, one in 25 people are dependent on alcohol and 75% of those are in work - there is evidence that alcohol-related death rates among publicans and caterers are some of the highest in the country (Occupational Health, Decennial Supplement (1995) report).

"Most alcoholics are doomed - that's a fact," says Quinn. "But everyone in the industry will know somebody who has a problem."

It is surprising, then, that, unlike other industries, few hospitality companies contacted by Caterer had policies on helping problem drinkers at work. Quinn is hoping that this can be remedied. He is helping to set up the Ark Foundation, which will offer help and guidance specifically to those in the hospitality industry.

Some industries operate alcohol testing, but this is a controversial method of prevention and one that can lead to bad feeling between staff and employer. The purpose of a company policy is to offer assistance at an early stage to staff who think they have a problem, and to try to help those who already have a serious problem.

The arguments for having a policy are strong. Some 25% of accidents at work are caused by drink, as are 60% of fatal accidents. Alcoholics will most likely have disciplinary problems, take a large number of costly sick days, and suffer blackouts. Just two drinks during working hours can lower an employee's performance by 40% and, in an environment where there are knives, hot fat and scalding water, this makes them potentially dangerous to colleagues.

Colleagues, in turn, often collude with the alcoholic, covering for their bad work and ending up stressed themselves. In fact, alcoholics affect everyone they are close to, and the more senior they are the more impact they have at work. If they ultimately have to be sacked, as Quinn was from the Lygon Arms, the burden of re-engaging a senior employee falls on the employer.

Last but not least, having a heavy drinker on the payroll can take its toll on profits, as alcoholics may steal from work. Peter Kay, a recovering alcoholic and workplace educator with the Amethyst Project, says that he has witnessed situations where staff get free drink through a deal with the bar manager. Kay himself admits that he was spending £300 a day to fund his own drink and drug habit while earning just £250 a week, and he knows of many kitchens where the problem is rife but ignored.

"I don't know how the industry deals with it, but it needs to be aware and to seek help," says Kay.

So what triggers alcoholism? It is sometimes passed down through families but, according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, occupations such as the alcoholic drinks industry and the hotel and catering industry can actually breed alcoholics. This is explained by the fact that alcohol is easily available, there's often a lack of supervision, and there's a social pressure to drink. Evidence suggests that unsociable hours and occupational stress also lead to alcohol problems, particularly where there are high demands but low personal control.

Quinn's case was typical. Having reached the pinnacle of his career, he drank to quell his fear of failure and rejection. "I used [alcohol] as a crutch because I couldn't handle success and failure," he explains. "It was a friend and then it took me prisoner."

Kay, who is well-educated and well-travelled, and who worked as a chef with a string of Michelin-starred restaurants, describes his own paranoia: "There is the huge pressure of everyone saying you are a great guy. Self-will is needed to survive. I put away two bottles of Scotch a day to keep my job."

There is no direct legal requirement for employers to implement alcohol policies, although health and safety at work legislation requires both employers and employees to maintain a safe working environment. If an alcohol-related accident occurs, then the employer, the employee or both could be liable.

Similarly, employment protection law requires employers to treat alcohol dependence as a form of sickness, giving the employee the opportunity to overcome the problem.

The characteristic of denial means that, until an alcoholic asks for help, it is not always possible to give it. If the staff member doesn't accept help, Quinn says, the employer will have to consider sacking them. In some cases the threat of being sacked can push the heavy drinker into stopping, but alcoholics are defiant. "We have a PhD in bullshit," says Quinn.

However, for those who want to kick alcoholism, the future is positive. "I've no regrets," says Quinn of his career. "I don't dwell on the past. I expect good things to happen and they do. I know the best is yet to come."

The publican's story

Roger Vardy-Smith, 62, reckons that he would have become an alcoholic whatever he did for a living. The fact that he ran a pub as part of a family business, however, made his illness harder to beat.

Vardy-Smith's story is all the more remarkable because, as a recovering alcoholic, he continued to pull pints and kept his pub, the Golden Cross at Ardens Grafton, Warwickshire, in the Good Beer Guide for 10 years until his retirement, despite being unable to drink.

It was a case of keeping the pipes clean and the temperature right and, if the beer smelt or looked off, getting other people, such as his wife, to taste it.

"I was in a catch-22 situation. My family and my money were tied up in the pub business. It was like living in a sweetie shop," he says, adding: "I had a country pub. A City pub with heavy drinkers would have been more difficult."

As with many recovering alcoholics, his is a happy ending that came with a heavy price. Oral cancer (which tends to affect heavy smokers or drinkers) has left him with only part of his tongue. And although his wife and daughters stood by him, the stress of living with a heavy drinker for 15 years and an unpredictable alcoholic for seven years affected their health.

During this time, Vardy-Smith became a secret drinker, leaving maybe a half-pint of lager on the bar over the course of the night but sneaking down to the cellars for spirits. Sometimes he drank in pubs where he wasn't known, so that his wife wouldn't notice the stocks of vodka going down.

Following his rehabilitation through AA, Vardy-Smith fought temptation in the pub by "merely functioning" behind the bar and leaving the premises as soon as time was called. But business had inevitably suffered, and gradually he turned his attentions to his customers. The effect was to turn trade around.

Vardy-Smith's transition from heavy drinker to alcoholic took place over a few weeks. His transition from alcoholic to recovering alcoholic, however, took longer. Failure to go to an English-speaking AA meeting while holidaying in Italy led to a relapse, and the news that if he continued he had only six months to live. Now, he attends AA meetings at least once a week wherever he is in the world.

"It proved I shall always be an alcoholic," he says. "It's like being a man who has lost his legs - you never grow a new one. But after a few months of being sober, I realised it was poison to me. It would kill me."

And he warns: "If you are alcoholic and you don't attend AA, you will die."

The Amethyst Project

Peter Kay, 39, has been sober for the past 10 years. The turning point came after he was resuscitated, having been pronounced clinically dead in hospital.

Somehow, he survived two cardiac arrests, a collapsed lung and respiratory failure. Alcohol had already digested two-thirds of his pancreas, with the result that he can no longer work full-time.

Like Quinn, he had enjoyed success as a chef, working at the Savoy, the Inn on the Park and in Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. But the pressures of success led to drink (and, in Kay's case, drugs), which destroyed his career.

During a stint in a kitchen in South Africa, Kay started drinking bottles of white wine during the day, rather than water, and habitually had a few drinks at the bar while getting a round of drinks for friends. As his drinking got worse, he started blacking out. Once, while employed in England, Kay woke up in France with no recollection of how he got there.

The crisis point came when Kay was working as a head chef for High Table. "I thought I was the bees' knees," he says. "It's amazing, but three weeks later I was in an alcoholic unit being treated for a mental illness. I screwed up my life and that of 12 people close to me."

As an educator for the Amethyst Project, Kay now runs seminars for companies that want to help employees kick heavy drinking before it becomes a problem. Seminars range from being free to costing £300, depending on the client.

As Kay says, it's a waste of time to tell someone to stop drinking; they have to make the decision themselves. By getting the specialists in, not only do employees feel they are wanted, but problem staff are made aware that their bosses are aware, which often makes them address their drinking before it gets too bad. Absenteeism and theft are thereby reduced.

"Out of 100 people in a room," says Kay, "seven will be alcohol-dependent and 10% will have a serious drink problem."


Help in the hospitality industry

Unlike in other industries, few companies in hospitality have policies to help alcoholic staff. Michael Quinn is working with others to set up the Ark Foundation, which aims to raise awareness of the serious nature of alcoholism within the catering industry, and will offer to help human resources departments deal with alcoholic employees.

Those who have agreed to be trustees of the foundation so far include:

Willy Bauer, former MD of the Savoy, former chief executive, the Wentworth

Anton Edelmann, maitre chef de cuisine, the Savoy

Shaun Jardine, partner, Brethertons Solicitors, Banbury

Bob Rae, proprietor, Newbury Manor hotel, Newbury

Contact: Michael Quinn; tel: 01635 517 512; www.thearkfoundation.co.uk


The Facts

  • 25% of workplace accidents are alcohol-related.

  • One in 25 people is dependent on alcohol, and 75% of those are in work.

  • 14 million days per year are lost through alcohol-related absenteeism.

  • Alcohol costs the British industry more than £2b a year in absenteeism.

  • 43% of organisations do not have a workplace alcohol and drug policy, and 84% do not run awareness programmes for staff.

  • Over the past 10 years, there has been a rise of more than 65% in alcohol misuse and alcohol-related illness.

  • 80% of crimes are alcohol-related.

  • Businesses are finding that alcohol-related dismissals are on the increase, reducing business efficiency and increasing costs.

  • Out of 123 personnel management directors interviewed, 90% considered alcohol consumption a problem in their companies, and 17% considered it was a serious problem (Drugs and Alcohol Policies in England, by the Institute of Personnel and Development - Tricia Jackson).

  • Between September 1991 and 1992, at treatment centre Clouds House, 7% of patients admitted were in the hospitality industry.

Sources: Alcohol Concern/Clouds House/Tricia Jackson


Alcoholics Anonymous (organisation that helps to rehabilitate alcoholics), 01904 644026, www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk

Drug and Alcohol Workplace Service - Alcohol Concern (national charity that provides help on alcohol policies)Derek Mason: 020 7928 7377


Amethyst Project (seminars on alcohol and drug problems in the workplace), Peter Kay (pictured right): 020 8974 8556, E-mail: amethystproject@aol.com

Clouds House (alcohol and dependency treatment centre), East Knoyle, Wiltshire, 01747 830733

Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 28 June - 4 July 2001

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