Two years ago this week, John, a chef in his thirties, crashed out of his job amid the chaos of cocaine and crack addiction and accusations of robbery. He was suffering a total emotional breakdown and within days he was living on the streets.
John - not his real name - had been a successful chef working in leading restaurants and gastropubs. He had been married. He had mixed with A-list guests and been invited to their parties.
But when he lost it all that Christmas, London had become - as it seems to every Christmas - a ghost town. He was homeless, and with his last £220, headed to King's Cross, booked into a hostel and on Christmas Day went out to look for a street dealer. He bought £50 of heroin, £50 of crack, two bottles of brandy and 100 paracetamol. He'd walked out of a job he could no longer cope with, and the obvious next step was to walk out on life.
His aim was to get bombed one final time, then let the painkillers and alcohol finish the job. But through an ironic twist of fate the crack saved his life. "The intense high of the drug sent my mind into overdrive," he recalls. "I stared at the ceiling all night, just mulling over everything. I thought it was the end. But then, suddenly, somewhere, I knew that there was something left to save."
Two years on, John has proved to be right - just. This week he completed his first month in his first job since that desperate night. But it's been a gritty journey that has seen him spend six vulnerable months homeless on the streets of London, struggle through therapy and finally get himself into accommodation, only then to begin the slow ascent back into work.
This is not a story of how kitchens offer a breeding ground for drugs and self-destruction. That he was snorting about £700-worth of cocaine a week and topping that up with the extras he got for sorting out others is shocking but no longer surprising. Organisations like the Ark Foundation have long warned of the dangers of combining an addictive personality like John's - his father was a violent alcoholic - with the "work hard, play hard" catalyst of a commercial kitchen.
John's bosses proffered little more than empty concern: when he broke down in front of his employers, saying the social coke snorting had been replaced by isolated crack smoking, and that he couldn't go on, they told him not to worry - they'd "keep an eye" on him. John shakes his head: "They just didn't know how to handle it."
What's even more worrying is that John has had to get himself back to work in the face of considerable prejudice from his own industry. Certainly, John has a black mark against his name which he's willing to take responsibility for, but his efforts to sort out his life haven't been matched by others. "Surprisingly, giving up the drugs was the easy part," he says. "It's the building up of solid foundations like housing and employment that have been the biggest struggle."
His first action after the aborted suicide attempt was to throw away his phone so that he couldn't contact his former dealers. He then headed for the Crisis shelter at Southwark. "I walked in there with just my bag of clothes. There were people lying around, junkies everywhere and the place stank. I sat down on the floor and cried."
The shelter was operating only until 28 December, so he left and hit the streets. It was, he says, a form of self-exile and the only way he knew how to survive. "You can form a protective barrier on the streets," he says. "You have to - that way I could choose who I associated with. Other homeless people soon learnt not to bring drugs near me. But I could only block others out because I realised I'd lost it all."
Through snow and a harsh winter he survived with a big coat, food handouts and day centres. He wasn't allowed in a hostel because he wasn't receiving benefit, and he couldn't receive benefit because he had walked out on a job. It would be six months before he would be allowed to register for benefit.
But he showered every day, wore clean clothes and never begged. He avoided trouble, went to libraries, read books and continued to stay off the drugs. He avoided the night shelters - some of which he describes as "little more than state-sponsored crack dens" - and started volunteering at the centre for
homeless people at St John's church in Waterloo. His job? Cooking breakfast.
Although he's the first to admit that the breakfast shift had its selfish motives - he could get in off the streets to the centre earlier than anyone else, use the shower when it was still clean and get first dibs on the food - it was the first sign that after all the trouble it had landed him in before, kitchen work might yet come to his rescue. His efforts gave him a step-up into a St Mungo's hostel in Borough, and from there he got on the clearing list for the housing association. Then, in November last year, he got a one-bedroom flat in Deptford. "It's stable and the rent's good," he says.
By this stage he had been clean for nine months. He attended a Community Drug Programme (CDP) and therapy. The CDP was tough, and he was often surrounded by crack-addicted prostitutes, some of whom had been raped during their search for their next fix. "It brought me right down to earth. I saw I wasn't alone and that I wasn't the lowest," he says.
Edge of oblivion
Therapy was much better, and in June this year his psychiatrist sent him on his way with a reference letter confirming he was clean and ready for the world again. He had already contacted Caterer in April to ask how someone in his position could get back into work. The response from Caterer‘s recruitment expert at the time was clear: "When applying for work, be prepared to talk honestly about your circumstances and what you have learnt from your experiences. Make sure you're able to put forward a compelling case to employ the new you and really major on your passion and fine-dining experience. A good recruitment consultancy should be able to help you with this and open some doors for you."
The reality was much harder, and the struggle to get back into the kitchen pushed him closer to the edge of oblivion than six months of living on London streets. "I had my hardest day three days before I finally got this job," he says. "I just thought ‘Fuck it. No one wants to employ me.' I very nearly went out to get high."
Caterer's advice chimed with what he wanted - to be as honest as possible with any new employer. In the worst months of his addiction he confesses that he lied to and manipulated many people. He rightly felt the only way he could leave that behind would be to open the lid on his past from the off. He didn't want to be caught out, to let something slip, to have someone from his past recognise him and compromise his new beginning.
But as John's portraits here demonstrate - and the fact that we've had to change his name - he hasn't been able to have it his way. He bombarded employment agencies and contract caterers with his impressive CV then sat back and waited. At the first interview he stuck to his plan and told his whole story - addiction, homelessness, rehabilitation. But when he'd finished there was a long pause. And the first bit of face-to-face, supposedly professional advice from a recruitment company was: "I don't think you should tell anyone about that - they don't need to know."
Worryingly, this became a familiar theme, as did the body language of those he met. "A pattern developed," John says. "As soon as I was brutally frank I could feel the atmosphere change. They would start walking on eggshells round me. I'd faced up to my past but they couldn't." Worse still was the failure of these companies to get back in touch with John. "I never heard back from people. Of course, I then got angry because I saw the same companies advertise jobs that I was perfect for, but I wouldn't be contacted about them." Out of 50 or so approaches and interviews, only a third got back to him, and only two individuals came back with potential work.
Unfortunately, this proves that much still needs to be learned by the industry about supporting rehabilitation. Responding in writing to an applicant is one of the BHA's 10 points in its Code of Good Recruitment Practice. It would seem, however, that for all the framed certificates or badges of honour emblazoned on letterheads trumpeting this HR scheme or that recruitment initiative, clearly following basic processes still proves too much. And if that is the case, how can they deal with a case as complex as John's?
"I've seen me with the drug habit, so I understand more than most that it would be easier to choose someone with no history over someone who could still be an addict. But no one I spoke to seemed to have a heart. Nobody seemed to be able to take me as a person. I would have just preferred it if people had been honest, rather than saying they could help and then never phoning back."
And it's not just about emotional support, or the so-called hospitality industry proving it has some manners. No one has precise figures for the number of people who fall out of their jobs in this industry each year because of alcohol and drug addiction. Any estimate would at least have to be doubled simply because of the nature of the crisis; individuals affected in many cases become isolated and disappear without trace. But with the same industry facing a crippling shortage of skilled workers, would it not make sense in business terms at least to help those recovered back into work with open arms?
"If people took on people like me they would be reinvesting in the industry," says John. "Plus, I wouldn't need nearly as much spent on my training."
There was some real hope, though. Two offers did come through, the first from a large contract catering firm, which heard about him through his contact with Springboard UK. Despite knowing his history, the company still wanted to give him a role overseeing food across several sites, because of his pedigree. John desperately wants to get into contract catering - he's most confident about that sector's working hours not jeopardising the delicate rebuilding of his life - but he thought the job carried too much responsibility to be his first stepping stone. The company is still considering him for a job in a kitchen, and with expansion planned for the New Year, John is hoping one will turn up.
In the meantime, he has taken a job in a restaurant kitchen as acting senior sous. He has, however, had to lie on his CV and during the interview process to get it. It wasn't what he planned, but after almost succumbing to what would have been a disastrous relapse, he was prepared to compromise. The offer came through one recruitment agent who John says stood out from the rest by being frank and understanding. Dates were stretched in interview and his absence from the kitchen glossed over as just taking a break.
But despite the uneasiness about lying, John is overcoming the challenges. At first much of this was physical, getting used to being on his feet again and coping with the split-shift system. But there are mental tests as well. John felt himself snap in the kitchen recently when junior members of the brigade were joking around with a waitress who was pretending to rack up lines of cocaine with icing sugar. Socialising with the team at the staff Christmas party will be another.
But relish and pride are creeping back into his voice. "What's frustrating is that everyone around me in this job is happy strolling
when I want to run," he says. "Five minutes' extra mise en place on a few of the dishes would transform the food." When he says "I know I could do better than the head chef" you know that he's starting to sound like a typical cook again.
And as that tentative self-belief pushes back the layers of doubt and paranoia, it's the same chef's environment which once nearly killed him that's now coming to his salvation. "I've got a hell of a chance to offer this sector something. I know no one will serve it up to me on a plate, but cooking in the kitchen has always been about passion, about the food and about the love of a good brigade. I'm beginning to think again about creating new food combinations. I'm writing menus. I'm hungry for it, but I'm no longer willing to give up my life for my job. I want my life and my job."
For industry-related drug concerns and advice, especially on alcohol addiction, contact the Ark Foundation 01488 668074
If you're worried about a person involved with drugs or would like advice for yourself, contact Talk to Frank, 0800 776600,
or e-mail email@example.com.
For more information on any issue surrounding drugs, contact Drugscope, 08707 743682, or visit www.drugscope.org.uk.
Other useful industry contacts
Hospitality Action 020 7614 4343
British Hospitality Association 0845 880 7744
Springboard UK 020 7497 8654