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The Caterer

Peter Kay: Back from the brink

13 January 2010
Peter Kay: Back from the brink

Raped at the age of eight, introduced to alcohol and cigarettes at 12, and a drink and drug addict by his 20s, former chef Peter Kay, consultant to The Ark Foundation, now devotes his life to helping others. Here he tells his traumatic life story

I was born on 24 May 1961 in Ankara, Turkey. My father was a flight lieutenant in the RAF and had been stationed in Singapore and Hong Kong before being relocated to Ankara. We returned to England a few years later and ended up in Pinner, Middlesex, where I attended Headstone school, albeit intermittently.

My family were high achievers and my childhood was spent with my brother (nine years older than me), who went on to become a chartered accountant, and a sister (three years older than me), who went into the City. But for me life lacked excitement, and it was something I craved.
My auntie was a superb cook and had worked in the Elizabethan Rooms at Kensington Gore. She went on to marry a French sommelier and eventually bought her own restaurant. Holidays were spent at her restaurant in Exmouth, Devon, observing the hustle and bustle of the business, and at the age of seven my destiny was determined - I was to be a chef.

I cooked at home from a young age - pancakes, fudge, small cakes - often copying my mother, who was extremely talented. I devoured Mrs Beeton and Cordon Bleu magazine, always attempting the "advanced" recipes. I always wanted to race ahead, and felt I had to achieve at a young age - probably why the disciplines required for pâtisserie were not for me till my mid-20s.

It was almost like I was compulsive about learning my chosen profession, although I wasn't yet 12 - driven and pushed by the Presbyterian work ethic that surrounded me.

I started washing up in a restaurant at 12 and was given an orange box (partly for a joke and partly to reach the plate rack), but I progressed and, one night when the salad/dessert chef turned up pissed, I was promoted.

The next weekend, I got in especially early to do my mise en place, though I was deep in it after the second order. They asked me to work the following Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but I was meant to go to cricket practice on the Thursday. The chef said he would give me two cans of Carlsberg and 20 Marlboro as a bonus, so I worked.

By 13, I knew how to make fish velouté, demi-glace and béchamel. By 14, with the same chef, I'd learnt to make profiteroles, genoese, crème brûlée and caramel, chocolate torte and praline.

I was never allowed to wear a chef's jacket, rather a white T-shirt and blue checks, but I was so proud. So proud, in fact, that I would go over the road from the restaurant and pretend to make a phone call in a phone box just so that people would see me in my attire. God knows what I thought they would see, other than a skinny git in funny trousers and T-shirt, with a Marlboro between his lips.

Kitchens were so important to me because they represented home and family. I had a stable family, but I didn't feel I fitted in. I didn't feel loved. I was, of course, but I simply didn't feel it. I was left largely to my own devices. My father thought that if I was hard-working, I was OK.

Many asked why I spent my time working when kids my age were out at discos or parties, but the fact was that, within the environment of a kitchen, I felt like a "someone" - I was needed, wanted and respected. Whenever I felt my self-worth was low, I would announce I couldn't work the following week and it was almost instantly restored.

I felt like I believed a man should, because outside of the kitchen I didn't feel like much. I was shouted at when I attended school, I was belligerent but frightened, a non-achiever but intelligent, and I frustrated a lot of teachers. I left with a Grade 1 in French, and failed all the rest of my exams. "You will never achieve anything, Kay," were the last inspirational words from the deputy head.

It would probably be picked up now, or at least I hope it would, as strange behaviour (mood swings, shoplifting and depression), but I'd been raped by a man in our village when I was eight. It was horrendous, and emotionally devastating. He threatened to kill me if I told anyone. I was petrified and I can vividly remember him going past on his motorbike, sneering and shaking his fist at me. I didn't tell a soul for 24 years.
I used to ask myself: "Maybe I asked for it? Maybe I led him on?" Neither of these was true, but that's what entered my head. I felt dirty, disgusting and vile. I couldn't look at my naked body in the mirror for years. I used to get changed without other kids seeing me. I hated myself. I started punching and biting myself. Today, I work with many people with similar experiences - many are addicts, but whether or not it had any bearing on my alcoholism and drug use is unknown.

I learnt at a young age that sniffing bath cleaner "took me to another world". I found cigarettes and I found booze. Booze worked best of all because it was part of the industry. Chefs drank, and when I drank I felt as good as anyone else - sometimes better.

I found safety, community and a feeling of belonging within a kitchen environment, and I still do. That's why I enjoy the work I do with The Ark (see page 30) - I identify with chefs and people within catering. I'm never happier than when chewing the fat with people like Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, John Williams or Michel Roux.

In 1977, I went to Westminster College to study the professional chefs course. I loved it - I seemed to struggle, but I qualified. Emotionally, I really had no idea how to deal with things and felt that, if people knew me for who I was, they would despise me. I wasn't funny enough, good-looking enough, clever enough, and I was too skinny. So I pretended to be someone else, exaggerating accomplishments, inventing girlfriends and glamorising a rather mundane existence. Alcohol helped me become the person I felt I should be. Ironically, other people seemed to see a talent in me long before I did.

Inspirational mentors in my life then were the Savoy's Silvino Trompetto, Bev Puxley from Westminster College, and Stephen Bull, who was running his one-Michelin-starred restaurant, Lichfield's. I had a severe problem with taking orders from men, but I really blossomed when I felt inspired, noticed and respected. They pointed out to me my qualities, so that when it was necessary to be told my detrimental characteristics, I listened. Shouting doesn't work for me. These are simple tools I implement with those that I support and mentor now.
Life was becoming turbulent. I was drinking a lot and drugging, so I decided to live abroad and I spent two years in South Africa at a five-star hotel. There, I was privileged to meet Wolfgang Lehyrer, the executive chef. A troubled young man like me could have hoped for no greater mentor. He pushed me, promoted me, and taught me to be a chef. Then he left to open a restaurant.

I came back to England and spent short spells at London's Inn on the Park, the Richmond Gate hotel and a restaurant called Cezanne. I moved on to be executive chef for a leading merchant bank in the City, and this was followed by a similar post at the British American Tobacco headquarters in Victoria. Drink and drugs were playing an ever-increasing part in my life now.
I decided to marry. Although she was a marvellous woman, it wasn't enough to change the way I was feeling. We had three beautiful girls and, as much as I adored them, they couldn't change the way I felt. Drink had taken over as my mainstay for emotional balance, and for a time it worked. But alcohol is a rapacious creditor. It called in its markers.

Often, people seem amazed that alcoholics and addicts can maintain some semblance of normality. I was executive chef of three highly successful restaurants in Berkshire, I had a superb salary and a company car. I had attained several bronze and silver medals in international cooking competitions, even a gold at Hotelympia.

But, once you're on that slope, it only ever ends up at the bottom. I was sacked for the first time in my life.

I was being turned down for jobs I would have looked at with disdain 18 months previously. I was living in a squat, having decided to become a "consultant". I'd left my wife and kids - Naomi was five-and-a-half at the time, the twins, Francesca and Harriet, were four. I'd left them so I could lead the life I thought would make me happy. I saw them twice a week, often taking them to a pub garden.
This was a really low period for me - even my closest friends couldn't stand by me any more.

I was admitted to hospital at the end of May 1992. They told me I was seriously ill but they didn't know what it was. Did I drink or take drugs? "The odd glass of wine with my meal; I'm anti-drugs," was my reply. But I'd actually been drinking two bottles of Scotch and taking about 3g of coke a day towards the end. The doctors operated and found my pancreas semi-eaten away, two-thirds diseased. They cut away most of it, left what they could, and sewed me up.

Unfortunately, my pancreas became inflamed and my lungs collapsed. My lungs couldn't reinflate, so I was moved to intensive care. I had cardiorespiratory failure. They brought me back and got me on a respirator.

I went into a coma and stayed in that state for 21 days. During those three weeks, I had kidney failure and another cardiac arrest. My family was called in twice during that period to say goodbye - they were told I wouldn't make it through the night. My sister, brother and mother were all in tears as they kissed me goodbye, slightly moving the tubes feeding into my nose to enable them to kiss my cheek. My father couldn't do any of that, so he shook my hand. My brother slept by my bed for two days.

Totally addicted to the opiates I was being fed (for which I had to be withdrawn), I miraculously woke up to a tape of my three daughters singing nursery rhymes and asking me to take them to the park. I weighed six-and-a-half stones. Believe it or not, I wanted a drink.
A man came to see me in hospital who shared his experiences, which is all I do with my time now. I was about to leave hospital when the nurse who had looked after me the day I came in (and after I left intensive care) had a word with me.

She said: "Only God knows why you're alive. The chances of someone surviving what your body has been put through are in the millions to one against. If you drink again, you'll die. You won't make it through the doors of Casualty, so you have a choice. God has saved you for a reason, but I don't know what it is. Find out what He wants you to do - He will show you. If you can't stop drinking for yourself, do it for your children, till you get used to it. Don't waste this chance."

We were both in tears. For the first time in my life, I thought that maybe I had a purpose, maybe I was good for something. I've tried for 12-and-a-half years to live that mission. I've been free from alcohol and drugs since then, one day at a time.

I started to see my children more regularly and today we're very close. They're very proud of me and I'm hugely proud of them. Francesca is studying to be a chef at Bournemouth (in fact, she did a stage at the Fat Duck), Naomi is training to be an actress, Harriet an artist.
After I left hospital, I didn't work for a year and then went to work as head chef at Burlington's in the West End [of London]. Four happy sober years there took me into teaching for six or seven months.

I then opened my own restaurant-cum-café in Ham [in west London]. Unfortunately, my health was declining and I suffered another mild attack of pancreatitis, which meant the end of me and kitchens.

I now run the Sporting Chance Clinic, which was started by my friend, former Arsenal and England defender Tony Adams. We met when Tony came out as an alcoholic. I was cooking for the Who guitarist Pete Townshend, another friend and recovering alcoholic, and Tony came round for lunch. We talked and talked, and ended up going for supper. We've been close friends for about seven or eight years now.
Tony asked me to become chief executive of Sporting Chance about two years ago. We support sportsmen and women, but predominantly footballers with life and addiction problems. I work as often as I can for The Ark Foundation, which deals with alcohol and drug problems in the catering industry.

Heston and Jamie (both honorary vice-chairmen of The Ark) have been so supportive, and it's been a real joy and privilege getting to know them as friends.

Heston is one of the most honourable men I've met in catering - I have no hesitation in describing him as a genius. He's also a lovely man. Jamie has a passion I've rarely come across. Not only for cooking, but also for the mentoring and wellbeing of youngsters. He's truly unrecognised for the man he is, and the support he offers. There's a depth to Jamie that's far away from the cheeky-chappie image.
I'm 43 now, lucky to have been given another chance, and the fact that someone helped me inspires me to help others.

The Ark Foundation was started by my friend Michael Quinn in 2001. At the pinnacle of his career, Michael was the first British chef de cuisine at the Ritz in London, but five years after leaving the Ritz, he was homeless because of alcoholism and living in a Salvation Army hostel. Like me, he's a recovering alcoholic. He hasn't drunk for over eight years. All Michael and I try to do is make people aware of the effects of drugs and alcohol, then allow them choices. We're also there if their choice is to address the issue.

The Ark is part of the industry's charity Hospitality Action, led by Jim Stephenson and headed by Dick Turpin - two very astute wise, older men than myself, who in their own ways mentor me now. I give as much back to the industry as I can, but the truth is, I've taken from catering far more than it has taken from me. *

If you would like help to deal with issues surrounding drink or drug abuse, or if you have shared similar experiences to Peter Kay and would like to tell your story, Caterer would like to hear from you. Your details would be treated confidentially, and nothing would be used in the magazine or on Caterer-online.com without your consent.

E-mail amanda.afiya@rbi.co.uk or telephone 020 8652 8387.
Peter Kay: free from alcohol and drugs for more than 12 years

The Ark
The Ark Foundation, part of industry charity Hospitality Action, was set up to educate students, managers and employees about alcohol and drugs through educational seminars. It will assist anyone in the industry who would like to face up to an addiction, be it to alcohol, drugs or other substances, and helps to restore confidence and ultimately make family and friends more aware of addiction, and how they too can give support.
The foundation's philosophy is based on "collaboration, not confrontation". It seeks to "clarify goals and talents, build self-esteem, strengthen relationships and reconnect with inner resources that transform and enlighten. We help to change self-destructive patterns, release emotional blocks and rebuild lives."
The education seminars are sponsored by the Savoy Educational Trust, with support from the Master Innholders and the Worshipful Company of Distillers.

Commenting on Kay's involvement with the Ark Foundation, Jim Stephenson, chief executive of Hospitality Action, says: "I don't think anyone could underestimate the influence and effect Peter Kay has on those attending Ark seminars. His approach to such a sensitive issue is unique. To openly address complete strangers about how his life was virtually destroyed by alcohol and drug abuse, while creating a positive spin on how he turned his life around, is truly inspiring.

"It's impossible to leave the room without feeling affected by what you've heard, and I know my sentiments would be echoed by anyone who has attended an Ark session hosted by Peter. You're subconsciously made to stop and think… possibly about your own lifestyle and habits, or maybe those of your friends and family".

The Ark Foundation, 2nd Floor, 166 High Holborn, London WC1V 6TT. Tel: 020 7301 2968. www.thearkfoundation.co.uk.
Spotting the signs

If you suspect that a friend or colleague may be suffering from alcohol or drug abuse, and you want to help them, there are some telltale signs that can confirm whether your suspicions are founded. But don't broach the subject with the individual without asking the Ark or another support group for advice first.

  • Unexplained mood swings.
  • Outbursts of anger and defiance when questioned about usage.
  • Paranoia - some users feel that they're being persecuted or that people are out to get them.
  • Loss in standard of hygiene.
  • Sleeping in and late for work.
  • Angry and confrontational if kept later than they anticipated.
  • Anxious to leave work (before the bars shut).
  • Unexplained theft, such as stock loss from the bar.
  • Unusual amount of alcohol ordered for cooking.
  • Close relationships between bar staff and chefs.
  • Forgetful and unfocused, failing to remember simple tasks such as meat or fish order, or locking the kitchen or closing fridges after work.
  • People who owe money to other staff members.
  • Anger and reluctance to attend alcohol and drug seminars if laid on by management.
  • Severe upward improvement in mood if returning to work after a break or split shift.
  • Phoning in sick on regular basis, more often than not on Mondays.
  • Blaming others for mistakes.
    On board the Amethyst Project, Peter Kay offers confidential advice and support to those in the catering industry. An amethyst was thought to be a cure for a hangover in days gone by. The boat is moored at Teddington Lock on the Thames. Kay says: "The area is beautiful, serene, and lends itself to therapeutic support."

    Guest editor
    Heston Blumenthal

    I met Peter about a year-and-a-half ago - he's one of those people you warm to incredibly quickly, very open and trustworthy. This industry is fantastic but pressurized and all too often people succumb to temptation. There has to be someone that young chefs can turn to, and because of Peter's own experiences he's the ideal man for the job.
    Breakfast wake-up to drugs and alcohol, 1 December
    To find out how to deal with the problem of drug and alcohol abuse in the catering industry, and to help spot the signs, join Caterer at its Breakfast Wake-Up to Drugs and Alcohol event next week. Peter Kay, chief executive of Sporting Chance and consultant to The Ark Foundation, Claire Thompson, director of human resources at Claridge's, London, and Leeds United footballer Clarke Carlisle - who all have first-hand experience of the damaging impact drugs and alcohol can have - are speaking at the conference.

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