It’s been a busy week for chef Sean Brock. On Monday, he revealed that he recently went to rehab to The New York Times, and his phone has not stopped lighting up since. Brock says that once the unread messages went above 200, he couldn’t respond with the heartfelt advice or gratitude each sender deserved. The texts and calls range from well wishes to others seeking advice for mental health help.
Before an evening of service at McCrady’s, Brock talked to Eater Charleston more about why he opened up and what he hopes others will learn from his education on human connections and happiness.
How did the NYT piece come about?
I saw this as an opportunity to hopefully inspire people to not have shame about struggling and to not think of it as weakness. Weakness is not asking for help. Asking for help is an incredible act of courage.
I think in this industry, we spend so much time taking care of other people, that our lives are taking care of other people — it’s very codependent, actually. We can’t take care of other people, especially our team, our family, and the people we love, if we’re not taking care of ourselves. I became the perfect example of that. With four restaurants in two years, six eye surgeries, and 75 visits to Vanderbilt, it was too much. It was just too much. I was so frozen that I didn’t have the ability to ask for help. I remember how scary that was to feel helpless and useless — that’s a really dark and terrifying place.
I’m lucky enough to have people around me that were able to see that and say, “We have to have old Sean back. We miss that guy.” I’ve always been very lucky to have a big platform to spread messages, and I knew that being vulnerable and putting it out there could possibly inspire someone to recognize there’s a problem.
The way I feel now compared to how I felt in early January is two completely different human beings. I’m a different person, and the ripple effect of that, seeing how if affects everyone around me, is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. It makes life really exciting again.
My cooking has changed so much. Being out of that stressful, anxious, and depressed world, the clarity has allowed me to cook on a different level. It has allowed me to show compassion on a different level. It’s allowed me to connect with people on a different level.
I feel like I did when I was a line cook, trying to rise to the top, to be the fastest and the most precise, and to be the person who never overcooked a piece of meat. That’s a very specific moment in my life and a very specific mindset, and that has come back. I’m really enjoying running circles around these young kids. It’s been amazing because the last two years, I haven’t been able to see when I look down. You don’t want to be using a knife or handling fire when you see two of those things when you look down [laughs].
It's amazing how much my myasthenia gravis [ed. note: Brock was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in 2016] is linked to this. If I don't stay grounded and happy, my immune system goes nuts, and I lose the ability to see clearly and for my nerves to communicate with my muscles and my muscles to communicate with my nerves. It’s pretty crazy that it took this to happen for me to step back and look at what I was putting myself through.
No one made me be a workaholic. I was a workaholic because it was a place to hide — to hide from pain. That’s why I fell in love with restaurant work on my first day at 15 years old. My life, since then, has been in the kitchen. And that’s crazy to think. I just turned 39. I turned 39 in rehab, which is better than turning 21 in prison like Merle Haggard sings. [laughs]
Of all the people that have been reaching out to me in the past 24 hours, many of them are saying that they are scared of what everyone else is going to think. They are scared of being viewed as weak, and that’s what kept me from asking for help a long time ago. The human brain is crazy sometimes. It actually makes you believe that. It’s scary.
I wanted to go to the Meadows in December, and I hadn’t told anyone about it, except for Adi [Noe], but I saw the cost, and I saw that I needed 45 days away, and I felt I couldn’t even ask for that. Which is insane. I felt like I couldn’t do that, because I couldn't not be there for others for 45 days, but that’s the codependency that got me in trouble. I was taking care of everyone else before I was taking care of myself.
That feeling of getting on that plane was a range of emotions, but it was this incredible sense of freedom and serenity, because you know in your mind, and you’ve known forever, that this is not sustainable, this way of working and living, and this level of perfectionism isn’t sustainable. You know it’s going to end at some point. I was lucky enough for it to end with a happy ending and not like a lot of our other colleagues who have lost their lives.
What I learned at Meadows was incredible. It has little to do with addiction but rather focuses on why people suffer. I feel like a lot of us are in the same boat. It’s more difficult to get down to the root of what is causing the suffering and to peel back all the layers until you find that, and then you try your best to fix it. Then you have no need to cope. I gained the tools there that will allow me to stay grounded.
For those who don’t have your same opportunity, what advice would you give?
I think that this gift that I’ve been given is the greatest gift that I can give back to the restaurant industry. It’s empathy and compassion. If I weren’t as lucky as I was, I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation. I would still be in misery.
The first step is the hardest step, and that’s surrendering. That’s saying, “My life is not what I want it to be right now. This does not feel good.”
For me to say, “My name is Sean, and I’m a person in recovery,” that is an incredible source of pride for me. It says that I had the stones to admit weaknesses and that my life is unmanageable, and I’d like to humbly ask for your help. That’s strength beyond belief, and that’s all it takes is asking for help. It’s that simple.
My advice to leaders of these restaurants is to study communication, study mindfulness, study boundaries, and really have those tools. We’re not given these, and we’re not taught these, so you have to go seek it. There's this book called the Mindful Path to Self-Compassion that brought everything into focus for me. Once you have that feeling and you’ve experienced that, you thirst for more.
Why open up now?
I’m well aware of the dangers of opening up this early in sobriety. I’ve been warned many, many times, but the simple fact is that people around me are dying. People that have worked for me and people that were my friends — they’re not here any more. If I have the ability to help even one person become happier and healthier, then I’m willing to take that sacrifice.
The people that are giving me the advice [not to open up about therapy] aren’t in the restaurant industry. The restaurant industry is its own world, its own terror dome, its own language, and its own culture. Things are a bit more extreme in that industry, and there’s more urgency needed in our industry. That’s why I’ve chosen not to take that advice and danger my own sobriety. So far, all it has done is charge my batteries and give me extreme gratitude to be sitting here emotionally sober, sober from alcohol, and sober from anger.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.