The Washington Post: A chef who chose recovery hopes his story can help others

Childhood trauma. Drugs. Alcohol. A chef who chose recovery hopes his story can help others

By: David Hagedorn

The sun has just come up on an April morning in 2014 at the Palisades of Bethesda apartments. Chef Ashish Alfred and a prostitute have shot up the last of his heroin. Out of cash to buy more, Ashish throws on clothes and heads to his restaurant, 4935 Kitchen Bar, a few blocks away. Moments later, he’s flat on his face on the sidewalk. Feeling nothing, he pulls himself up and continues. A woman stops him and asks if he’s okay. “Sure,” he mumbles. Later, he’ll discover, the fall had broken four of his teeth.

 

At 4935, he remembers he doesn’t have the keys. His mother, Veena, who bankrolled the restaurant, had taken them one morning after she and restaurant staff walked in on her son and two women in the upstairs catering venue. A night of drinking and the drug Molly had turned into a naked slip-and-slide thanks to upturned restaurant-size jugs of olive oil.

 

Ashish yanks the locked panic bar door open, loots the safe and stuffs his pockets with cash. He notices blood on the floor and all over his shirt. His chin is split wide open. He stops at a bodega on the way back to his apartment to buy Super Glue, a hack cooks use to close gashes, stop bleeding and keep working.

 

At his apartment, the prostitute helps Ashish glue his chin shut. He showers and passes out. When he wakes, she and the cash are gone. A week later, Veena takes her son on a four-hour silent drive to Pennsylvania and drops him off at a 28-day rehabilitation program.

 

Four-and-a-half years later, Ashish, 33, is sober and owns three restaurants, Duck Duck Goose and George’s Chophouse in Bethesda and a second Duck Duck Goose in Baltimore. In November, he was invited to cook at the illustrious James Beard House in New York City and did, just before Christmas. After having served a fivecourse meal that included line-caught halibut with scallop mousseline and osetra caviar, he posed for a picture arm in arm with his mother, he in immaculate chef whites, she in a stunning, intricately embroidered beige chiffon sari over a navy-blue velvet blouse. A portrait of icon James Beard hung behind them. For Ashish, a nightmare had become a dream come true.

 

Why tell his story? “I want for someone to read it and say, ‘I have a friend who needs to read this,’” he said. “I’m not an uber-religious person, but if there wasn’t someone looking out for me, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

 

Drug and alcohol abuse plagues the restaurant business. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health from the Department of Health and Human Services, hospitality and food service workers had the highest rate of substance abuse among all the industries studied, at 16.9 percent. The rate of alcohol abuse was higher only in the mining and construction fields.

 

The website Chefs with Issues and programs such as Ben’s Friends and Restaurant Recovery provide safe spaces for people in the industry to deal with issues that probably have roots in the past.

 

As with many addicts, Ashish’s journey began before he was born. His mother, a Seventh-day Adventist, was a professor in Pune, India. Rather than remain silent in an abusive marriage, she got divorced, taboo in India. She also began a courtship with Rajish Alfred, a student and her third cousin.

 

“My brothers told me very clearly that we do not have divorces in our family,” says Veena. “What choice did I have? I came to America.” She settled in Silver Spring in 1982, staying with an American woman she knew from India. She had six suitcases, including bedsheets and a rug, $1,600 (the maximum the United States allowed) and two boys, Shane 12, and George, 6, to raise. Rajish planned to follow once he could get a visa.

 

An immigration lawyer took $800 to apply for her H1 visa. Six months later, she received a letter saying her visitor visa had expired. The lawyer had never filed her papers. Rather than return to India and now with expired documents, she took a job with the lawyer — and a second job at a senior care facility.

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