On the night of Dec. 28, 2012, Jonathan Gushue, one of Canada’s most decorated chefs, disappeared. He finished a dinner service at Langdon Hall that included pickerel in crème fraîche with black radish and black-pepper honey, got into his car and never arrived home.
No one, including Gushue’s wife, his sous chefs and his friends, knew what had happened to the 41-year-old father of three who, just two years earlier, had put Langdon Hall, in Cambridge, Ont., on the prestigious San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list. As the chef’s disappearance made headlines from coast to coast, mysterious details began leaking out – his phone was found at an upscale Toronto hotel – but nothing more.
Thirteen days later, Gushue was found and reported safe. Several months later, he left Langdon Hall, then vanished from public life.
After three years of silence, Gushue is opening a new restaurant, The Berlin, in Kitchener, Ont. In this Globe and Mail exclusive, he talks to food writer and long-time friend Mark Schatzker about his past, his battle with alcohol and why an industry culture that’s widely considered toxic had nothing to do with it.
What happened that night in December?
I met a friend for dinner at a restaurant downtown in Toronto. I drank four glasses of wine and soon after was pulled over by a RIDE program and blew .081.
Was this your first DUI?
No. I had a previous one from 2011.
Are you an alcoholic?
Yes. I did a stint in rehab in 2011, but within a few weeks started drinking secretly on business trips. By December of 2012, I had reached that point where I couldn’t stop drinking.
What were you thinking as all this was taking place?
That my life was over. I had the full intention of getting drunk for however long I could sustain it and then killing myself.
That seemed like the logical solution for me at the time. I needed to escape, and escape forever. That is the insanity of addiction. Everything becomes an excuse to keep drinking. It’s very typical in alcoholics.
What happened after you blew over?
They impounded my car. I got in a cab and went to the first hotel I thought would take me and drank the minibar dry. Two days later, I went to Union Station. The first train out of town was headed to Montreal, and I got a one-way ticket.
Were you drinking the entire time?
I was not sober at any point. In Montreal, I would drink from 11 in the morning till about 1 in the morning. I’d wake up at 7 a.m. and have a panic attack. It would occur to me that I’d left my family with nothing. And I’d lie there and wait until the bar opened and start again.
Addiction is often described as a disease of craving. Can you describe that craving?
You’re restless and irritable. It physically hurts – in your wrists, your shoulders, your elbows, your back. You wake up every single day saying, ‘I’m never going to drink again.’ By 3 p.m., you’ve changed your mind. ‘Maybe I can have just one …’
Do the drinks satisfy that condition?
There was a time when they did relieve me. But you get to a point where the alcohol doesn’t work any more. A hundred is not enough.
What was going on back in Cambridge?
My wife went to the police and filed a missing-person report. Then it hit the news. There were reporters parked on my lawn. One of them even went to my son’s school and tried to get pictures of him.
How were you eventually found?
I was in the hotel restaurant in Montreal drinking when I saw police officers in the lobby pointing at a television. They got on the elevator, and I saw them go up to my floor. So I followed them and they were in my room waiting for me. They said, ‘Do you know you’ve been reported missing?’ I said no. They looked at the hotel manager and said, ‘There’s nothing we can do. He looks all right.’ And then they left. By 9 or 10 that night, an old friend of mine, who’d driven there straight from Cambridge, knocked on the door. He said, ‘Jon, are you done?’ I remember looking at the wine bottle and thinking, ‘I am done. I can’t do this any more. I don’t want to die.’
And you haven’t had another drink since?
From the second my friend walked in, I stopped drinking.
Why didn’t rehab work the first time?
Because I didn’t want it to work. Looking back, the only reason I went was because I wanted everyone to shut up and get off my back.
What did work?
A 12-step program. Working with other alcoholics. Someone funded by the government won’t sit there and tell you to your face that you’re a liar. A fellow alcoholic will. And for reasons I can’t explain, I was relieved of the desire to drink. I didn’t want to leave my family thinking their dad was the guy who killed himself or drove into a tree drunk.
Is being a father what saved you?
I’ve never felt pain like the thought of leaving my kids that way. The only thing that embarrasses me is why it took so long for that to kick in.
What were the legal consequences of your second DUI?
I went to court on Oct. 3, 2014, and was incarcerated that day.
You went to jail.
For 30 days, which is a standard sentence for your second DUI in under five years. I was out in 20.
Why is there so much substance abuse in the restaurant industry?
Addicts quite often don’t realize it, but they tailor their lives to suit their addiction. It’s the lifestyle – working nights, cash tips. It’s easy to sneak alcohol.
There was speculation that the stress of being one of the country’s top chefs had finally caught up with you.
That’s absolute crap. I would have been an alcoholic if I lived on Park Avenue or a park bench.
You are opening a new restaurant, The Berlin, in Kitchener this month. What can people expect?
We called it The Berlin because we wanted the surroundings to guide it – the local ingredients and also the local traditions [settled by German Mennonites, Kitchener was originally named Berlin]. You’ll see cured trout and dumplings in various forms – pelmeni, spaetzle, pierogi, potato dumplings. We’re working on a duck and Gruyère-stuffed dumpling. You might see horseradish and potato dumplings with sweet-onion and tarragon salad with toasted hempseed. I have a wood-fired grill I can’t wait to use.
Has everything you’ve been through influenced your philosophy on food?
I think I’ve become more realistic. I’ve gone from cooking to get attention to cooking what I’m good at, but also what people want. Now I want to cook the best food I can with the best ingredients we have. That’s the way restaurants should work, but they often don’t.
Are there challenges to being a chef who doesn’t drink?
You don’t have to hide from alcohol to be a recovered alcoholic. The way I cook hasn’t changed. Lately, I’ve been cooking with a lot of beer and cider. But even when I was drinking, I wouldn’t pour wine into a sauce and taste it. You always wait until the alcohol is cooked out. And when it comes to pairing a dish with a wine, I leave it up to the sommelier. But I’ve always done that.
Why do you think it’s important to get your story out?
There’s relief in telling the truth. And if my story can help even one other addict, it’s worth it.
In just a few more weeks, you will have been sober for three years. How does it feel?
I wouldn’t trade my worst day sober for my best day drunk.
This interview has been edited and condensed.Report Typo/Error
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