Sean Brock’s sobriety story could help change food festivals across the country

Less Risks and Chill

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On July 3, Sean Brock told the New York Times that he went to rehab in January - JONATHAN BONCEK FILE PHOTO
  • Jonathan Boncek file photo
  • On July 3, Sean Brock told the New York Times that he went to rehab in January
"It was the safest I’ve ever felt."

That’s how a newly sober Sean Brock described the "chill space" at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival in his revealing New York Times story this week. As Brock told NYT writer Kim Severson, the chill space allowed the chef — known almost as much for his love of bourbon as his renowned cuisine — a safe place to avoid the festival’s temptations. An alcohol-free area, the chill space was the idea of writer Kat Kinsman developed by restaurateurs Scott Crawford and Steve Palmer, leaders of Ben’s Friends, an addiction support group started in Charleston last year. And it’s a concept you’re likely to see expand to other food festivals across the country, that is if Kinsman and Charleston-based Heirloom Foundation Executive Director Sarah Ory have anything to do with it. Founded in 2012 by Sarah and her husband Jonathan, owner of Bad Wolf Coffee, Heirloom largely works to get grants to fund programs that benefit the health and wellness of food and beverage workers. "In 2012, when Jonathan and I were in New York, we had a really hard year. We were trying to navigate work-life balance, which, as you know, is hard in F&B, and in an 18-month period lost three industry friends. The reality of the long hours in high-pressure kitchens was taking a pretty brutal toll on our lives. It was something that everyone knew about, but no one talked about openly," says Ory. Shaken, the couple knew they had to do something to help the industry. So they began the foundation which has worked to fund projects that directly help make work life better for those in F&B.

Sarah Ory runs Heirloom Foundation - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Sarah Ory runs Heirloom Foundation
"As entrepreneurs, we knew how little support there was for those who ch oose to risk everything and open their own restaurants. There’s little professional assistance, profit margins are slim, and your work is heavily and publicly scrutinized. It’s also almost impossible to have the kind of home and family life that 9-to-5ers enjoy," says Sarah. "Not a single month has gone by since starting Heirloom that I haven’t gotten a late-night call or email from someone in crisis with nowhere to turn, or worse — the absolute worst — families who have just lost someone. Our culture has really glorified chefs in the last 10-15 years, but a lot of people don’t realize the physical and emotional strain that is putting on F&B professionals and their families."



Enter Extracrispy editor Kat Kinsman. The writer, who recently published Hi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves, joined Heirloom’s board this spring, and has been instrumental in furthering Heirloom’s mission. As Ory explains, Heirloom partnered with Kinsman to research chefs’ mental health problems for her recent Chefs with Issues project.

"Heirloom had a PhD epidemiologist and statistician review the findings in the Chefs with Issues survey, and for the first time we could point to specific problems. We found higher instances of mental health issues, especially depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. We found that the culture in kitchens made most people feel that they couldn’t speak openly when they needed help. Those factors combined with long hours, an inability to take sick or personal leave, and minimal health benefits were creating a hotbed for crisis," says Ory. It’s a crisis Kinsman sees throughout the year as she travels to speak at various food events across the country. "I go to a lot of food festivals. There’s a lot of emphasis on alcohol and revelry, and it’s totally understandable because chefs are away from work and families and they’re with friends they don’t get to see very often. There are a lot of liquor companies. Things are flowing freely," she says. "But some chefs were struggling with sobriety during these festivals, and there are particular challenges." Like just getting a glass of water instead of a beer, for instance. Kinsman, who suffers from a bacterial issue called SIBO currently isn’t drinking and experienced the frustrations this can cause firsthand during the James Beard Awards.

"At all the after parties, it was incredibly difficult to get a glass of water," she says. Now imagine you’re a chef trying to avoid alcohol at a similar event and you’re told what one chef in Chicago shared with Kinsman: "He was told ‘We’ll see if we can find you a cup and you can go into a bathroom to get some water.’"
The chill space was writer Kat Kinsman's idea - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • The chill space was writer Kat Kinsman's idea
This all got Kinsman thinking, what if there was an alternative to the raucous bar scene at food festivals? A place where those working on their sobriety could relax and not feel pressured or tempted.

"I started to talk with Dominique Love and her fantastic team," says Kinsman. Love, co-founder of AF&WF as well as CEO of IWSC Group North America, came to Jeff Gordinier, Esquire Food & Drinks editor, and Kinsman, and asked them to do mental and physical health panels at the festival. In the process, Kinsman asked if there was anyway they could make sober space? Love, having already been working on ways to support festival talent, was immediately on board.

"This has been a passion project for us," says Love. "We're very close to our talent and this was our gift to them."

"Dominque and Steve came up with Chill Space and arranged the whole thing. I just put the bug in their ear and they made it happen," adds Kinsman.

The Steve she's referring to is Steve Palmer of Indigo Road who founded Ben's Friends with Charleston Grill GM Mickey Bakst last year. Together, with Scott Crawford of Raleigh's Crawford & Sons, the three have been leading the charge to create a more supportive community for those in F&B seeking help with addiction.

And by June 1, the stage was set. In a large grilling space at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, the chill space opened. "It was so lovely and intimate," says Kinsman. "There were big, comfy couches, music, a lovely, elegant table with pineapple concoction." Which was key. Rather than throw a couple dozen LaCroix’s in a bin of ice, Kinsman says the alcohol-free drink was presented with all the trappings worthy of a marquee food festival cocktail display. "It wasn’t like here’s the kids table. There was real thought put into this," Kinsman says.

And seated on the couches were Palmer and Crawford available for whoever showed up. "It was really lovely with good conversations happening," says Kinsman. "It felt so safe and fantastic. People were breaking off into little groups." For Brock, who was at his first festival sober, it was just what he needed. And he’s not the only one.

"I feel like if we can tip a few more festivals — Aspen, New York, South Beach would be the white whale — and get a great nonalcoholic beverage sponsor, it would be great," says Kinsnam who has already heard from a few interested parties.

Love says theGlobal Chief of IWSC Group has given the concept full backing which means in the next year chill spaces could be at any number of the company's events such as Cochon555, Sugar Land Wine & Food Affair, and Whisky Extravaganza.

And what of Charleston?

Kinsman says, "Charleston needs this more than anything."

The growth of Ben’s Friends meetings is testament to that. The support group recently decided to host two meetings a week with a new Thursday gathering in addition to its Sunday meeting. As Bakst shared in May, "We have six people under 30 days sober. We knew we needed to add an additional day, especially on a day going into the weekend which can be the hardest time. "

So will Charleston Wine + Food be a leader in the chill space movement? The festival is eight months away, but if an organization such as Ben’s Friends would be willing to host an event during the festival, the festival's publicist says it would absolutely support it taking place.

Charleston Wine + Food director Gillian Zettler provided the following statement:

"First and foremost, we are truly proud of Sean and continue to wish him only the best health and happiness. As part of our higher purpose, Charleston Wine + Food aims to inspire connections through thoughtful storytelling and the creation of meaningful experiences with a strong sense of place. Our focus is and always will be on spotlighting Charleston and the Lowcountry's unique culinary and hospitality community. While we’re not the experts on this topic, we will always support those looking to continue a happy and healthy lifestyle. Additionally, we will always support the success and missions of organizations such as Ben’s Friends."

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