• Braden Bouchard

In The Beginning

I wish that I could tell you that it was an easy path to being the still incredibly imperfect person I am today, but it's simply not true. I fell off a cliff and rolled into things as they came for quite a while. Around November 2017 is when my journey towards the culinary world began. After moving home to Orlando from Atlanta, I reached a very dark, and low point in my life. My life was being ruled by alcohol, and, this sounds stupid, but food TV was the only other thing that I consumed. I dreamt about going on those adventures, seeing those sights, smelling those smells, and I had come to the definitive conclusion that it was too late for me, therefore watching it, was the only way I could try and feel something.

In January 2018, just after my 25th birthday, I went to a wilderness treatment center in North Carolina, to try and get sober. My journey began, like many, in the dish pit. See, at this rehab, everyone wants their chore to be the dishes. Because, washing dishes in the kitchen is one of the only times we're allowed to listen to music. Every night, after we're all shut in our rooms, the white board on the fridge in the community room is wiped clean, leaving open chore slots on a first come, first serve basis. My friends and I would wake up at 6 a.m. for two reasons. One, we would get dishes as our chore for that day, thus allowing us to take turns requesting a few songs played from YouTube videos. Additionally, we could only drink coffee till a certain time every day, so the earlier you wake, the more coffee you can slam down. As addicts, this was the only outlet for that behavior. The only other time we got to listen to music was when driving into "the field", meaning 3 days of hiking and camping in a new location every week.

Although the dishes were a daily activity, there were also cooking classes, there was cooking over a fire out in the field, and the finale. Every time a group of us "graduated" our program, we could decide on a 4 or 5 course meal to make and serve together. Almost nothing was off limits, and there were some genuinely great meals at those times. It's impressive to watch a few fellow newly sober addicts cook thirteen pizzas, and simultaneously serve their side dishes, appetizers, and desserts. It's interesting the way things turn out. When I graduated, I got sent to an after-care program in San Diego, basically an amped up version of a sober living. Task one is to go to AA meetings, every single day. Task two, get a job. It just so happened that the first "interview" I had consisted of a short phone conversation with some confirmation of details on my application, followed up with instructions on what to wear for my first day.

I was hired as a dishwasher. I'll never forget the guilt that I felt that first day. We closed at 3, and I was washing dishes until 3:45, holding up the entire staff. If you've worked in this industry a bit, you probably have a relatable experience. It was tough, especially as someone newly sober, who's also just trying to adjust to living in society again, not to mention the repetitive trial and error approach to medication being administered those first couple of months. But I didn't really have a choice but to stick with it, holding onto this job was a requirement of my program. A little while later, something clicked, and I started putting in work. They nicknamed me Speedy Gonzalez, and I quickly moved from dishwasher to food runner, and soon food runner to expo, and I held that position for a solid two years. I learned everything about that place.

Eventually, things got pretty good. I had a ritual of surfing either before or after work almost every day, and I'd spend most of my time off surfing too. I'd go surfing with the other staff too, we did a good amount socially together. However, there was still a bit of a disconnect, being sober and surrounded by people who drink socially can be limiting on your plans. The job got easier as I mastered it, but the rest of life continued to be what it was. I had issues, I relapsed, I struggled. Once the pandemic hit, things got rough, I isolated a lot, and the work day was really my only social outlet. There were many times that holding onto that job, and upholding the responsibilities it entailed, was the only reliable thing in my life. I worked there until just a couple days before I moved back to Orlando from San Diego in September 2020, making them my final stop before that long road trip.

In the end, that first job out of treatment taught me a lot. Not just about the restaurant industry, I also learned how to feel like I was part of something again. These weren't coworkers, these were family, and friends. Humans crave connection, and I'd been intentionally starving myself of that in the pursuit of drugs for the last few years. I cultivated a strong connection with the people my first restaurant job surrounded me with. It was about good vibes and learning to grow. I got to retrain my brain with a little bit of discipline that I'd all but forgotten by that point. These people picked me up when I fell, giving me time off to go to a detox treatment center to get sober again after a difficult relapse. The strong bonds I built with these people played an integral role in my deeper appreciation for this craft, this art, and this industry.

Until I got my next restaurant job, the only real cooking that I did was at home, as I never was hired full time as a cook at my restaurant, only standing in for the occasional dish or two. I didn't mind, I got great at expo, and dishes, unfortunately meaning they generally fell on me to complete quickly at closing. It's a struggle I'm glad I went through, because I learned to multitask well again. My days of Adderall addiction had redirected my brain to focus on one singular thing at a time, so I stumbled quite a bit at first. I'm thankful for all of it in the end, because it got me to where I am. I'm a cook at work, I'm a cook at home, and I can do this on the side along with my other passions. I love talking about food, reading about food, writing about food, thinking about it. This is an outlet for me to share that, and I hope you enjoy it. This is about food, from both sides of the line.

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