I knew what I was giving up with alcohol. I had a fabulous education in wine. And I liked getting drunk.
Growing up in Niagara, I knew grapes as the delicious fruit bought at the Saturday morning market in Welland or Hamilton. Then, it was mostly Italians growing them for wine. Good earth and lush green vines under a cornmeal-yellow sun.
I was taught wine tasting by Billy Munnelly at the Stratford Chefs School. It's hard to express how much I learned. Fuck. Like a fantastic Irish conversationalist, he talked to us about the grape and gave us a thirst to imagine the relationship with food. It left an imprint on me.
Giving up drink was an acute loss. It felt like a funeral. Initially, I thought I might have to say goodbye to cooking and restaurants. I cried so hard with my addiction counsellor about that. Who was I without those things?
From a very early stage in recovery, I did things that would get me serious side eye in some circles. I took the suggestion to make the experience my own seriously. I had to learn how to do restaurants all over again. People in Stratford taught me that glassware was important. I could drink sparkling water out of crystal wine glasses. What a gift. I needed the lesson to feel comfortable eating out.
Then, I had some exceptional experiences in Europe. I went to places where care was taken with non-drinkers. At Aubergine on Royal Hospital Road in London, I met the standard bearer of grace, Jean-Philippe. He gave me a sense of belonging and to this day remains the high-water mark. (At the time, Gordon was in the kitchen and ranting in the media about not hiring women.)
I can't remember when I decided I could smell wine. Again, I think it was sitting in the aroma cloud hanging over a restaurant table. Watching the amorphous shapes of red wine through glass dance on a white tablecloth — in the afterglow of dinner. A deep seduction. Now I ask for THE glass with a puddle of wine in it. On a rare occasion, I've needed a spittoon.
A lot of the industry in North America couldn't figure out what to make of me in the '90s. I was an impossible problem to some. You can't imagine the mountain of scuffed Libby water glasses I've had to drink from in beautiful restaurants. Do not put one down in front of me now.
In 2000, I was offered a champagne flute of fresh squeezed blood orange juice and sparkling water instead of Prosecco at a River Cafe send-off. Soon after, in restaurants, I began asking for something nice before dinner that wasn't a Shirley Temple or cranberry and soda and still getting blank stares from waiters.
Sell me something, please. Isn't that why I'm here?
The problem was never my not drinking alcohol. It was a commercial defect of character in restaurateurs and chefs. An absence of business imagination that was costly mostly because of how long it went on.
The choice of beverages now thrills me. My favourites include local kombucha. There are curated alcohol-free tastings and superb non-alcoholic beer and wines. What a relief the whole thing has caught on.
It's such a pleasure knowing other sober restaurant people. I felt lonely for the longest time.
I make a boozy fruitcake at Christmas. Some summers, I make Rumtopf. I enjoy both without apology. I would run a mile with knee replacements for Baba au Rhum from Edulis or Abel in Lyon.
You get the idea.
So many things I couldn't admit for a long time. Does that annul my membership of almost three decades? Does how I live mean I need to return all my chips? This is what I'm trying to discern. I want to be myself. But do I still qualify?
Jay sent me this wonderful video of Stephen Fry reading a letter written by Nick Cave.
"Even though the creative act requires considerable effort, you will be contributing to the vast network of love that supports human existence."
Alyssa sent me a video text of Halo-Halo from a new Phillipino restaurant in the East End.
My people get me.
This song is poetry.
Image credit: composite image, Blackbird Turdus merula isolated on a white background, © Shutterstock.
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