Eric Nelson is the creator of Portland’s hot new cocktail bar pop-up Shipwreck and co-owner of Eem, Phuket Cafe and Langbaan restaurants. As a sober bartender, he is also on the forefront of the local no-proof movement. After hitting rock bottom, Nelson attended a 45-day rehab program and emerged sober and more focused.
In this Voices in Food story, Nelson talks about how he became a better bartender, inspiring others to speak out about the importance of good mental health and changing the stigmatized work culture.
When I started working in the restaurant industry, everybody wanted to be like Anthony Bourdain. It was cool to go out and party after work. I also fell into that trap when I was around 25 years old. It started off as a fun thing to hang out with co-workers, but 10 years later, I would wake up in the morning thinking about when I could get my first drink. At 10 a.m., after dropping my kid off at school, I would start drinking and then continue all through the day.
As a bartender, I was in a high-risk environment, surrounded by alcohol daily and often expected to drink it. But for me, drinking was much more than an indulgence. It was a way to deal with social anxiety and mask my depression. Drinking numbed my fear, I found it easier to be around people, and as the evening rolled in, it became more fun. A few of my friends competed to see how much we could drink during a shift. There was no shame associated with it.
“We already have a lot of sober chefs, but we need more sober bartenders.”
Restaurants seemed to have raised a society of sociopaths for a long time. We are supposed to leave any personal issues at the door and get to work. Mental health has never been a thing until now.
My turning point happened one day when I was around 37. I had been cheating on my girlfriend. I didn’t like who I was. And then, one day, I decided I was going to quit drinking cold turkey. But before I could do that, I had alcohol-induced seizures while my 1-year-old son was sleeping on my chest. It was really bad, but there wasn’t much I could do. The doctor said that my body relied on alcohol so much that it would shut down if I stopped drinking. So I had to keep putting alcohol in my body until I got to a rehabilitation center and got medication to combat the withdrawal.
Sometimes if you have been drinking alcohol for so long, you don’t have control over your body anymore and you need external help. You can’t quit on your own. That’s why you need to surround yourself with sober people or join organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Ben’s Friends. You need to be around like-minded people who face similar issues.
After my recovery, I worked as a delivery driver for a few months before I felt confident to get back into bartending. By then, everyone in Portland knew that I was a recovering alcoholic. I applied to a few restaurants, but they didn’t want to hire me because I was too much of a gamble. Others, I feared working for because they promoted a drinking culture among their staff. I watched owners take shots at the bar and walked out of the interviews.
Finally, after a frank conversation about my past, the owners of the cocktail bar Expatriate gave me a job. At first, it was super awkward and uncomfortable to return to work as a bartender because I had been using drinking to overcome my social anxiety. Luckily, the therapy I got at rehab helped me recognize where that anxiety stemmed from and how to address it without alcohol. I trained my body and my mind to not have temptation and to not want to drink again. In fact, I got grossed out by the idea of being drunk.
Not drinking is also what helped me become a better bartender. I realized that before, I constantly thought about how to get a drink and feared getting caught drinking or called out at work. I never told anyone about my problem. I was always hiding, trying to get away with something. About half of my thoughts were based on guilt and shame. But now that I don’t consume alcohol, I am able to focus more and be present 100% of the time. The space in my brain has opened up. I am able to be more authentic and sincere with my customers and my co-workers. In fact, I feel I have a laser focus on what is happening around me. It has also opened my palate ― after a while, when you drink as much as I did, you stop tasting things. Now, I experience flavors more intensely.
“It’s important to have a fancy glass in front of you so you feel you are part of the group. But like good flavorful food, why not have a creative zero-proof cocktail?”
I also started looking at drinks in a different way. Instead of focusing on what people were drinking, I started noticing how they were drinking. For example, if it was for a celebration, going out or just having fun. I started to use cocktails as a vessel to bring energy to my customers and my work. I love the spirit of drinking, people toasting with drinks ― just not waking up chugging a bottle.
That’s why my team and I created successful cocktail programs and non-alcoholic cocktails that allow you to savor the flavors and the moments. You don’t have to drink soda water or ginger beer when socializing. It’s important to have a fancy glass in front of you so you feel you are part of the group. But like good flavorful food, why not have a creative zero-proof cocktail?
Since my recovery, I have received recognition for my capabilities behind the bar and have gone on to pursue my dreams of opening my own restaurants. And that makes me happier. Life is really good right now; I don’t want to throw that away.
The industry is changing, thanks to a new school of chefs like Andrew Zimmern, Sean Brock and Mike Solomonov, who came out and said that sobriety and caring about yourself are trendy. It’s not like it was in the 2000s, when the restaurant culture mandated employees have shift drinks. Now, we are strict about allowing only one drink, and there are a lot of employees who don’t drink at all. The industry is changing, but more people need to come out and talk openly. We already have a lot of sober chefs, but we need more sober bartenders.