'Quitting Was Something I Had Contemplated Doing For A Long Time'

Here's how and why chef Jose Salazar chose to stop drinking, even though he didn't drink every day.
Illustration: Maddie Abuyuan / Photo: Dani Hall

More than five years ago, James Beard Award-nominated and Cincinnati-based chef and restaurant co-owner Jose Salazar chose to stop drinking. Alcohol impacted his ability to run his restaurants — Salazar, Mita’s, Goose and Elder and Daylily Deli — because he didn’t like feeling hungover. In this edition of Voices In Food, Salazar opens up about his relationship with alcohol, how “Dry January” isn’t a long-term solution, and how society needs to be more responsible with alcohol consumption.

I’m different from some other folks who would consider themselves alcoholics or decided to stop drinking, in that I didn’t drink every day. I would sometimes have one, and I would sometimes have 10. My issue was more just overindulging at times, versus daily consumption. But nonetheless, I still considered that to be a problem, and quitting was something I had contemplated doing for a long time. I was that guy who was wearing the lampshade.

When I did finally stop, it was more intended to be a break, like an all-out abstinence. And then I realized how great I felt and I said, “Well, maybe I’ll go a little bit longer and then a little bit longer.” And then somewhere around the two- to three-month mark is when I just said: “You know what? I actually don’t miss it all that much.”

“If you tell people, 'Look, I really can’t eat that stuff anymore,' people would be like: 'Oh, great. I think that’s an amazing thing you’re doing' — and oftentimes when you tell people, 'It’s really unhealthy for me to drink and I really should not,' people are like, 'Come on, drink!'”

- Jose Salazar

I think I missed the social component more than the actual alcohol itself and the way it made me feel. I don’t have the desire to feel intoxicated, let alone hungover. What made my decision to stop was really the hangovers. But now the idea of even being intoxicated kind of just doesn’t allure me. I don’t even want to feel drunk. If I had a whole glass of wine today, I would most certainly be drunk because I haven’t had anything in five years.

I’m also a little different in that, most alcoholics, they 100 percent can’t put their lips to any alcohol. I still taste it on occasion, particularly if we’re changing our drink menus and the bartenders say, “Hey, what do you think of this?” I will take a little tiny sip, but I know that’s kind of frowned upon sometimes in the community of recovery. But for me, it’s not an issue.

My stance for recovery has always been that it’s not a one-size-fits-all sort of mentality. There’s a lot of different kinds of alcoholics, and there’s a lot of different ways to recover. For some people, maybe it’s not even a complete absence. For some people, maybe it’s just a reduction or a rethinking of how they approach alcohol. In my case, again, abstinence was what I thought made the most sense for me.

If you had high cholesterol and continued to eat the foods that you’ve been eating, you might have a stroke or a heart attack. I find it really interesting if you tell people, “Look, I really can’t eat that stuff anymore,” people would be like: “Oh, great. I think that’s an amazing thing you’re doing” — and oftentimes when you tell people, “It’s really unhealthy for me to drink and I really should not,” people are like, “Come on, drink!”

It’s sort of brushed aside as if there really isn’t this danger, this health risk that comes along with drinking alcohol. Not to mention the drinking and driving — that was something that was quite honestly a problem. I definitely got behind the wheel times where I shouldn’t have.

As a society, we’re quite irresponsible with our drinking. And because it is so prevalent, common and so readily available, we don’t really think about some of the consequences that come with drinking alcohol.

Self-reflection is probably the first thing [I focused on]. You know yourself better than anyone else. What I did for a long time is I lied to myself. I said: “No, that’s really not an issue. That’s not a problem. You’re OK. You don’t drink every day. Alcoholics only drink every day and they have to have a drink.”

Try to find a community, whatever that is. I personally don’t go to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous]. I have, but I think for a lot of people it is a great resource. It’s something that can certainly give you some tools and help you understand maybe some of the reasons why you drink. I would recommend AA as a starting point, knowing there’s something you want to alter or there’s some change that needs to be made.

When I did get sober for that first month or so, I started to see a big change in my sleep and my anxiety was reduced tremendously. I started to really see the correlation between the two. Today, I can sleep five or six hours and feel wonderful. When I was drinking, sometimes I would sleep seven or eight and still feel like crap. It’s because it’s not a really solid sleep.

I think that goes back to the way that we talk about alcohol: “Oh, this is going to relax me.” Sure, there’s that initial relaxation that comes with a drink or two, but then I think if you consume three, four, five, six [drinks], suddenly there’s the reverse effect. They really start to impact the way your body processes the alcohol and how much effort goes into that, not to mention the mental and emotional component, too.

I’m not really a fan of picking a month. If you abstain for a month because you feel like you’ve been overdrinking, and then you go back and you gradually end up in the same place — say, in March — then it was sort of for nothing.

Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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