Almost four years ago, a 1,200-pound grill fell on Scott Howell from the back of a truck that the chef was unloading. His right leg was broken in multiple placeshe almost lost it. But that was nothing compared to how shattered he became mentally.
Howell is one of Durham’s early chef entrepreneursand he has seen the restaurant craze take off. He opened Nana’s in 1992. He now owns Nanasteak, Nanataco, and is a co-owner of Bar Virgile. His severe injury left him bedridden for six monthsand he didn’t walk for almost a year. Howell felt unmoored. Depression set in. The restaurant business wasn’t just a job; it was who he was.
“I had a nervous breakdown. There’s no doubt about that,” Howell says from across a table at Nana’s last week, shortly before dinner service. “I had never had any trouble with drinking. I’ve never been a pill guy. But I started drinking excessively. I was trying to numb the feeling of ‘What do I do?’”
Before that, he had only taken one month off in nearly twenty-five years of working in restaurants. The immobilizing injury left him feeling helpless and irrelevant.
“I didn’t get out of bed for almost six months, and I’d never had more than two weeks vacation in my lifetime,” he says. “The physicality of what happened was terrible, yes. But I lost my way. I just didn’t have a purpose. When you have a full life and then all of a sudden you don’t, and everything that you were has been taken away from you, because of your physical ability, or inability. It has taken me three and a half years to feel normal again.”
Aubrey Zinaich-Howell, Scott’s wife, says that he initially hid his pain. “I didn’t realize that [his drinking] and depression had gotten to where it was.”
The struggle for normalcy began in March 2015 with eighty-four days in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. “He didn’t want to do it at first, but I think probably no one faced with that does,” she says. As Howell reiterates, “I really just fell apart. I’m gathering up still.”
Part of that gathering involves being open about his experience. Men’s Health magazine features Howell in its latest issue. The magazine contacted Howell after seeing a 2016 News & Observer article. Telling the story isn’t always easy, but he hopes it may help someone else. In the high-stress world of restaurant kitchens, he isn’t the only chef to run into addiction issues. Renowned Southern chef Sean Brock of Charleston is one high-profile example in an industry that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ranks as the No. 1 profession for substance abuse disorders.
Howell began publicly opening up about his experience in 2016, first in the aforementioned News & Observer story. “That’s why I let [the N&O] do the article, that’s why I let [Men’s Health] do the article, and that’s why I’m talking to you about it,” he says. “I can’t ignore what happened to me and what I went through. I’m not saying that I’m perfect, because I am far from that. But at least I’m a guy who a lot of people can identify with and know that you can go down, but you can also come back. You just have to.”
He pauses. “It’s difficult, to say the least.”
There are other challenges as well.
“They still don’t really trust that I’m going to be here, so that part’s been tough,” he says of the crew at Nana’s. “This is the first time I’ve not been on a schedule in my life. [But] I’m fifty-four years old, so it was probably leading in that direction, because how long can you be a line cook and grind it in the kitchen?”
Another painful consequence was the toll on his marriage.
“If it wasn’t for Aubrey we could have lost this business,” Howell says, his voice breaking slightly. “I could have lost my leg. I never got an infection because she changed my dressing twice a day. I owe a lot to her. I owe a lot to a lot of people.”
The couple separated in August 2017. “We’re still running the businesses together,” says Howell. “It is sad. That was the biggest disappointment out of everything.”
Both are hopeful that by being public about his depression and alcoholism, the story may resonate with others also struggling.
Howell has long been a looming presence in the Triangle restaurant scene. After stints in New York, Italy, and California, Asheville-raised Howell returned to North Carolina to be sous chef at Ben Barker’s Magnolia Grill for a year and a half before opening Nana’s in 1992.
“I started setting a different bar with Ben,” he recalls. “I had worked for some fantastic guys and he let me have free rein to do whatever I wanted.”
Through the years, an illustrious group of restaurateursincluding Mattie Beason, Dan Ferguson, and Ashley Christensenworked for Howell.
Being a godfather of local fine diningor “grandfather” as he jokingly suggestsputs Howell in a unique position. Asked about his influence and the future, he becomes more emotional.
“There’s a lot of searching going on,” Howell says softly. “I’m always searching. You know, I just haven’t figured it out yet.”
He chokes up, his eyes water, his voice wavers. “I think my life will change into a place where hopefully I can help people more. I try to be a better man now. My life is still an ongoing challenge. It is hard to talk about sometimes. I’m looking for my purpose and that’s one of the purposes that I’m looking for, to help people understand that it’s OK. You’ve got to talk about it. If you don’t talk about it, you’re going to kill yourself.”
He’s also looking for his place in the restaurant business, Zinaich-Howell says. “I think what he’s looking for right now is how he relates to the business at large and how he’s going to find his voice in 2018, and how he’s going to be relevant again,” she says. “Really, that’s something that anyone who’s been in the business as long as he has must do. It’s especially important for him after having to cocoon himself away from it. He’s working to find his creativity again.”