Scott Crawford is a five-time James Beard Awards semifinalist and a leading figure in Raleigh’s burgeoning food scene. He’s also been sober for nearly 17 years. Here, Crawford recounts his own experience with addiction, grappling with sobriety in an industry dominated by drinking culture, and reimagining the industry’s future with a healthier relationship with alcohol.
I. Party it away
I took my first drink when I was 11. It was whiskey, straight.
I will never forget how much I enjoyed the feeling of that burn. It was warmth, confidence. It was all the things I was lacking in one sip. I knew, even at 11, that it was going to be an issue. I knew it six years later, the day I tried cocaine. I felt so good. I even said out loud, “This is going to be a problem.”
I was the product of a typical 1980s divorce, which were nasty. The year I had my first drink and smoked my first joint was 1982, the year my parents divorced. As kids, we had a lot of freedom that kids don’t enjoy now, and my older brother and I would basically run the streets. You may think, “Where the hell were their parents?” They were just sort of self-absorbed.
My brother was a teenager, experimenting, and I was always following right behind. I think we were experiencing a lot of pain without recognizing that it was pain. Back then, the answer was to just have a good time, not to reflect or address the pain. If you could party harder, you could party it away.
It was the heyday of hair metal and Motley Crue, and we just wandered around trying to get our hands on some liquor or weed in the small steel town we lived in, Meadville, Pennsylvania. I was a skinny kid, less than 100 pounds. There was always a feeling of being lost.
My brother was in jail by the time he was 18. When he came home, he was sober. But I wasn’t.
We moved to Florida, and I set up shop on the beach. I decided that surfing and smoking pot was going to be my career. That’s when I started working at restaurants. It was a great way to continue that lifestyle and make money. Conch House, a little seafood place with deck seating out over the water, was where I found my friends and the people I partied with—where I found my dealers. Back then, we’d make a hundred bucks in a good shift and we might go spend half of it that night, or maybe all of it, on drugs and alcohol.
I started at the front of the house but eventually took a pay cut to work in the kitchen. I realized very quickly the cooks were more like I was—these guys were interesting, rough characters with crazy stories, yet they have this craft that can be artful and really cool. I’d just never thought of cooking as a medium.
By the mid-90s my drinking had gone from manageable to completely unmanageable. I lived an almost underground, nocturnal existence. I started college but dropped out and got to the point I didn’t want to work a job anymore. So, I was just partying and selling drugs, anything that turned a profit. It turned into something way bigger than peddling. I got into fights. I didn’t care if I lived or died.
But there was a part of me that knew this was not going to be my life forever—it wasn’t sustainable. I saw what happened to people: you go to prison or you get shot.
I relocated to Virginia and returned to cooking. Even though I really wanted to get my life together, I still couldn’t escape my demons. I made it through culinary school by white-knuckling through the week and partying my face off on the weekends.
I graduated early—the first time in my life I ever got all A’s—but the night before my first tryout as a sous- chef, I was in a hotel room with members of the band Creed doing blow all night. I took a cab from the hotel to the restaurant and somehow got the job. By 2000, I’d made my way to the kitchen of an up-and-coming San Francisco restaurant, Black Cat.
It was an inspiring city and changed the way I looked at food. Farmers were selling directly to chefs, and there was a language about food and respect shown that was just way beyond anything I had ever seen.
But, behind that facade, there were servers using heroin every day. I remember one guy, he didn’t have any heroin. He asked me if he could leave to go to the methadone clinic so he could be able to work; otherwise, he’d be sick.
It’s amazing, at that point, I was still holding it together, but it wasn’t easy. We hired a general manager from Miami who frequented the bar underneath the restaurant every night. Drinking after work was an ingrained part of the culture in the industry. We closed at 2 a.m., and I’d go sit on the patio and have a glass of sauvignon blanc and a bowl of mussels. I vividly remember sitting there one night and this girl runs out onto the sidewalk and collapses. She’s freaking out, crying, her friends are comforting her. The cops come, but I don’t know what’s just occurred. The next day, I come in and learn that she was assaulted in the restroom by our general manager. It was all over the media. I left not long after. There’s bad behavior, then there’s dark behavior. I was starting to realize just how blurred these lines were becoming.
But I still didn’t stop.
After a decade of hard-partying, my body started to give out. I was 31, working very intense 60- to 80-hour weeks, just bracketed by partying-shift-partying. My skin was discolored, and I had clubbing in my fingers. My organs were starting to fail. Following a five-day bender, I realized my tongue was swollen. I couldn’t drink enough water and was peeing every five minutes. I drove myself to the hospital and remember the doctors looking at me really weird.
“Your blood sugar is almost a thousand,” one told me. “We’ve never seen anyone alive with blood sugar this high. Only dead people.”
I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I believe it was the direct result of my body just basically attacking itself.
Even after my brush with death, it still took me a year to get sober.
Needing stability, I had been working at the Ritz-Carlton hotel company. It was a game-changer. There was a lot more structure, but “work hard, play hard” was still the motto. I regret to say I perpetuated it. Drugs and alcohol were how we dealt with the stress, which was enormous, especially when you start talking about accolades, Forbes Five Star lists, and the like.
I remember one of my mentors confronted me, saying, “You’re failing as a role model.”
“I didn’t sign up to be a role model,” I scoffed.
“Listen to yourself, idiot,” he replied. “When you become a chef, you become a role model.”
He was right. Whether I liked it or not, I was leading a team. If you teach your people that alcohol is the way to deal with pressure, they will do it because you are teaching them everything else. The power of being someone’s mentor is real, and so easily, it can be abused, especially when you bring alcohol into the equation. Alcohol blurs those lines, and blurring those lines becomes an abuse of power.
There was no blueprint for how to be sober in the industry. At that point, I had become pretty successful, but I had no guidance. What was I supposed to do with wine tastings? What do I say when people ask me to go out after work? There were not many people in the industry who were sober, and if there were, I didn’t know them. In my mind, I was the only one. It felt incredibly isolating. I didn’t tell people the whole truth—just made excuses for why I couldn’t go out.
My rehabilitation consisted of regular AA meetings and the 24-hour gym, where I would just destroy myself after work until I could pass out. The folks at AA suggested a career change. But being stubborn and determined, I couldn’t accept that. Why can’t you be in this industry and be sober?
Then things started getting better. Not only did I meet my wife, but as a chef, I was going through a rebirth. I started noticing my palate and cooking instincts sharpening. I started identifying and appreciating new flavors, juicing vegetables, and moving away from butter and cream. At the time, I was cooking a lighter version of American food that critics described as brighter and more feminine. In the South, barbecue had a heavy hand. I stood out.
Cooking saved my life. There was always a passion, but now, light bulbs were going off. I got almost immediate attention from the press.
Then I started to meet other sober people in the industry, including my longtime sponsor Mickey Bakst. I started to do the harder work—taking steps, making amends, and dealing with my trauma. I was changing, but it would be years before I started to believe my industry could change, too.
III. Changing the culture
In 2016, I traveled to Florence, South Carolina, to help my friend Steve Palmer open his new restaurant, Town Hall. I was in the process of launching my own restaurant, Crawford and Son, in Raleigh, after having made a reputation for myself in the city through my work at The Umstead and Standard Foods.
With construction ongoing at my Person Street location, I had a bit of time so I jumped in to help. Steve was sober and so was Ben Murray, who he’d also called in.
I‘d known Ben from the Atlanta food and wine festival circuit and always admired how jovial and hardworking he was. He was a positive force, and you couldn’t help but enjoy being around him.
Openings are tough, but we were sharing stories about sobriety and the old days, and it was a good time. I remember Ben talking about his daughter. Things seemed good for him.
What we didn’t know was that Ben was suffering and, apparently at some point during that opening, had relapsed. We didn’t recognize it. We were busy, and there was a lot of work.
I left to return to Raleigh and got a call from Steve. Ben had disappeared. Everyone thought he’d gone home after the opening. Steve had stopped by the hotel and banged on Ben’s door, but no one answered. A few days later, hotel staff heard a gunshot.
Ben had taken his own life.
Through tears, Steve asked me, “How could this happen? How is this still happening?”
Ben had been around sober people, good people who would have supported him. But he still couldn’t deal with the pain and shame of relapsing. There was still little support for people in the industry like us.
That needed to change.
Steve and Mickey Bakst founded Ben’s Friends, an industry support group for those struggling with addiction. I started a chapter in Raleigh, which quickly grew. A year later, I was hosting Ben’s Friends meetings at Crawford and Son, where we’d share our stories, tackling topics like how to handle wine tastings or how to maintain a group of friends, sober. We started to create that blueprint of success that had never existed.
One day, it occurred to me that here I was talking with people about how to navigate the industry sober, and yet, I was still rewarding a good shift from my own staff with alcohol. When I started Crawford and Son, I didn’t want to seem anti-alcohol. I was scared to be “that guy” who just eliminated alcohol altogether. If you’re the sober guy in the room, people already start to feel uncomfortable around you. So, I tried to take an approach that would create a healthy culture around alcohol by keeping a close eye on it. We allowed a beer at the end of the night or a glass of wine while cleaning up. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that.
But then that light bulb went off. I wanted to be known as someone who creates a professional, safe work environment of learning and growing, not the guy who gives you a beer. In late 2019, we brought in a human resources consultant to help us revise our policies. It was something I’d learned the value of from my time at the Ritz, and real HR training helps people understand clear lines. Going through our handbook, the alcohol policy stood out. We decided to eliminate any and all consumption of alcohol in the workplace by our staff.
There wasn’t a negative reaction. The people who work here are professionals. They are adults, and if they want, they can go grab a drink after work. Just not here. And by doing that, there’s no chance of anyone developing an issue within these walls or grabbing one too many. You’re not giving them the initial buzz that increases the chance they’ll go next door and not be 100 percent the next day. We’re not contributing to that.
In the restaurant industry, alcohol is the elephant in the room. It’s been blurring those lines for years, and for some reason, we just keep talking about bad behavior and inappropriate behavior. It’s my belief that if you remove alcohol from the equation, you can eliminate about 90 percent of that behavior.
These conversations have been happening in the restaurant industry for years among those of us trying to move the industry forward in a healthier, more sustainable way. The conversation has changed, but at the same time, we’re still hearing these stories that leave a huge black eye on our industry.
Peeling away the onion, when you look at these stories—as you hear them, as they are reported—alcohol is involved in all of them.
We started the no-alcohol policy right before the pandemic, six months before the reckoning that Raleigh’s restaurant industry witnessed this past summer. There were all these stories coming out. It was heartbreaking.
But this didn’t just happen last year. It’s been years of things happening. Some things were downright wrong, terrible, but there were also mistakes where alcohol was involved that I think were completely unintentional.
This is an industry-wide issue that isn’t unique to Raleigh, but Raleigh has a very young food scene. It’s still learning and growing. There are a lot of big characters, and the experiences of those characters play into it. I’m not going to name names, and I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but I think those experiences are important because I can tell you some of the things I have seen in this city I knew were going to blow up, just based on my experiences. I’ve seen these dynamics.
And believe me, I do not have all the answers. I’m not going to tell you you shouldn’t do this or that. I’m just using my own experiences to insulate my organization with policies, processes, and people who can create a safe environment.
What does that environment look like?
For us, it’s a place with resources and support systems, good policies that foster good intentions with a vision of coming into work every day so everyone is working toward a common goal and a common vision. My job is to make sure things are physically safe, and my staff knows that they are important to me and that I care about them. So, they can come every day and feel like they are in a safe place, free from harassment.
Restaurants are truly magical, amazing places with amazing characters. And we don’t want to lose that magic. It’s intoxicating—people laughing, the excitement, the way someone’s eyes light up as they take a bite, or their heads nod as they listen to a waitress break down the menu. We need to protect it. By protecting our people, we are protecting energy and magic.
And I see it every night when I walk out there. I see my staff and the energy that’s created. The magic comes from the people, but the magic can’t exist if the culture is toxic.
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