It began innocently. At age 12, a young Jesse Schenker had his first marijuana joint in New Paltz, New York. For the nervous and quirky pre-teen, the drug felt really good; almost as good as learning to cook in his great-grandma’s kitchen felt.
“When I was in the kitchen that was the first time I felt at peace. It was the first time my foot stopped tapping,” he said. “My friends would be out playing sports, and I just wanted to cook.”
And so, just before adolescence, Jesse Schenker found a mission in life: to cook, and to smoke as much marijuana as he could. Both passions grew, and for a while, after dropping out of high school, he balanced culinary school with drugs (he had graduated to harder drugs by that time).
Schenker, who describes himself as a tornado, talks about his past as rapidly and without pause as his own spiral of drug addiction. He is unabashedly honest about his struggles, and never stumbles over his words.
“The drugs took hold and led me to homelessness, jail, shooting up drugs, and getting arrested by the time I was 21,” said the 31-year-old chef, who at that point in his life, was years away from opening up his critically-acclaimed freshman restaurant, Recette. “After getting out of jail, I ended up going into a work-release program as a line cook. I flipped the switch and put that tenacity and passion for drugs into food. I became a workaholic, and was eventually promoted to sous chef. Just a few years earlier, I had been in jail.”
A chef dabbling in, and struggling with, drugs is not an unusual story in the culinary world, but for Schenker, the story of his career — peppered with struggles, relapses, and a dangerously-addictive personality — is entwined with his career as a chef. Schenker’s various addictions:drugs, working, overeating, and later, even an overzealous ambition to rapidly lose weight, are all recounted in his new memoir, All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme, due to come out on September 30. “All or Nothing” comes from Schenker’s tattoo that spans the length of his forearm with the phrase alongside a juicy T-bone steak and knife; a reminder of his life philosophy.
“That’s just who I am,” said Schenker. “Like when I lost 60 pounds in six months, and people are always like ‘how’d you do it?’ That’s just what I do — I set my mind to doing something, and I do it.”
In the book, Schenker not only speaks about his failures and struggles, but also his successes, like opening up two restaurants in spite of his issues, as well as the support and love of his wife and two young children whom he consistently describes as his rocks and his reasons for continuing to perservere. While Schenker’s tone is matter-of-fact and almost deadpan when recalling his inner demons, he softens when it comes to his family.