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‘My Liver’s Furloughed’

Alcohol abuse is endemic in the restaurant industry. Chef and restaurant owner Jae Lee explains how and why he put his drinking on pause.

A man in a tan apron stands on the sidewalk with his arms crossed, in front of his restaurant.
Chef Jae Lee.
Will Blunt

I knew it was time to stop something I loved when I no longer felt joy cooking. It’s been a year since I’ve quit drinking. During the pandemic I was extremely stressed like everyone else. It was only when I quit drinking that I realized I was a borderline alcoholic. I had a toxic relationship with alcohol. Even when I wasn’t drunk, I wasn’t always clear-minded.

I’m not alone in this struggle, especially in the hospitality industry. Drinking and substance abuse among restaurant workers is not a secret. We work in a stressful environment and often our schedules are inconsistent, long, and fast-paced. It’s very common to wind down after work late-night at a local bar with our coworkers.

I always loved drinking. It’s part of my Korean culture, and it’s a regular part of life in the hospitality industry. I loved hanging out with my chef friends after work at a bar to blow off some steam. The bond felt like indestructible comradery. I probably drank four to five times a week on average since I’ve been working as a chef and got drunk two to three of those times.

I built up a high tolerance so the tabs weren’t cheap. After 10 years of what felt like professional drinking, I needed about three to four vodka sodas, plus three beers and five shots to get me drunk. I would drunkenly gorge on tacos or a chicken cutlet sandwich at 2 a.m., fall asleep, only to wake up at 6 a.m. feeling like a bloated mess. Drinking fed my ego and I loved it.

I would pride myself on working hungover and outworking the maybe-sober cook or dining room staff. This lifestyle is deeply rooted in both Korean and restaurant culture.

In 2018, when I was 29 years old, I was the executive chef at Hotel 50 Bowery in Chinatown, overseeing the food program at the restaurant, rooftop bar, and in-room dining. I finally had a consistent work schedule and made a decent salary, which allowed me to go out with my friends regularly without worrying about my next paycheck. This also made drinking more accessible. I busted my ass at work but I was hungover a few days a week. I did the best I could every day, but doing the best when you’re only at 60 percent will never be your best.

I was also the unhealthiest I’ve ever been. I was 40 pounds overweight. When I did my annual physical, I learned that I had fatty liver and my blood pressure was high, too. For the first time in my life, my doctor prescribed hypertension medication. I immediately quit drinking and lost 13 pounds. I felt a lot better. I started CrossFit, but three months in, I injured my shoulder and wrist. I stopped training, and I started drinking again.

One month after the injury, I quit my comfy executive chef role to launch a series of pop-ups called Him, which means strength in Korean. I felt it was time for me to try doing something I could call my own before I turned 30 years old. It didn’t occur to me then to take a closer look at my relationship with alcohol. I was ready to move on to the next challenge and bury any emotion that was leading me to drink.

My final pop-up was at Black Emperor Bar in the East Village, where my food really took off — especially the kimchi mayo burger and honey butter tots. One article from Gothamist did it. I blew up. Who knew a Korean immigrant chef would be known for burgers? I was so happy though. I was making food that I really loved and people were happy eating it. It was no-fuss, flavorful, interesting food with a Korean touch. The daily drinking continued with friends who wanted to celebrate the pop-up. I worked six 14-hour days a week, had an inconsistent eating schedule, and didn’t exercise. My healthier lifestyle again deteriorated.

The pop-up at Black Emperor Bar led to me opening my first restaurant, Nowon, in the East Village. I opened in November 2019 without a beer and wine license. I had to open to make money and I didn’t want to lose momentum from the success of the pop-up. A few months later the pandemic hit and I closed it all down for a month, unclear what the future of Nowon and the restaurant industry would be.

I continued to drink. I drank when I was sad about the industry’s uncertainty and drank when I was happy to see regulars both in and out of work.

I reopened the restaurant in April 2020. I slowly started to bring back the staff which gave me hope that it would all work out. Then came outdoor dining! Then indoor dining at 25 percent capacity! Just when I thought the worst was over, the virus surged again, and I had to shut down indoor dining in December 2020. Outdoor dining seemed impossible in the cold weather, so I made the difficult decision to close for another month. Mandates on top of mandates. I drank daily and wanted to get drunk to cope with stress. I took things more personally and overreacted a lot to stressful situations at work and in my personal life.

In January 2021, I went to a pain management doctor. The same wrist I injured while training was not in good shape from all the years of arm wrestling, cooking, and CrossFit. My doctor advised me to try taking Advil daily for two weeks to help with my wrist tendonitis. The only catch: I couldn’t drink for those two weeks.

Surprisingly, it was easier than I thought to avoid alcohol for those two weeks. Again, I felt great. I woke up with more energy. I felt more connected to my work. I felt more present in my daily life. Two weeks turned into a month and that month slowly turned into two. As the months went by, I stopped counting. Not having any alcohol ultimately became my new lifestyle.

Hospitality professionals tend to live a very black-and-white, extreme lifestyle. If we ate, we ate until we couldn’t take another bite and if we drank, we drank until the sun came up. I used to think it was cool to drink until sunrise. Now I find it much cooler to have a savings account, healthy blood pressure levels, normal sleep schedule, and a balanced lifestyle with my fiancee, Rebecca. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to quit alcohol forever. Life’s about balance. Plus, I miss wine when I eat charcuterie and miss a cold beer after a good day of work.

I’m 32 now, and I don’t know if I’ve yet to crack the code, but I know for sure that this is the best I’ve ever felt. This month marks exactly one year since I quit drinking. I don’t remember the last drink I had or where, but I see the future clearly. My liver’s furloughed until the day I can find a healthy relationship with alcohol.

Jae Lee is the chef and owner of Nowon in the East Village, in New York City. You can find his restaurant on Instagram at @nowon.nyc.

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