Olive + Oak and Ben’s Friends partner to tackle addiction culture in kitchens

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Three years ago, Olive + Oak cook Taylor Streiff had an incident while “on-the-line –” and immediately, his coworkers called him out for being drunk on the job.

Such an incident would normally be the end-of-the-road for cooks, but according to Streiff, Mark Hinkle and his wife, who own and operate Olive + Oak in downtown Webster Groves, are deeply charitable souls. The Hinkles gave him a second chance to clean up because they saw the potential he had.

(From left to right) Ben’s Friends St. Louis chapter organizers Taylor Streiff, Andry Rakotoniaina and Maxwell Bradenkoetter after the group’s first meeting. Photo by Brian Ostrander

“You’ve gotta get this under control because you’re going to die,” Streiff recalled his boss telling him frankly.

Exactly three years later, in the back conference room of the Perennial on Lockwood Avenue, which is also owned by Hinkle and the same restaurant he and Streiff had that very difficult conversation in, the inaugural meeting of the St. Louis chapter of Ben’s Friends took place.  

Along with Streiff at the meeting were two other industry veterans, Andry Rakotoniaina and Maxwell Bradenkoetter. 

Ben’s Friends is a support group for hospitality workers struggling with addiction in an industry that is rife with drugs, alcohol and no shortage of stress.

Night after night in the back offices and dry storage rooms of America’s restaurants – after the last guests have gone home, tips have been counted, kitchens cleaned, wounds stitched and smoke cleared – thousands of cooks, chefs, barkeeps and floor staff clock out of their jobs and drift into all varieties of substance abuse.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the highest rates of substance use among employees were those in food service: Approximately 19 percent of employees lived with addiction in 2012. Substance abuse rates further skyrocketed in the isolated eddy of the pandemic.

Some restaurant staff, like Streiff of Olive + Oak on Lockwood Avenue, come back to the restaurant for their next shift still on the bender, leading to inevitable tension with management and colleagues – or even worse, personal injury or job loss.

For many food and beverage workers, this drug-fueled, debaucherous, rock ‘n’ roll even anachronistic lifestyle of a food-savvy raconteur was the lure to kitchen work in the first place.

“‘Kitchen Confidential’ was one of the reasons I got into this,” said one of the group participants, an accomplished regional chef and self-described fiend of booze, cocaine and women. 

“Kitchen Confidential” was a wildly successful piece of nonfiction that propelled the now-deceased celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to culinary stardom. He, too, had a sordid relationship with drugs and alcohol.

“It’s like keeping the hamster spinning the wheel but the hamster is dead,” said an older group participant, who has been sober for 30 years, earning belly-full laughs from the room. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Bradenkoetter, the “one-armed chef” and one of the meeting’s organizers, had to overcome not just a physical disability, but a vicious inner demon that sent him to medically-assisted detox over 15 times before taking his own pledge. 

Bradenkoetter, now sober and sous chef at Mainlander, launched a two-part benefit dinner to help raise awareness to addiction in the food and beverage industry. The benefits in April and May have since sold out of tickets. 

  Mainlander, located in the Central West End, hosted its first dinner service April 15.

Rakotoniaina, based out of Louisville and a representative of Ben’s Friends since 2020, once dreamed of the life of a fine wines-and-spirits connoisseur right here in St. Louis, what he considers a sort of regional mecca for alcohol. 

However, Rakotoniaina discovered that the realities of industry alcoholism are much less romantic in practice, which led him down a dark path of living blackout to blackout. It was taxing, emotionally and physically, he says. He took his pledge to be sober in 2020.

Ben’s Friends was started by chefs Mickey Vax and Steve Palmer to honor their colleague, chef Ben Murray, who died by suicide in 2016 after a battle with alcoholism, according to Rakotoniaina.

“When they saw how Ben had ended his own life while working to help open one of their restaurants, they saw quite clearly how vital it is to have people being able to be open and talk about addiction and mental health within the industry,” Rakotoniaina said.

Friends and family who don’t work in the food and beverage industry tend to advise their loved ones to leave trade in order to achieve sobriety and good health, according to Rakotoniaina. However, food is a calling for so many who work in the industry.

“It’s way easier to talk about it when you’re talking to other compatriots within the industry,” he explained.

The mission of Ben’s Friends is simple: to promote positive change in the culture of America’s nearly 750,000 restaurants.

“The shift in culture within the industry is a real active thing,” he explained. “It takes a lot of work and takes a lot of initiative. By supporting each other, we all win. You can’t put a price tag on that, right?”

Ben’s Friends will meet every Monday at 10 a.m. at Olive + Oak at 216 Lockwood Ave. 

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Brian Ostrander
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