Jesse Schenker does nothing to dispel the romance of the badass chef in his new culinary memoir All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme. In fact, in Schenker’s frank and poignant telling of wretched to riches, gustatory archetypes only get reinforced.
Now the successful owner and executive chef of two New York City restaurants, Recette and The Gander, Schenker was born with a compulsive personality that worked both for and against him. Even as a toddler his parents noticed an unusual obsessiveness. One morning his mother went into his room and found all of the wallpaper ripped from the walls. “Strip by strip, I’d torn it down all the way from the ceiling to the floor in clean, straight lines.”
As Schenker succinctly puts it, “Compulsiveness became my lifeline.” One way the author found respite from his nervous, free floating energy was around food. In cooking, Schenker finds a place to land. “For me, being in the kitchen was like taking a Xanax.”
Unfortunately, as a young man, the restless energy that drove him turned into a drug addiction, eventually landing him in jail. Luckily Schenker’s quick and precipitous descent turned just as quickly back in the direction of sobriety, only now, his obsessive nature focused, laser-like on his newfound career as a chef, with food becoming his savior and his inner demon in one fell swoop. “My passion for food had been completely taken over by my addiction.”
Determined to succeed, Schenker works his way up through the ranks of the restaurant world in Florida and then into Gordon Ramsey’s The London. This experience both inspired the author and fueled his obsessive fire. “Gordon was a perfectionist – I’ve never met a great chef who wasn’t – and demanded only the best.”
Strangely enough, the compulsion that drives Schenker and pushed him toward drugs, managed to work for him in his work as a newbie chef. The manic energy caused him to work around the clock at a breakneck speed taking every job opportunity that came his way while beginning to formulate plans for his own business.
The addictive, driven personality Schenker exhibits, while benefitting his career, also skates on the edge of sanity. “Instead of crack I was bingeing on work.” The intensity of the author’s hunger comes through one icy night when he attempts to deliver food to a private client. After nearly totaling his car on Route 9, Schenker continues on, hellbent on completing his task. When the police stop him, and insist the car be towed to a garage, Schenker walks “the remaining two miles to Daniel’s house in the snow, holding a sheet pan with the remaining food.”
In what ends up becoming a tale of redemption and moderation, All or Nothing finds Schenker in a completely different place by the end of the book. Having lived his young life as if each moment could make or break him at any time, the author actively chooses to make some critical changes, recognizing the unsustainability of his choices. The effects do not seem to have hurt his abilities as a chef, though perhaps his street cred isn’t what it used to be. Schenker discovers a little balance can work well in both food and life.