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Celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern speaks about his sobriety and advocacy at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen

Chef Andrew Zimmern leads a cooking seminar at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen on Friday, June 14, 2024. Zimmern is a regular at the festival, and is among the biggest names on the lineup.
Chris Council, C2 Photography
Courtesy of Food & Wine
Chef Andrew Zimmern leads a cooking seminar at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen on Friday, June 14, 2024. Zimmern is a regular at the festival, and is among the biggest names on the lineup.

The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is famous for abundance, consumption and weekend-long hangovers, as it draws industry professionals from all over the world for a multi-day celebration.

But while some festival-goers indulge in thousand-dollar bottles of wine and share shots of swanky liquor, one of the biggest names at the Classic isn’t drinking at all.

Celebrity chef and “Bizarre Foods” TV host Andrew Zimmern has been sober for 32 and a half years, and often uses his platform to talk about mental health; he’s vocal about his experience online and eager to share his perspective in interviews.

“Sobriety was my route to happiness and wellness, and saving my own life,” Zimmern told Aspen Public Radio during the Classic on Saturday.

Zimmern has been coming to this event for more than a decade, with the experience of a “longtime sober guy,” but he also knows just how hard it could be for someone to show up at the Classic if they only recently gave up alcohol.

“If you're newly sober and you're coming into an environment like this, you better have a plan, and that plan better include going to meetings, calling other recovering folks, because there's so many things that are going to be triggering,” Zimmern said.

Zimmern attends meetings during the festival, too, and he likes to talk to some people he mentors. He’s actually met lots of sober people here at the festival in Aspen — in part, because he’s so open about his own experience.

“I've probably had 25 people in the last two days come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I've got five years,’ ‘I've got 10 years,’ ‘My kid just celebrated four years,’” he said.

To him, this willingness to talk says a lot about cultural views of sobriety these days. He’s also noticed more nonalcoholic choices at the Classic, which often reflects bigger food and beverage trends.

Now, it’s pretty easy to find a zero-proof wine or fancy mocktail on the menu, and the market is booming — though, as Zimmern notes, “it's not sober people who are driving those numbers.”

“It's people who do consume alcoholic beverages, they just choose to consume less of them,” Zimmern said. (That assessment was backed up by Oset Babür-Winter, the senior drinks editor at Food & Wine Magazine, who follows these trends in her work as a journalist.)

Zimmern said he appreciates that there’s less stigma, and more N/A options, but he’s worried that these things don’t tackle the root causes of alcoholism and other mental health issues.

“I still think we're just paying lip service to the problem,” he said.

The restaurant world has a higher rate of substance use disorders than any other field, according to a 2015 national survey, and the industry has a reputation for high consumption of drugs and alcohol.

Zimmern thinks that standing is not just because of stress at work, since there are plenty of other high-pressure jobs, and it’s not necessarily because of the culture of the industry, since many restaurants have done away with the practice of after-shift drinks and won’t tolerate drug use.

“I have a quibble with the people who say it's our industry that's causing the problem,” Zimmern said.

Zimmern believes a bigger factor in mental health for restaurant workers is what people face off the job — because these businesses employ a lot of folks who have really stressful lives, like “first time job seekers, last time job seekers, people coming out of jails and institutions, single moms, single dads,” he said.

And, with slim profit margins at best, restaurants don’t have a lot of resources to support employee’s mental health.

“I think we have a very unique makeup of workers in our business, and we have to do a better job of taking care of them,” he said.

So Zimmern has taken on the role of an advocate. He works with a national nonprofit called the Giving Kitchen, which helps food workers in crisis with money for living expenses and other community resources, and he’s pushing for state and federal money to support mental health care.

“To take time off, to go to see a professional who may cost $150, $175, $200 for 50 minutes, this costs money,” Zimmern said. “Treatment for alcoholics and drug addicts works. That's really expensive.”

More than the mocktails, or the open conversations, Zimmern thinks government support for professional help is what will really move the needle. And he feels a responsibility to help make it happen.

“Metaphorically, someone sat at the end of my bed 32 and a half years ago and helped get me well,” Zimmern said. “And so if there's anything that I can do, … if I can evangelize for what I think the steps are that we need to take, I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to help.”

Copyright 2024 Aspen Public Radio

Kaya Williams