An Obese Italian Guy Walks into a Vegan Cafe…

By Cathy Cassata 08/07/15

No joke. It was the beginning of Frank Ferrante's life-saving transformation.

Frank Ferrante
Photo via

At 54 years old, Frank Ferrante wandered into the San Francisco restaurant Café Gratitude, expecting to find other ex-addicts and ex-alcoholics. “In AA, gratitude is a central virtue, I thought somebody in the program was being clever with the name,” says Ferrante. “I walked in and was met by a beaming young 20-something millennial named Ryland. I said, ‘Hey man, I had to get a cup of coffee in Café Gratitude. Someone here must be in recovery.’”

Ferrante learned that the restaurant wasn’t focused on those in recovery, but that it served organic, vegan and raw food. “My first thought was, raw food! How do you cook that?” says Ferrante, who at the time was 17 years clean, but weighed 300 pounds, was depressed, pre-diabetic, and undergoing treatment for hepatitis C.

“I was isolated, lonely and very fat. Life felt grey and uninspired,” he says. “Ryland and his coworkers were very friendly and welcoming. There was something about the café’s atmosphere that I found compelling, so I started frequenting the place. It wasn’t the food. I felt something nudging at my soul. It was my yearning for connection. I’ve come to believe that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection.”

After several visits to the café, the owner invited Ferrante to come into the restaurant every day for 42 days straight to eat only raw food, practice gratitude, visit local holistic practitioners, and get a weekly colonic. Ferrante accepted the challenge, and even allowed the owner and his brothers to videotape his journey, which they eventually turned into a documentary called, May I Be Frank

“When we started it, we had no vision, no camera, no narrative and zero filmmaking experience…We figured it’d be a cheesy infomercial for Café Gratitude,” says Ferrante. 

However, instead of food and weight loss, the film turned its attention to relationships and redemption. “There were all these fractured relationships in my orbit—my daughter, my ex-wife, my brother—so all of these things got incorporated into the film…By the time we were done, we unwittingly stumbled into creating compelling footage that speaks to the human spirit,” says Ferrante.

May I Be Frank was the winner of the Audience Choice Award at the 2014 Real to Reel International Film Festival, as well as winner of the Audience Impact Award at the Illuminate Film Festival. The film has been recognized by other film festivals, as well.

Never a Quick Fix

While Ferrante lost 35 pounds by the end of the 42 days, he eventually fell back into his old ways and gained more weight than he had lost. He also lost touch with the restaurant staff. 

“I started using pain pills prescribed to me for joint pains, a side effect of the medication I was on for hepatitis,” says Ferrante.

After taking the medication as directed for two months, Ferrante says he eventually got three different doctors to prescribe narcotics for him. At one point, he was taking 100 milligrams of morphine, various benzos, 100 milligrams of OxyContin, and 150 milligrams of Norcos every day. “It was enough narcotics to put a small town to sleep, and it was all legal, more or less,” he says. 

After an overdose, Ferrante checked into Hazelden in Springbrook, Oregon.

When he checked out, he was back to weighing 300 pounds and back in AA. “I was leaving an AA meeting with a group of people, and I was using self-deprecating humor. When most of the people left, my one friend said, ‘You know man. I don’t let anyone talk bad about my friends, and when you put yourself down it’s like someone talking bad about my friend.’ I felt exposed and ashamed. My body was deteriorating and I felt stuck,” says Ferrante. “I finally surrendered and started working out and eating intelligently again.”

A year and a half later, Ferrante was down 120 pounds, and has kept it off since.

Recovering From the First Half of Life

During his journey of transformation, Ferrante says much healing came from reflecting on and accepting his upbringing.

Ferrante grew up in a blue collar, southern Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. His parents migrated from Sicily to New York in 1947. “We spoke Sicilian at home, and I didn’t know the world wasn’t all Italian until I went to school,” he says. “I had a very gritty upbringing that was entrenched in violence. A lot of it wasn’t even purposeful violence, it was kind of a neurotic, mad expression of generational wounds.” 

Ferrante says the police visited his house a couple times a week to mediate his parents’ fights. “My parents didn’t drink, but if they did it would have been easier to explain their very volatile behavior,” he says.

Violence continued at the Catholic school Ferrante attended. “I would be sitting at my desk, and out of nowhere a fist would come flying at my head,” he says. “The nuns were cruel and harsh; I looked at them as agents of God. I thought that they were a reflection of how God felt about me, and if they had such contempt for me then I couldn’t imagine what contempt God had for me.”

Not only did this cause trauma, but Ferrante says it also created an existential crisis for him at a young age. “It really felt like spiritual violence that began in childhood and stayed with me through adulthood,” he says. “I know I’m one of millions of people who experienced this, but I was really lucky to get past it.”

Feeling disconnected from his home and school, Ferrante turned to drugs for comfort. “I was 14 years old when I first got really high, and I’ll never forget thinking, ‘this is how you get through life,’” he says. “I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to continue on with life as I knew it up until then. With drugs, life finally made sense.”

Ferrante says he first dabbled in amphetamines. “They seemed to fix everything. I was a shy kid, and they made me more talkative. I was a fat kid, and they stopped me from feeling hungry. So I enthusiastically charged down that road,” he says.

Throughout the '60s, Ferrante took acid, smoked weed, and eventually got hooked on heroin. “The initial drug experiences were so exhilarating I spent the next 30 years chasing 1968,” he says. 

Chasing Sobriety

Ferrante’s first attempt at getting sober occurred in 1977 after he tried to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. “I tried to get off methadone, and I just couldn’t do it,” he says.

After he survived the attempt, he saw a news report on an agency called The Lower East Side Service Center that ran a facility they referred to as a therapeutic community. “Rehabs were in their infancy, so the field was flooded with people who had no credentials yet were treating others based on the notion that they hadn’t used in a while. It was a perfect example of the inmates running the asylum,” says Ferrante.

After 17 months, Ferrante left the program clean from narcotics, but he was now drinking alcohol. “In those days, if you weren’t using heroin, you were considered clean even if you were drinking,” he says.

Toward the end of treatment, he met a woman, got married, and they had two children together. “I thought getting married would normalize me, but the marriage replicated the home I grew up in. It was volatile to say the least,” he says. “I kept reaching for an external solution to an internal conflict. My drinking got worse by the day. I no longer went to sleep. I was either passing out or coming to.” 

Ferrante got divorced in 1992, and was estranged from his daughter for several years. “My ex-wife and I had a contentious separation, and my kids got caught in the crossfire,” he says. “It’s tragic and devastating when love turns to litigation.”

Ferrante hasn’t had a drink since 1989. “If I do something stupid or react in anger, it’s not because I’m an alcoholic. It’s because I’m not dealing with something or maybe I’m just being a dope that day,” he says. “I may be a recovered alcoholic but first I’m a human being. Getting sober allowed me to regain my humanity with all that that implies.”

Picking up the Pieces

When Ferrante walked into Café Gratitude in 2005, he was working toward a master’s degree in humanities. “I was living on grants and loans, was extremely isolated and lonely and the only thing that brought me the slightest bit of pleasure was going to class,” he says.  

Ferrante received a high school diploma at the age of 50. Until then, he worked as a contractor. “I got hurt and couldn’t do it anymore. Although I was good at it, I never liked construction work. I just didn’t have the courage to follow my dreams,” he says. “I fell in love with school, and went on to get a degree in history at [the University of California, Santa Barbara], and then to grad school at San Francisco State University.”

Since then, Ferrante’s reconnected with his children and made peace with his family. He was featured in the film Hungry for Change, and published his first book, with the same title as the documentary, May I Be Frank. He also launched a career as a motivational speaker.

“The reciprocal energy that happens between me and the audience gives me a feeling that goes way beyond drugs or alcohol,” he says. “When I genuinely connect with human beings is when I feel most alive.”

While Ferrante says his transformation didn’t occur because of one factor, he believes Café Gratitude played a special part, and he’s back in touch with the restaurant's owners. He calls himself “vegan-friendly,” but mostly declares that he eats intelligently.

“It’s a variety of components that lead to transformation,” he says. “For me, it was a radical shift of consciousness, allowing myself to be vulnerable, eating intelligently, [meditating], and just trying to do the next right thing,” he says. “I also surrounded myself with positive people who were living a healthy life. It was going out of my comfort zone, and more.”

To sum up his journey best, Ferrante says think of it as, “what happens when Tony Soprano meets Deepak Chopra.”

To inquire about booking Frank Ferrante for screenings or speaking engagements, or to purchase the May I Be Frank DVD or book, visit his website.

Cathy Cassata is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about how dance and movement can help recoveryConnect with her on twitter—@Cassatastyle.

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