How Sobriety Changed One Restaurant's Culture

By Kelly Burch 02/28/19

One Montreal chef's journey to sobriety inspired his staff to change their relationship with alcohol at work. 

chefs working in a restaurant where sobriety is embraced

When David McMillan and Fred Morin opened the Montreal restaurant Joe Beef in 2005, they strove to be a destination where people could enjoy all the food and drink that they could possibly want. 

“I want people to drink and eat to excess. I promote it,” McMillan told Bon Appétit in a recent interview. While he enjoyed indulging in excess in young adulthood, the thrill wore off in his forties—and he realized that it was time to reevaluate his relationship with indulgence. 

“It started to unravel when I was 40. I couldn’t shut it off. All of a sudden, there was no bottle of wine good enough for me. I’m drinking, like, literally the finest wines of the world,” McMillan said. 

He realized that he was living an unhealthy lifestyle, and it was affecting his career and family. 

“I started asking myself questions about alcoholism. What was I showing my children by eating and drinking like a Viking in front of them at the cottage? I wasn’t acting on many opportunities because I was hungover most of the time. I was medicating with food. I was medicating with alcohol. And finally it just got to a point where I was just really unhappy.”

He wasn’t able to make the changes on his own. “I’ve done a thousand Google searches over five years. I’ve tried to quit drinking 100 times and failed 110 times,” he said. 

Then, last year, his managers intervened and connected McMillan with rehab. There, he immersed himself in learning about sobriety, recovery and health. 

“I wasn’t resistant, because I was so unhappy. I learned a whole bunch of things about myself, about sobriety, about traumatic events that had happened to me in my childhood. I didn’t even know what the word 'codependent' meant before I went to rehab. I didn’t know what people-pleasing meant. I didn’t know what an enabler was. Ultimately I took a crash-course in alcoholism, wellness, and the language of sobriety.”

McMillan knew that he wouldn’t be able to avoid the restaurant scene or alcohol entirely, since his career was built around his restaurant and his wine company. However, he eased into work, beginning in a friend’s restaurant and sipping San Pellegrino instead of wine. 

“And I got my courage back about working in a restaurant without consuming alcohol,” he said. “At that point I went back to my own restaurant, and I worked in my restaurant and applied what I had learned.”

He realized that the staff that looked up to him began to change their behaviors, following his lead. 

“As I started taking care of myself, the staff started mimicking me,” he said. Rather than celebrating the end of the shift with wine, they began drinking kombucha instead, and building genuine connections. 

“When I became sober, there was this openness from the staff, because I spoke a different way,” McMillan said. “I got to know people again through tea and coffee with people… Now I actually care about the happiness of these people I’ve been working with for 15 years.”

He even inspired his business partner, Fred Morin, to get sober as well. Now, the duo are open about how their sobriety has changed their restaurant. 

“I built the company on my liver,” McMillan said. “Now I have to take care of myself.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.