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Chef Chris Scott’s Nourishing Journey of Discovery    

Chef Chris Scott’s Nourishing Journey of Discovery

Artwork by FISK

By Alyson Sheppard

You have to nourish yourself before you can nourish others. 

That’s the philosophy of New York chef Chris Scott. But arriving at that point didn’t come easy. Scott credits getting sober for his self-discovery and his rediscovery of the cuisine of his ancestors, a unique fusion that earned him accolades in the New York Times and on Bravo’s Top Chef.

“When I started to fix myself and heal myself and learn more about who I am, it started bleeding out into the food,” he says. “That’s when I really started to discover the food of my family. And I always feel that when I’m cooking that type of cuisine, I’m doing my best work, and I feel the most free.”

Scott grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch Country and began his culinary career 35 years ago in Philadelphia, working alongside now-notable chefs including Michael Solomonov and Marcus Samuelsson. When he started in kitchens, Scott was one of the few people of color working the line, and he was often subjected to verbal and physical abuse. To “prove his worth” to his bosses, his co-workers, and himself, Scott would come back after his shift and work an entire additional shift for free. 

Exhaustion and longing to be accepted also made him susceptible to substance abuse, in an environment where he says drugs and alcohol “were basically handed to you.” He lived and worked this way for more than two decades, which damaged his personal and professional relationships.

“The walk to sobriety was an extremely long way,” he says. “Mainly what I wanted to do was just get my life back. I just knew that I wasn’t well. Everyone who was close to me or loved me, I was hurting them, betraying them, losing their trust over and over again. I didn’t know what the other side of the forest looked like. I just knew that, first thing first, I could fix this.”

He got sober seven years ago, after moving to New York and opening the cult-favorite restaurant Brooklyn Commune with his wife and business partner, Eugenie Woo. Once clear-headed, he developed his own cooking style, a fusion of his childhood favorites with those of his ancestors, which he dubbed “Amish Soul” food. He opened another restaurant, Butterfunk Kitchen, which received a glowing review in the New York Times, and he competed on Season 15 of Bravo’s Top Chef, making it to the final four contestants.

He does not think he could have done any of it if he hadn’t gotten sober.

“While I was making that change outwardly, inwardly, I was learning more about myself, about my true self,” he said. “About all the mistakes I made and the way that I looked at myself. I’m not saying sobriety is all rainbows and unicorns by any means, but my head is in a different place. My ability to make better choices and decisions leads me down a way better path than before.”

While he still deals with stress, he no longer grabs a bottle of whiskey to cope. He reaches out to a network of friends, who can help him stay the course.

“Sobriety has a way of making you think much more clear, and that doesn't mean that I’m right all the time. I’m still wrong. It doesn’t mean there aren’t bad days, because there certainly are, but they’re not as horrible. And they’re most certainly not as destructive to me or to the people who are around me.”

Now a culinary instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), Scott is trying to break the cycle of abuse in kitchens, which he says is still rampant, even in Michelin-starred restaurants. He encourages students to stay focused and promotes the benefits of sobriety to them. 

It’s the same approach Scott took at his own restaurants. While Brooklyn Commune and Butterfunk Kitchen are now closed, he always discouraged his employees from taking “shift” drinks, or the customary after-work shots or beers. 

He tries to lead by example, sharing his good and bad stories, his joys and his pains.

“I tell them they do not need to be in that atmosphere,” he said. “You should be surrounded by good people who encourage you and groom you to be better. Kitchens should support you and your voice. If you have ideas, as far as food is concerned, I want to encourage and nurture those things. I want to be able to celebrate you.”

He’s optimistic about the future of restaurants, even though many of them have had to close or retool since the pandemic. He believes they will have an even greater comeback, one focused on better things like equality and giving back.

“Restaurants are all about restoring,” he says. “It’s about restoring us, with food. It’s about restoring our spirits.”

Early next year, Scott will set about restoring spirits when he opens Butterfunk Biscuit, in Harlem. Until then, he’s teaching classes at ICE, offering virtual cooking instruction, and writing his first cookbook, Homage, for Chronicle Books. He’s grateful for how far he’s come and is excited for what his future holds.

“I’ve been working on me, the core of me, for seven years now,” he said. “I can only imagine what year 15 and year 20 will look like.”

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