This is how Danny Serfer knows he’s an addict.
“I can’t tell you the first time I cooked something or the best thing I’ve ever eaten, but I can tell you when I did my first drug, whatever it was,” the Miami-born chef says, sitting in a booth at one of his three Miami restaurants, Mignonette Uptown.
Serfer, 36, nurses a glass of water as the scent of oysters on the half shell baking fills the restaurant at lunchtime. Ten years in recovery has shown him how only drugs stood out in the haze of a blurred, drug-addled memory.
The first time he smoked marijuana? Oct. 26, 1994. He was 13 when he convinced the family nanny to score him his first joint. Nov. 17, 1995: He dropped acid and went to the Broward County Youth Fair with a pair of friends, tripping on LSD. Oct. 31, 1996: He ate hallucinogenic mushrooms and went to a Phish concert. He was 15.
“My whole life was focused on drugs in one way or another,” he said.
And that was just the beginning. Milestones and tragedies in Serfer’s young life were tinged by his drug use.
He was stoned at 15 the day his father suffered a stroke in the next room and later died. He was 21 and stealing Vicodin and Xanax pills from his mother during the year she was dying of breast cancer. And when he was named sous chef of the landmark and long-running Aventura restaurant Chef Allen at 26, he was staying up all night binging in an obsessive cycle of cocaine and marijuana, prescription drugs and enough beer and bourbon that it took sleeping pills to get to bed and cocaine to get to work on time in the morning.
“I was doing what a drug addict does,” he says.
It was 10 years ago that Serfer finally asked for help. He entered detox, drug rehab and a 12-step program, and he has remained clean. His life went from a carefully choreographed ritual of drug use, deceit and manipulation to what it is today, that of a successful restaurant owner, husband and father of two with twins on the way.
That’s why he decided it was time to talk about his own struggle to raise awareness of the problem in his industry, where the late nights in pressure-filled kitchens, surrounded by alcohol, can help fuel addiction. He is working on establishing a 12-step group with those in his industry in mind — from busboys to chefs — but open to all.
“We need more open dialogue about how drugs and alcohol are a problem in our industry,” he said. “If you have a problem, you can get help. We can help you. ... People need to know you can have a great life and be clean.”
Long before he started working in a kitchen, Serfer wore his drug use like a badge of honor among friends.
He aced Advanced Placement classes at North Miami Beach Senior High while spending afternoons surfing and doing drugs with his friends. He’d wake up, smoke pot, go to school and ace an AP History test. The drugs became a crutch and a constant.
“It was my way of thumbing my nose at convention and saying, ‘Ha! I can still do both.’ ”
He still remembers the day he came home from school high and passed out on his bed for a nap. His middle sister burst into his room and yelled that she’d found their father passed out on the bedroom floor. Serfer’s first thought: Can she tell that I’m high? His father would die in the hospital later that week from the massive stroke. Serfer self-medicated with drugs.
The reason he left for the University of Vermont two years later was because he had heard about a drug culture at the school. The reason he left school, ostensibly, was the news that his mother had been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, and he wanted to spend her final days with her. The truth? He wanted access to her Vicodin.
“I was like, ‘Jackpot,’ ” he recalled. In a year, he and his two older sisters would become orphans and Serfer’s drug problem would only get worse.
“I probably didn’t deal with the death of my parents properly,” he said. “There was an emptiness I was trying to fill.”
He transferred to Florida State, where he double-majored in political science and history, all while becoming more reckless with his drug abuse. He was high when, in July 2001, he plowed into a parked car in an accident he says would have killed anyone in his passenger seat, and he was convicted of driving under the influence. Still, he graduated on time thanks to the high school AP courses.
“You think, ‘Maybe it’s just a kid thing,’ and you never know what it was going to evolve into. And it evolved into something pretty bad,” his oldest sister, Jennifer Shinebaum, said. “It was a constant worry all the time with him.”
He had been working the grill at a greasy spoon he won’t name in Tallahassee where he learned life in a kitchen catered to a drug addict. He could go out after a restaurant closed, drink and do drugs all night and have enough time to sleep it off before going to work in late afternoon.
His cooking was spot on. He decided he didn’t want to use his dual degrees for a career in law and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Miramar, where he showed enough talent that Allen Susser — one of the Mango Gang chefs who helped put fine dining on the map in Miami in the late 1990s — hired him as a line cook before he even graduated.
He had a knack for creativity in the kitchen but rarely stayed after hours to help develop menu items. “I would think, ‘If I can only get through this 12-hour day, I can get my drug on,’ ” he said.
Serfer lived two lives. He would become a responsible member of the kitchen staff, going in at 4 p.m. and working till closing time. Then, he would feed his other life.
Before leaving for work, he would leave a Xanax by the door so he could take it the moment he came home that night with a case of Budweiser, a bottle of Jim Beam, an eighth-ounce of marijuana and a gram of cocaine. His drug dealer lived in the same Hollywood apartment complex, and his live-in girlfriend was also a heavy user.
Serfer abused his body with obsessive-compulsive precision. He would snort a line of coke, take a hit off a bong, do a shot of bourbon, drain a can of beer and smoke a cigarette.
“And repeat the cycle all night,” he said.
If he hadn’t become so proficient in the kitchen, he might never have gotten the help he needed. Susser promoted him to sous chef, which meant he had to come in at 10 or 11 a.m. instead of in the afternoon. Now, Serfer found himself taking his Xanax at 6 a.m. to take a nap after a long night of drugs and alcohol before rushing to work.
One Friday night, he came into work still reeling from the drug effects to find reservations for 200 people. It meant a hectic and exhausting night of work — and Serfer cracked.
He pulled aside Susser and told him he couldn’t do it anymore. He was a drug addict, he told him, and he needed help.
“I was shocked,” Susser said. “It took a lot of guts for him to face me and say, ‘I need help.’ I thought it was very brave.”
Serfer used money from his parents’ inheritance to enter a 10-day detox program and later spend a month at a rehabilitation center. Both his sisters visited him, his middle sister flying in from Philadelphia. Shinebaum was in tears when she saw him pale and gaunt in the face. He told her it was the first time she’d seen him sober in 15 years.
Not since he was a boy had Serfer looked at the world with clear eyes. Speakers came in as part of a 12-step program, former drug users who gave Serfer hope.
“The guys would come in and they looked so happy and talked about how good they feel. They were beaming,” Serfer said. “And I wanted that, too. I wanted not to feel terrible and not use drugs.”
Serfer made the classic mistake of moving in with a fellow recovering addict and relapsed four months later. But the next day, he went to a support meeting — and he hasn’t even so much as tasted any of the wine served at his restaurants, Blue Collar and both Mignonettes, since.
He remembers that day, too: Sept. 4, 2007.
Susser rehired Serfer, who rose to the rank of chef de cuisine, second in command to Susser, a position he held until he left and eventually opened Blue Collar with the remaining bits of his parents’ inheritance and all of his savings.
“He wanted to prove something to himself and to me,” Susser said. “I felt I knew him, who he was, his passion for the business. I like to believe people who make mistakes can learn from those mistakes. Errors happen in the kitchen all the time. But if they’re honest with their mistakes, you see people grow.”
Support like that has made all the difference, Serfer said, particularly from his wife, Shoshana, who has only known him sober.
She handles the threats of Serfer’s addiction with the same aplomb she uses to raise two children under 4 with twins on the way. When fellow restaurateurs or friends send over drinks when they’re out, she intercepts them. When Serfer was recently prescribed pain medication for an injured back, she took his sponsor’s advice and locked up the medicine, giving him only the recommended dosage when she saw him in pain. And if he ever relapses, they’ll deal with that together.
“If it happens, then we’ll handle it,” she said. “We just want him around forever. We want him to be the best him he can be.”
Serfer attends meetings regularly, even if one lands in the middle of busy dinner service. That happened in April, when he was asked to provide the speakers all month for the 8:30 p.m. Saturday meetings. His friend and business partner in the Mignonette restaurants, attorney Ryan Roman, said hearing Serfer speak about his addiction helps others see addiction as a disease it is.
“He doesn’t want it to be stigmatized, so he talks about it openly,” Roman said. “If you treat it like a secret, then it feeds into that stigma.”
Serfer says he hopes speaking about his struggle will help others hesitant to confront their addiction. He even wants them to email him (firstname.lastname@example.org) if they need help getting started.
Helping others get clean helps him stay clean, he says. That, and the knowledge that everything he has — wife, children, career — can disappear in a sudden relapse and overdose.
“I can piss this all away in a moment,” he said. “I know how I feel now, and I remember how I felt then. When I see someone walk in to a meeting who is broken, that keeps it green for me.”