Brian Donnelly: "Everyone knows the industry has a big problem with alcohol"

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Founder and chef of Belfast’s Bia Rebel Ramen on alcoholism in the restaurant industryv

Related tags: Restaurant, Chef

The founder of Belfast’s Bia Rebel Ramen has opened up about his battle with alcoholism in the hope that his story might help others to overcome addiction

Addiction is a very personal experience. Why go public?
Everyone knows the industry has a big problem with alcohol but it’s still not talked about enough. The more high-pressure and aggressive a kitchen is, the more likely you are to see alcohol abuse. I’ve certainly found it easier to keep things under control in more nurturing places.

How did you start out in the industry?
I wanted to be a chef from a young age after seeing Albert Roux cooking on TV. I got my first job in a hotel when I was only 13 and, after catering college, I landed a job at Ballymaloe (the restaurant, hotel and cookery school in Cork).

You worked with Myrtle Allen?
Yes. She taught me how to make fish soup, and proper mayonnaise. I remember her walking me round the gardens and talking me through the produce. At the time I didn’t think much of it but looking back now it was a very special thing. I was only 18 at the time and was more focused on the extracurricular activities. Like a lot of country house hotels, it was party central because there was nothing else to do but drink.

Was your drinking a problem then?
I didn’t think I had a drinking problem in my early 20s but I knew I drank differently to my peers. Quite simply, I didn’t know when to stop. When you’re that age it’s less of a problem and the hospitality industry facilitates it all quite nicely. As long as you turn up for work it’s OK. After Ballymaloe I went to London to work at The Greenhouse under Gary Rhodes. I drank less in the working week than I had in Ireland – it takes less alcohol to get you completely wasted when you’re working 100-hour weeks – but I made up for it on Sunday and Monday when the restaurant was closed.

And then you went to Aubergine...
That’s where things started to fall apart. It’s difficult to overstate how intense working with Gordon Ramsay was during that period, although you can get a flavour by watching Boiling Point [a five-part Channel 4 documentary filmed shortly after Ramsay left Aubergine]. I was a promising young chef but my drinking made it difficult to keep up. I was always slightly hungover and out of kilter. It was really difficult because I’d worked hard to be there and I mucked it up. I only lasted about six months.

What happened next?
I returned to Ireland to work in a place in Dublin that will remain nameless. It was straight out the pages of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and a bad place for me. It was easy work but I was partying so hard I still managed to get sacked. After that I worked for Kevin Thornton. He clocked that I had a problem early on when I turned up to work late and still inebriated. During that period I stopped drinking. I ended up running the kitchen and was a big part of Thornton’s going from one to two stars.  

What was it about Thorton’s that helped you stop?
It was creative and calm. There was a family vibe. Alcoholism is often linked to physical or mental trauma. If you’re in a supportive environment, you’re more likely to control it. Thornton’s was a good period for me, despite a few slip-ups. But my then girlfriend in Northern Ireland was expecting a baby so I went back to County Tyrone. I ended up in another bad kitchen. My drinking got so bad people intervened. I blamed the pressure of the kitchen and walked away from the industry. I was still in my early 20s.

What did you do?
I worked in construction and then went into the drinks industry, which did not help with my alcoholism. I did well, though, and also got into long-distance running. I told myself that I couldn’t be an alcoholic because I’d just got promoted and could run a marathon in a good time. Eventually, I found my way back into restaurants. I worked for Niall Mckenna at James Street South. He was a good guy. My drinking there was heavy but controlled. After four years I took an executive chef position at a hotel. It was horrendous and my drinking spiralled out of control. I was on the brink of losing everything. My current partner Jenny had thrown me out. I’d hit rock bottom and had two choices: I could drink myself to death or reach out for help.

To Alcoholics Anonymous?
Yes. There are 12 steps to the AA program, one of which is acknowledging your life has become unmanageable and that you can’t control your relationship with alcohol. There’s no pressure and the experience is cathartic, but you do need to be ready to stop. After nine months of being sober working in an undemanding kitchen I realised I wanted to do my own thing. Jenny and I tested a few things on a market stall in Belfast and we settled on ramen. I’m not saying that if you work in a top kitchen you’re going to have a drinking problem, but cooking at a high level was no longer for me.

Tells us about Bia Rebel Ramen
We won the Observer Food Monthly Cheap Eats Award in 2018 a few months after we opened. We’re not trying to be a Japanese restaurant; we’re an Irish restaurant. It just so happens this wonderful dish we’re making is Japanese, and it’s a great vehicle for Irish ingredients. We work in a happy atmosphere, there’s no shouting.

What would your advice be to others battling addiction?
Talk to someone. It’s important to find a person who’s had experience of addiction and knows about recovery. It’s hard to speak to people who have never had a problem with alcohol because they’re unlikely to understand. When you find the right person, don’t be afraid to let yourself be vulnerable. I’m not supposed to promote Alcoholic Anonymous, but it saved my life by providing a safe space. If you really want to stop drinking it’s a great starting point.

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