'It got to a point where I knew I was going to die'

The  Staff Canteen

Calum Franklin has many things to celebrate: the success of The Pie Room at Holborn Dining Room, where, as the executive chef, he has helped reshape Britain's culinary landscape; his best-selling cookbook, which earned him critical-acclaim and the title of 'The King of Pies'; and having married his 'amazing' wife. 

But underlying all of these successes, is a victory without which the chef may not be alive to tell his tale, and that is ten years of sobriety.

In an interview with TSC editor Cara Houchen and chef Aktar Islam on this week's Grilled podcast, Calum explained that his addiction had nothing to do with being in the industry in the first place. However, the prevalence among his peers of drinking to oblivion did help him keep his own issues under wraps. 

The only reason that prompted him to to pack it in aged 29, he said, "was because I was going to die." 

 "My drinking, from the very very beginning," he explained, "had been different to everybody else I knew."

"I would always drink to get as drunk as possible, and weirdly the career that I decided to go into allowed me to mask how bad it was over the years."

'Something switched in my brain'

When he was first cooking in Central London, he said, "most chefs went out every night. It was one of those things.

Remembering when he worked at The Ivy, he said, "we would get the chefs coming over from Lindsay House," in those days operated by chef Richard Corrigan, and "they would come over to ours to borrow equipment at one in the morning to do prep - back when service used to finish that late, then we would meet them after service and go out drinking, and we'd be back in the kitchen at 7 o'clock in the morning. That was pretty normal behaviour." 

To an extent, he said, the lifestyle allowed him to hide how bad his addiction was. "It just got worse and worse over the years, to the point where it went from me just drinking heavily to being physically addicted to alcohol."

One thing people really don't grasp with addiction, he continued, "is that it completely overrides any sense of good or bad or how you affect other people. It's only about getting that balance back in your body of normality, which is the right amount of endorphin which is released by whatever drug or alcohol you're taking. 

"That was the point I got to. I got to that level of addiction where I didn't really care who I hurt anymore - not physically, but emotionally, I didn't ever prioritise my family's feelings or my girlfriend's feelings. 

"If I didn't drink, within 30 minutes or an hour, I'd be sick. I'd be really physically ill, I'd be shaking, tremors - and I was working, I was the sous-chef in a pretty decent restaurant at the time when it was really bad. 

"It got to a point where I had to leave work. I moved back in with my family. I was just locked in an attic, still in denial that I could help myself. 

"I would say to my family and friends, 'don't worry, I'm going to sort myself out'. But I wasn't - I couldn't at that point." 

He remembers going to a counsellor, "and I told her, 'this is how much I'm drinking a day, I'm doing my best to not drink before twelve...' I literally had a bottle of vodka tucked in my trousers while I was talking to her. As soon as I walked out of the room I had to drink it, because otherwise I was going to get sick." 

"It got to a point where I knew I was going to die."

"My liver was very swollen, I was in constant pain, there was no way out of the other side, so I gave up. I was like, 'well that's it now, I'll just go out with it, whatever.'"

'That was it. I spent a month in rehab and never drank again'

Days later, the chef's survival instinct kicked in. He decided that he wanted to live. 

"Something switched in my brain. I rang my brother, and said: 'look, if I don't do something pretty serious now, I'm going to be done.'" 

The decision was made for Calum to go to rehab, and so he went. 

"That was it. I spent a month in rehab and never drank again. It was the best thing I've ever done in my life." 

To this day, he said, that moment is one of his proudest memories.

"It sounds selfish," he said, "but I never thought I could come out the other side of that." 

The thing that triggered an enlightenment of sorts was to have it explained to him in technical terms. 

"They explained it to me scientifically, what I'd done to my brain."

"I'd got it to a point where it wasn't just about being able to cut back, I'd taken it to a point of no return. And when they explained it to me like that, I was like, 'alright, I get that. Now that's laid out, I can move on with my life.'

"Instead of just going on about will power and a higher power and God and all of that, it was just black and white." 

While he acknowledges that different things work for different people, "it was the best bit of information anyone ever gave me."

Now, the chef wants to make it known that it is possible, even within our industry, to live a normal life even in recovery.

He remembers the first few years being tough, as going back to work meant interacting with the people he had spent so many years drinking with. 

"I remember the first time we went to a pub, maybe a year after getting sober, and one of my friends was flicking beer at me. He was like, 'are you going to start drinking or what,'" which in turn made him think: "Man, if I can't get through this stuff mentally, I'm done. This is as hard as it's going to get."

And in fact, one of the things that has allowed the chef to push on with his recovery has been the fact of telling his story. 

"To tell other people, 'I've managed to get out the other side and survived and I've made a career for myself,' so that people that are struggling in our industry and feel alone and think that other people aren't going through what they're going through, maybe if they see me talking about it, it might help them - which is why I made the decision to talk about it."

"People can judge and people always will. It's a fairly small percentage of people that do, and f**k those people." 

'You can have a normal life'

Thankfully, the changes happening in the industry - the improvement of people's work-life balance, four day weeks, means that the tendency to engage in excessive drinking is becoming less prevalent, too. 

Calum said: "I think that was partly why we used to go so hard when we went out, because you felt 100% like you were owed it. Like, 'Ive worked 90-100 hours this week, when we're going out, even the police can't stop us.'"

"My God, some of the behaviour when we went out as chefs. It was like Brits abroad," he said.

"When people did get nicked, they couldn't believe it. You'd hear them arguing with the police, going 'd'you know how f***ing hard I've worked this week,' and the police were like, 'doesn't really matter mate, for what you've just done.'"

"As that work-life balance has changed, people don't feel so aggrieved at not being able to go out and get absolutely wasted when they go out." 

Whilst he understands how private it is - partly because of the stigma attached to addiction - Calum wants it to be known that he is there to help, should anyone need to talk.

 "Please do feel free to reach out to me on social media," he said, "I'll do my best to give you all the time I can." 

One message of comfort he is insistent on putting out to people is that "you can have a normal life." 

"One of the things that scared me the most about not drinking was that I was going to go into some sort of weird life where I'd be in AA meetings twice a day everyday of the week."

"But if you make the right changes in your head - not everyone, some people struggle with it more - but the majority of people, if you get in right, you can have a pretty good life." 

"I've got an amazing wife, I'm surrounded by lovely people and I'm trying my best to make a success of myself and have lots of lovely things happen in my career."

"Things can be much better." 


If this article has affected you in any way and you need someone to talk to, you may find the following 24/7 resources helpful:

-  NHS Alcohol addiction services

- Counselling, legal advice and support from Hospitality Action

- The Burnt Chef Support Service

- The Samaritans Helpline 116 123 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th May 2021

'It got to a point where I knew I was going to die'