Joe Beef's David McMillan opens up about depression, sobriety and life in the kitchen

"As it seemed everything was going well, things weren't. I was very unhappy. I worked very hard, and it's been a very hard road," the chef who helped put Montreal on the culinary map tells CBC.

'It's been a very hard road,' says the world-famous chef, who's now been sober for more than a year

Chef David McMillan on sobriety in a high-pressure workplace

5 years ago
Duration 2:38
World-renowned chef David McMillan says he's made changes to his Montreal restaurants since he quit drinking. He wants to ensure his employees have access to the help they need.

As a world-renowned chef and restaurateur, David McMillan helped put Montreal on the culinary map.

But McMillan says since he's opened up about quitting drinking, he's touched more lives than he has in more than 30 years of working in kitchens.

"I just got used to working in a constantly depressed mode. I was hung over most of my career," McMillan said on CBC Montreal's Radio Noon.

"As it seemed everything was going well, things weren't. I was very unhappy. I worked very hard, and it's been a very hard road."

Now sober for over a year, McMillan is sharing stories of the darker periods he's lived through, as he worked long hours building the restaurants he co-owns: Joe Beef and Liverpool House, as well as the wine bar Le Vin Papillon. 

Despite a life of gourmet food and fine wines, the chef said he was unable to feel joy. He could not get excited about his successful businesses, his relationships with the people who work at them, or in his role as a father.

Today he reaches for kombucha instead of wine and says he finally feels happy again.

McMillan now wants to talk about wellness — and how restaurateurs can create a "kinder environment" in their kitchens.

From early in his career, "I fell into a system where people rewarded my hard work with alcohol," he said.

Listen to David McMillan's full interview with Shawn Apel on Radio Noon below:

He's back in the kitchen, although he admits with rich food and wine continuing to flow at his restaurants, the return poses a threat to his sobriety. So he's made changes — both for himself and for his staff. 

There's now a number his employees can call if they want to seek counselling.

"Making very good food requires an extreme amount of man-hours," he said. "The mathematical equation is just destined for failure."

"You work a lot. The pay is not great. When do you have the time to go to therapy?"

He also recommends that anyone looking to find a path to sobriety attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He says that's where he learned how to interact kindly with other adults.

After being sober for a few weeks, "I could feel the joy coming back into me," he said.

"It was this joy that I hadn't felt since I was a child. Since I was 16 years old."

With files from CBC Montreal's Radio Noon