Last year at Food on the Edge, the gastronomy symposium held at Airfield Estate in Dublin, Ireland, there was one standout speaker among the stellar names in global gastronomy. His name is Dr. Martin Ruffley, a chef, teacher and mentor, who has written about his life’s journey and his struggles to overcome alcoholism and addiction in a new cookbook that is quite unlike any other.
“It wasn’t easy going up there,” says Ruffley. “Obviously I talk about it at meetings and that to fellow alcoholics, but to talk about it in a public forum was like a coming out. I’m glad I did it because there are a lot of people who have been through it and they aren’t with us today. The following week after Food on the Edge a good friend of mine hung himself. He had issues with drink and drugs, and he was a great chef, I’d lost touch with him for a while. We need to highlight it and talk about it.”
Dr. Martin Ruffley’s book, co-authored with Anna King is called 'Rekindling the Fire: Food and the Journey of Life' published by Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd. It's a cookbook with recipes and techniques gleaned from Ruffley’s international travels as well as his time in the kitchens of restaurants like three-Michelin-star Maaemo, two-star Hibiscus and Ora in Helsinki. It also includes his battle against addiction and how he turned it all around through his passion for food. It’s a journey that began at a young age.
“I started drinking early, about 13. By my early 20s I had a problem, I had several hospital admissions, coming through in police cells, and court cases… all kinds of things. It led me down a terrible road. I would stop for a certain period of time to get people off my back, whether it was social workers, parole officers, or the wife… but I could never stay stopped. Once I took a drink, I had no say in the matter. I would go on benders that would last for weeks.
“Once I took a drink I was just gone, and I could be gone for months… coming through in different places. I could be drinking and performing perfectly naturally and then come through in another pub, talking to someone else. I’d lost that time, even though I wouldn’t appear drunk. I would have had that all the time without ever appearing to be drunk.
Periwinkles with Fermented Potato Cakes. Photo: Julia Dunin
It played havoc with my mental health, I was paranoid because I wouldn’t know what was going on. Several times my wife kicked me out of the house, brought through the courts and so on… a lot of my family didn’t want to know me.”
Ruffley worked as a cook in the Irish military for years. His passion for food and his ability in the kitchen perhaps masked his addiction for a long time, but once he retired, he decided to go to Australia for a fresh start, but that period led him down a dark path and eventually to reaching his rock bottom.
“The last few years were the worst,” says Ruffley. “Previously I would have tried to stop to get the wife back, but at that point, none of that mattered. I decided to go to Australia, I thought it would be a fresh start for me and it was the worst year of my life. The drinking just got worse and worse, so I came home, but the drinking got progressively worse. I ended up couch-surfing with old buddies, but they got pissed off with me. In the end, I was sleeping in a derelict house in my own hometown. I was just riddled with loneliness and guilt. I came to a realisation, a crossroads, really. I couldn’t see my life with alcohol and I couldn’t see my life without alcohol.
“I’d been in and out of AA several times and I knew this time was different. Over the years I had many interventions in my life from psychologists and social workers. I felt that they were interrogating me, I hated them and felt they were interfering with my life, with my drinking. My rock bottom came then. I just got up one morning, I had been on a big bender and I just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore'. That was my rock bottom, some people’s are worse, and some people’s are less, it’s different for everyone."
Ruffley got sober. It wasn’t easy, but it changed his life and by putting his attention and his passion into cooking he was able to find focus and a new life without alcohol. He studied for a degree part-time in psychology and sociology, volunteered to help young people, staged around the world in restaurants, and eventually completed a PhD. Today he is a lecturer at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.
“I take it very much a day at a time, in the here and now,” says Ruffley. “I have to surround myself with positive people, like-minded people. It’s like a daily reprieve, I’m very conscious of what drink can do to me. I tend to keep away from so-called acquaintances. I rarely go into pubs, now if there’s a function it’s ok, but the people I associate with now are so different to the people before. The people I used to hang out with would be off to the toilet all the time snorting coke or speed, saying ‘take this, take that’. So I have to keep away from all of that.
Fig Leaf Sorbet and Salted Fig. Photo: Julia Dunin
“Nowadays there are more students coming in with mental health issues. In the last few years, it seems to have increased, I can’t put my finger on why – difficulty coping? When I was first sober I did a degree in Sociology and Psychology. I was also working as a head chef in a boutique hotel. I was always an avid reader, even though I left school at 13 to start working, I was the eldest of 11.”
Ruffley embodies what it really means to be a chef, a leader in the kitchen who inspires through quiet strength, humility and empathy, and makes a difference to the young people who pass through his kitchen. He is well aware that the restaurant industry presents particular challenges when it comes to drink and drugs. Chefs especially are vulnerable to falling into bad habits that can get out of hand.
“It’s a highly pressurised job. You are buzzing from service so when you come down off that, you go and drink a few bottles of wine or smoke a few joints. It just kind of escalates for certain people. I knew a lot of lads who were working in London and they became very fond of coke over there. They would use it to get through service. But the difference with me was I just couldn’t function once I took a drink. Everything went out the window, work, family, everything. Nothing mattered, only the next drink.”
The chef is still in recovery, it’s a long road, one that maybe doesn’t have a final destination, but the book ‘Rekindling the Fire: Food and the Journey of Life’ is part of that healing process.
“It was difficult. Things would surface and it was hard to hear,” says Ruffley. “I cringe when I think about the things I did when I was drinking. It was cathartic, but it brought healing. Food saved my life, you can see that in the book. Cooking saved me. When I stopped drinking, it was food and learning about food, the degree and then I did a PhD, but I could get bored very easily, so I was able to throw myself into food, working, studying and cooking. Eventually, I got out of that, now I’m in a very, very good place.
“I would say to anyone who suffers from addiction because usually, these people are creative people, they need to find something that they can give their energy to and for chefs, obviously that’s going to be cooking and learning everything they can about food. It will help you.”