Pulling back from the edge of the wild kitchen lifestyle.
By Ryan McCaskey as told to Amber Gibson
After opening Chicago’s Acadia restaurant in 2011, Ryan McCaskey emulated the rockstar chef life he thought he wanted—late nights partying, binge drinking, a little ecstasy. He rocketed to Michelin-star status right out of the gate, and the success made him feel invincible. Then health scares, including a gnarly infection, prompted him to reassess how he took care of himself and his team.
When we first opened Acadia, we were learning as we went. It was my first restaurant. I was flying by the seat of my pants with a veteran crew. These guys could stay up late, party every night, and still be sharp and ready to go the next day at work. We felt invincible.
I had a lot of energy and was very excited. We got a Michelin star after 10 months. We rode this wave of good things and momentum I guess, and yes, we did dumb things. We’d eat ecstasy and do shots all night. We were drinking something like 1,200 beers a month between six or seven of us. That’s a lot of beer. We slept very little. There were nights where I slept 45 minutes. It was go, go, go all the time.
My doctor would warn me, “Hey, you’ve gotta get healthy one of these days. Especially as you’re heading into your 40s it’s going to catch up to you.” But I downplayed it because I never felt unhealthy.
By our third year, things really started to change though. I had a really bad leg infection and had to have surgery, and it was excruciating. The whole ordeal at the hospital. And I didn’t know what was happening. It also happened this last year when I was in Maine. I changed my health plan, and I’ve got two endocrinologists now at Northwestern. They’ve said that I’m susceptible to these weird infections. I don’t ever want to go through it again.
So three years in, I said we’re not doing this anymore. We’re not buying a thousand beers a month. I saw that we’d be partying, and then the next day everyone would oversleep, be tired, and it impacted performance. And it dawned on me that it’s really a disservice to our guests if we’re not at or close to 100% every day. They come in expecting a certain dining experience, paying a lot of money, and we owe it to them to deliver.
I wanted to change Acadia’s culture. The whole “we’re badasses and pirates” is not a healthy message to young kids, and in my opinion it’s part of what’s hurting the culture of restaurants and kitchens. Now we offer fully paid health insurance to all of our employees. We have two weeks of vacation in the summer and a week in the winter, fully paid. There’s a culture of fairness. People understand there’s a high expectation and level of push every day, but I really want to focus on quality of life, and give back to the people who are working hard for me.
I try to not only be a good boss and chef here at the restaurant—an employer—but I try to be more than that. I try to be a mentor to these kids, a great leader, and advise them with life. There are young kids who come and work here, and they need help. They haven’t been fully acclimated to adult life. I’ve helped cooks buy their first suit, or open a bank account. I have one of my cooks living in my house now until he can figure out how to get enough credit or put enough money down for an apartment.
Now I’m focusing more on myself too. I’m also type 2 diabetic. And I’ve come to learn that blood sugar levels have more to do with your body’s functions than almost any other single thing. It affects your liver, fatigue, eyesight, pretty much everything. As I learned more about that, I learned more about my own body. And in the last six to seven months, I’ve been feeling a lot lot better. I’m sleeping more and working out. I have a microchip in my arm now and an app on my phone so I can check my blood sugar level a few times a day. My doctor says if you have it at 65% or better, then your medication and lifestyle change is working. For the last seven or eight months I’ve been at 85%, so I’m super happy about that.
My doctor told me to work out half an hour a day. And I thought the best way to do that at the restaurant is to shoot hoops. So a year and a half ago I bought a basketball hoop and turned the back parking lot into a basketball court. Every day when the weather’s good, I shoot hoops. I’m shooting, like, 70% out there. Nobody can beat me. But at the same time, it’s keeping my blood sugar levels great, and I’m starting to get myself to where I need to be. The doctor says I need to lose 20 pounds. At first it was 40, but I’ve already lost 20, so I’ve got 20 pounds to go. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Another 20 pounds isn’t that bad if I can just keep doing what I do.
I’m going to be really on a great path and game plan as I head toward 50. And when you turn 50, I guess your body changes again. By the time I’m there, 50, I want to step away a little bit from the restaurant and have two or three places running, with great food and concepts. And I want to focus on relationships. I’m hanging out with my family a lot more in the last year. I think about how many relationships I’ve sacrificed because of the restaurant. I feel bad for a lot of these women. One girl would come to work and sit at the bar and sometimes wait four and a half hours for me to get out of work. It’s not fair to other people, or to the relationship. She would just wait and wait and wait. She finally broke up with me, and at the time I was pissed but now I get it. I kind of want what the rest of the world has.
Now with the coronavirus, I think at first our team, like many in the industry, felt shocked and panicked. But now the team has come to the realization that this is serious and that the future remains uncertain, with no quick fixes. They have been contacting me, eager to return or help in any way possible. Myself and the management team are putting together a plan to help our staff, feed our neighbors, and even provide food and groceries for our staff. I think the thing that is going to be the best response is to be proactive and come together as a restaurant and dining community.
I’d advise others to be optimistically cautious. With so little information out there, I think it’d be prudent to not overreact, but take necessary steps with regards to preventative maintenance. In the meantime, ask questions and be proactive within your community. Don’t take anything for granted. Guests can really support their local eateries and establishments by buying gift cards for future dining dates, buying delivery orders and carry-out. Every dollar counts with such slim margins in the industry. And with so much of servers’ wages counted on through tips, I think it’s really important to spend what you can in any capacity. Hopefully the employers will allocate those revenues properly to their staff first. I haven’t read or seen too much at this time because we’re really frantically working hard to figure out our situation for the staff. But I’ve seen videos from Tom Colicchio and Rick Bayless that are on-point, passionate pleas.