When co-worker Ron Stark noticed Kenny Kaechele at a Safeway, he started with small talk before he grabbed Kaechele by his shirt collar, opened a door and shoved the talented chef into a freezer.

Stark had been working in the kitchen with Kaechele for some time at The Living Room when he noticed the chef pushing his son Javen Kaechele’s stroller through the Safeway in Calgary’s Mission district on Nov. 28, 2002. Stark knew immediately something wasn’t right.

“He just looked really messed up,” Stark recalls nearly 15 years later.

Kaechele was just beginning his ritualistic detox from yet another four-day binge, trying to stay sober for the three days a week he was responsible for his then 18-month-old son. It took Stark — whom Kaechele says weighs less than 150 pounds — only moments to recognize the state of Kaechele’s addiction, and he acted immediately.

Stark walked to Kaechele’s apartment after they left Safeway, pushing Javen’s stroller. “I didn’t realize our interaction at that point was going to have the effect that it did,” Stark says.

Then again, neither did an offended Kaechele. While Kaechele came up with countless excuses, Stark countered them all, saying he would come back to Kaechele’s apartment in the morning to attend a recovery meeting together.

At this point, Kaechele wasn’t unfamiliar with addiction, or the process of sobriety for that matter. After being introduced to alcohol as a teen, the passionate chef says by the time he was out of high school and in his late teens, “addiction started putting their hooks in me.”

Drinking and drugging wasn’t fun for him anymore, and he knew he had to make a decision. Either he would make a change or continue with his cocaine and alcohol addiction, likely killing himself.

By the time Kaechele was 21, he had admitted himself to Simon House’s recovery program, calling this particular year one of self-discovery. With an addiction the magnitude of Kaechele’s, he says “everything is muted — your personality, your emotional growth, your spiritual development — it’s just all blotted out.”

It was nine months of normalcy for Kaechele before chaos came knocking at his door. He had met a woman during recovery, falling in love. After leaving Simon House, they moved in together. Three months later she was pregnant. He was two and a half  years clean and sober, and 22 years old.

A large part of Kaechele’s story can be seen through his tattoos. He calls it his “collage of early sobriety”. A phoenix rising from ashes, a bottle of booze, and the words serenity and fear. “I never knew what the word serenity meant, until I had to experience it,” he says, “I could say the same for the word faith.” Photo by Deanna Tucker. That fast and hard love broke down within the first six months of Javen’s life, leaving Kaechele alone and emotionally devastated. Filled with pain, guilt, shame, regret and pride at the thought of his broken family, Kaechele looked to fill what he describes as an emotional abyss.

He started drinking again after two and a half years of sobriety, with a budding career as a chef in one of Calgary’s best restaurants, and father to a six-month-old.

“What formerly was something that I feared, loathed and despised because of what it did to me, suddenly seemed like an option again.”

For the next 18 months the functioning addict drank all night, going into work at five a.m. still drinking. He worked hard, led his team, and performed well.

“Inside,” Kaechele admits, “I was dying.”

It wouldn’t matter to his employers, however. Although they cared about their employees, Kaechele says, “If you’re a train wreck personally, it doesn’t really matter because the restaurant operator is interested in results.”

Kaechele knew he needed help. He knew Javen needed his father. He thought to himself, “I need a higher power. I need help, or, I’m going to die.”

That’s when he was pushed into a freezer and called out by Stark, who would become a mentor, a motivator to attend 12-step meetings during Kaechele’s early recovery, and eventually became like family to him.

Kaechele now realizes he was missing the foundation for long-term recovery. “I look at addiction as a mental illness,” he says. “You can’t fix your sick mind using your sick mind. You need some kind of exterior solution.”

For Kaechele, that solution was spiritual. And once he understood this, the chef says his motivation for sobriety came from a desire to start building an amazing life, rather than being motivated by a fear of returning to his old life. Incorporating God into his life, Kaechele began to realize long-term sobriety was more than possible, and credits his faith and community for his recovery.

Early in his career he attracted a lot of attention in Calgary’s restaurant industry, helping to open Di Vino on Stephen Avenue, and being hired at 26 as the executive chef at Bow Valley Ranche in Fish Creek Park.

Kaechele worked at The Ranche for four years before joining the Concorde Group, began to date again and felt as though he was starting to understand his role as a parent. That’s when Javen’s mom stopped actively parenting, and eventually permanently lost her rights as a parent. Kaechele was given full-time custody.

He questioned his future. How could I do that? How could I have full-time custody of a six-year-old and have a full-time job, doing everything I’m doing?

“I’m a single dad with a six-year-old in Grade 1!” he realized, panicking as he considered moving to be closer to Javen’s mom, quitting his job, and even wondered if he would become a welfare dad. His life was about to change, when Kaechele decided to turn to a higher power instead of diving into his old habits.

“Things like this don’t just happen, they’re created. It takes a lot to land a person where they are.” – Kenny Kaechele

He gave his boss his letter of resignation, but his employer decided they would do whatever they could to help the talented chef succeed in his career and as a dad. He was able to make his own schedule, and soon Javen’s extended family offered to help however they could.

Humbled, Kaechele accepted the help knowing he could not do it on his own. As a result, he says “there wasn’t a single day up until the end of Grade 9 for my son where I didn’t drop him off in the morning and pick him up after school.”

Javen, now in Grade 12, was in Paris sending Snapchats to his dad of the Eiffel Tower at the time of this interview. The aspiring photographer is a skilled football player, with three Canadian universities and two junior football teams expressing interest in the quarterback.

Kaechele never considered being a father, but boasts of his son saying, “The lessons of being his dad have been amazing.”

In typical Kaechele fashion, the chef started pursuing the next step in his professional career. Between a corporate position and starting his own restaurant, Kaechele eventually left Rouge Restaurant to start the award-winning Workshop Kitchen + Culture located in the Lougheed Building beside the Grand Theatre.

He knew it was a risk, but he was determined after his business partner inspired him to start thinking about creating significance in the world rather than building an empire for himself.

Former employee Andrea Dorrans says Workshop was different from the beginning. She interviewed for her position in the spring of 2014 while the restaurant was undergoing renovations prior to its opening that fall.

“At the grand opening, Kenny gave a speech,” she says. “He talked about his battle with alcohol and drugs … Kenny’s up there and he’s got tears in his eyes. He was so raw, he was being so real and so brave.”

When Kaechele finished his speech and asked the former server what she thought.

“I just want to hug you,” she said.

Although Dorrans is now a full-time writer, she says after two years at Workshop, she wouldn’t work for a different restaurant. “It was just somewhere I was really proud of.”

Kaechele decided Workshop would be more than a restaurant. With a desire to create significance around him, the chef chose to care for his own staff rather than find an outside cause to invest his time and experience in. “This industry is rife with hard drinking, hard partying and hard living,” he says. Although he is the first to top up drinks, he is also unafraid to talk to staff who may be struggling.

Kaechele is proud of Workshop’s daily five-course tasting menu which changes every day. He says “if you want to get to know my personality as a chef, come and have my tasting menu because it’s basically me on a plate.” Photo by Deanna Tucker. Being vocal about the highs and lows of addiction and recovery are even tattooed all over his body, painting a picture of his journey. With everything from the names of people to the names of emotions, like fear, he points them out and shares their purpose.

Kaechele laughs, pointing to a tattoo of a buffalo skull on his neck. “I got it when my son announced to me in Grade 7 that the buffalo was his spirit animal. He said the most profound thing a 12-year-old could say.”

“’When buffalo are on the Prairie and they see a storm approaching on the horizon, they walk towards it,’” he remembers his son saying. Kaechele was confused and asked Javen to explain, to which his son replied, “’Because they know instinctively that walking into the storm is going to get them through the storm faster.’”

Kaechele looks around his restaurant, hands motioning towards nothing, and yet everything.

“Things like this don’t just happen, they’re created. It takes a lot to land a person where they are.”

dtucker@cjournal.ca

Editor: Amber McLinden | amclinden@cjournal.ca