**Since the posting of this story, Liam Doran is no longer with the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute. (11/17/2022)
Ben’s Friends is a national support group for the F&B professionals who struggle with consumption and addiction. Every Monday at 11 a.m., they hold meetings in New Orleans at the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute (NOCHI).
Steve Palmer and Mickey Bakst founded Ben’s Friends to their friend—Ben Murray took his own life in 2016 due to his addiction. All foodservice professionals who have found sobriety, or are seeking sobriety are encouraged to join the meetings each week.
Chef Liam Doran leads the group each week through a discussion about the challenges they’ve faced during their workweek. He himself was once in recovery, now 11 years sober.
Doran has always loved cooking and being in the kitchen, carrying that love with him throughout his 15-year career. A graduate of the Delgado Culinary & Hospitality Management program, Doran started as an apprentice through the American Culinary Federation (ACF) Apprenticeship program. After graduating, he worked at the former Metro Bistro in the Pelham Hotel, and then at Emeril’s as the pastry supervisor. Then, he embarked on his journey to Europe.
“After Emeril’s, I moved to Ireland and became sous-chef at the famous O’Connell’s in Ballsbridge Dublin, Ireland,” said Doran. “The following year I moved to France and found a job as a chef tournant at Hotel Cap D’Ail on the Riviera.”
Upon returning home to New Orleans, Doran went on at Martin’s Wine Cellar and met Chef Shawn Whalen, the Executive Chef at the time. Chef Whalen passed away in 2019 at the age of 43 due to his struggle with alcohol addiction.
“He was such a great guy,” said Doran. “Deeply funny, creative, and very intelligent. Everyone knew Shawn drank at work, no one ever called him out on it.”
Chef Whalen’s death awoke a feeling in Doran. He knew the New Orleans hospitality community needed a safe space addressing the issue of addiction. A special screening of the Anthony Bourdain documentary “Road Runner” exposed him to some groups already formed across the country, but, it was just last year when he came onto his position at NOCHI that Ben’s Friends fell on his radar.
“I let my administrative team know that I was in recovery and that it was important to me to address the cohort about my experiences,” Doran said. “I gathered several sober chefs and we talked to the class about the pitfalls and coping strategies of our industry. At that meeting, I learned about Ben’s Friends.”
Doran started engaging with the group online through Zoom and social media, and connected with co-founder Mickey Bakst. The two chatted about bringing the Ben’s Friends to New Orleans, and, as luck would have it, Bakst was already on his way to The Big Easy to host meetings during Tales of the Cocktail.
“For two days. I meet with him and a great group of sober liquor professionals/bartenders at Tales and the seeds of our new local meeting were planted,” Doran said.
The first meeting gathered 18 F&B professionals under one roof, and Doran says that is a major accomplishment. Along with Chef Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen's Restaurant, and Chef Alex Harrell, the Executive Chef at The Commons Club inside the Virgin Hotel, Doran welcomes hospitality employees to join the meetings. Throughout his career, he has faced challenges with many of his friends and co-workers. With the support of his family, children and friends, Doran has been sober 11 years. The Ben’s Friends meetings at NOCHI “provide a safe space for hospitality professionals to connect and form better coping strategies while moving away from self-destructive behaviors,” Doran said.
To learn more about Ben’s Friends, visit their website and find them on social media. Contact Chef Alex Harrell (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information on the meetings.
The Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) was established in 1946 to advocate on behalf of the state’s foodservice and hospitality industries.