Chef Michael Carlson Reveals The Real Story Behind Why Schwa Closed
GQ food writer Alan Richman's profile of the Schwa chef Michael Carlson reveals what really happened when the restaurant went dark, suddenly and confusingly, the day after playing host to a most extraordinary summit of chefs-as-diners.
Party line has always been that he left in order to spend time with his new daughter, Lily — as much was implied in both the Tribune article and the TOC article that appeared as Schwa neared its reopen in February of 2008. To be sure, the effect of his departure might have been more family time, but Carlson tells Richman that the reason for the shutter was a more harrowing one:
[With] the strain of his life increasing, he went on a three-day binge. Alcohol, cocaine, Ecstasy. He makes it sound like all three were in equal proportion, but his girlfriend, Rachel Brown, says, “Michael doesn’t drink much.” He canceled all pending reservations for the restaurant, announced he was closing, and disappeared from public sight. “I did not know true mental stress until that day,” he says. He lacked the strength—and the money—to go on.
It was heartbreaking, perhaps not up there with chef Bernard Loiseau’s killing himself when he doubted his guidebook ratings would endure, or the seventeenth-century suicide of François Vatel when his fish failed to arrive, but it was career suicide if nothing else. Carlson was 33, with a new baby. He was drugged out, exhausted, overwhelmed, broke, beaten down. He was done.
Beyond this tragic — and, to be honest, unsurprising — revelation, Richman's article (like much of his writing; if you're not a regular reader, become one) paints a vivid portrait of the kitchen culture at Schwa: says Jonathan Ory, “We’re like a pirate ship, man.” Even more, it digs deeper into the history and psyche of the famously reclusive Carlson than does any other article I've read. Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz make cameo appearances, praising Carlson's talent and marveling at his almost self-destructive unwillingness to formalize and expand his restaurant.
Gotta say, the Alinea movie will make headlines, but I'd get in line to see the story of Michael Carlson.