In October 2015, just a month after Venkman’s opened its doors to the public, chef Nick Melvin wasn’t in the restaurant’s kitchen. He was two hours away in a North Georgia rehab facility.
When he returned 30 days later, Melvin felt clearer than before. And nearly a year later, still sober, the dishes on his Instagram feed slowly became more light, vegetable-driven, almost feminine. Smoked oysters in a vinaigrette with a little crème fraiche and homemade crackers replaced an overwrought and gloppy shrimp and grits found on his opening menu at Venkman’s.
“Everything was heavy, convoluted, muddy,” Melvin says. “Looking at it now, that was me, too. I was a convoluted, muddy mess.”
Melvin had been through a rehab program once before, in college, to treat a pill addiction. He started drinking regularly at 13 and smoking marijuana at 14 because he “wanted to be cool.” That need for acceptance carried over into his career as a chef. “I wanted to be the person you thought about when you think about food in Atlanta because my self-worth was what people thought of me,” he says. “That’s all that mattered.” He quickly built a hefty resume in Atlanta’s restaurant industry—executive chef at the Serenbe Farmhouse from 2008 to 2009 (during which the restaurant earned recognition from the New York Times as a “Southeastern showcase for the country’s growing farm-to-table movement”), executive chef at Parish, opening chef at Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South, chef at Rosebud, and founder of Doux South Pickles, a company he opened with his wife and in-laws.
Combine Melvin’s history with substance abuse and his inherent need to feel accepted with an industry culture that celebrates working hard and partying even harder, and you have a perfect storm.
“For the longest time, I was the guy that would go to events and drink 30 shots and do some blow and whatever else was in front of me,” Melvin says. “I had courage. I was confident. Nobody wants to hang out with Eeyore. So by drinking and partying, I would mask [my insecurities] and fool myself into thinking I was better than I saw myself in real life.”
After opening Venkman’s, he drank more to deal with the stress of co-owning and operating his own restaurant. As he descended deeper into addiction—he began hiding alcohol around the house—his wife, Kristen, gave him a choice: quit drinking and doing drugs or lose your family.
“Ultimatums don’t always work, but I had to make one,” says Kristen, who at the time was six months pregnant and caring for a toddler. “Nick decided we were more important than the restaurant. He stepped out of his life for 30 days, during the most critical part of a restaurant opening, and focused on getting healthy.”
While in rehab, Melvin faced some hard truths about his career. “I was not in the right mental state to open up Empire,” he says, referring to his time at Empire State South in 2010. “I was treading water the entire time trying to keep up, working 90-hour weeks, drinking heavily. About a year after I left, I actually ran into Hugh and apologized to him [for not being ready for the job].”
Even after getting clean, Melvin’s role as the executive chef at Venkman’s kept him from his family more than he wanted. Maintaining his job as executive chef meant he’d leave early in the morning and return well after his family was asleep. He was missing every milestone. He quietly stepped down as chef of Venkman’s on May 6. “Despite the success of the restaurant and an incredibly supportive staff and partners, running this restaurant has taken precious time away from what matters most, my family,” he announced on Facebook. “I’ve made the choice to focus more attention on my two young boys and my wife.”
The couple has a new deal: Melvin won’t take a job as a head chef for two to three years, giving him much more time with his sons. He’s found a way to stay in the restaurant industry—working with Justin and Jonathan Fox of Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q as a chef based out of their commissary kitchen, where he’s been lending his knowledge of pickling and preserving. He picks up jobs wherever the Foxes need him, such as helping man grills at this year’s Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, and works with the restaurant’s ventures with the Atlanta Braves and Falcons. In his new role, he leaves at 5:30 in the morning but is home by 4:30 p.m. every day, which means he gets to have dinner with boys and tuck them in. It’s a gig Melvin calls “the best job I’ve ever had.”