It feels like something of a truism that the best strategy for dealing with cooking a massive holiday meal — like Thanksgiving dinner — is to drink your way through it. Wine early and wine often so as not to have a kitchen meltdown (or take the carving knife to a relative).
To confirm, I took a Twitter poll of home cooks and the results were pretty much as expected: 84 percent of respondents drink at least a little while cooking, and more than half of those people tend to drink somewhere around half to two-thirds of a bottle of wine (or more). For some, it’s essentially a survival strategy. “Dinner is always very boring and not very boozy so I have to go to town while cooking or I’ll never make it through,” says Liz F.
There were plenty of caveats, too: “I don’t start till all the chopping is done (no knives+booze!),” Courtney C. writes. Others don’t start drinking until several hours into the cooking, or are more likely to drink if there are multiple cooks to share the work.
As someone who has accidentally overindulged a time or two and lost the thread while prepping dinner even on a regular weeknight, I wondered: What’s the best way to handle kitchen boozing on Thanksgiving, when the pressure is ramped up extra-high? Exposés like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential have made it common knowledge that professional chefs are hitting the bottle constantly, so what can home cooks learn from the pros?
The Science of Drunk Cooking
First up, why being drunk in the kitchen can be a disaster. According to Daryl Davies, a professor in the School of Pharmacy and director of the Alcohol and Brain Research Lab at the University of Southern California, “Drinking does exactly what you think: It impairs attention. There’s loss of motor coordination, impaired memory and cognition [and] impaired judgment.”
All the things your health teacher warned you about, basically.
As Davies notes, part of what makes drinking while cooking so dangerous on Thanksgiving specifically is the complexity of the tasks involved: multiple dishes cooking on the stovetop, in the oven and possibly in the deep fryer, plus a laundry list of other duties like steaming, boiling, baking, roasting, grilling, frying, chopping, whisking, folding, rolling and basting. The more alcohol you drink, the less able you are to effectively manage that complexity. Add to that the slower reaction times, numbed nerves and inability to correctly gauge risks that come with intoxication and you have a recipe for real bodily harm (not to mention culinary mayhem). As Davies puts it, that’s when “really stupid things” start happening.
With so much risk for incident, why do so many professionals do it? Chef Cole Brisco of Uno Tre Otto in Claremont, California — a man who has worked his way up the kitchen food chain in restaurants across Southern California and in Dallas (including Rick Bayless’s Red O in Newport Beach) — confirms that drinking while cooking is “extremely prevalent.” This, he says, is because, “Most kitchens are full of degenerates and criminals because that’s mostly the only ones who can stick with the job long-term. There’s been plenty of kitchens where I’ve worked where the chef is drinking a pint of vodka before service, and we’re definitely all getting 24-packs the second service ends. It’s brutal work.”
How to Survive a Kitchen Bender
The three keys are knowledge, awareness and preparation. Don’t go into the day with rosé-tinted glasses: Know yourself and your capacity. As Davies notes, “pressures to drink are astronomical” during the holidays, and even those who usually abstain might be tempted to take a slug or two of that wine they bought for the sauce. Therein lies the danger: People who don’t normally drink much may become intoxicated before they know it, so if that’s you, be careful about how festive you’re getting.
If you find you have overindulged, don’t think you can correct it with coffee and proceed as usual, either. According to Davies, the caffeine will likely make you feel more awake, but “it doesn’t at all sharpen your reflexes,” leaving you a “really dangerous drunk.” At that point, it’s best to hand over cooking duties to someone else for a while — or at least the electric carving knife.
It’s also important to be aware that men and women metabolize alcohol at different rates, says Davies. Women can metabolize about half a drink per hour, while men can metabolize somewhere around three-quarters of a drink. Consumption beyond that is what gives you that lovely little buzz, but that’s not necessarily a helpful feeling while you’re dicing potatoes. For most adults, Davies recommends one or two glasses of wine (or the equivalent) on a not-empty stomach over a couple hours as a reasonably safe amount to consume.
My friends at Uno Tre Otto agree. Be familiar with your surroundings and know “how you function when you drink” under more typical circumstances, suggests line cook Eric Valenzuela. He also recommends drinking more slowly than you normally would because of the physical labor involved in cooking, which can wear you out. Otherwise, he says, you might end up “dead by the time everyone else starts to liven up.” Bartender Caileigh Starkey-Zimmerman believes in a two-drink maximum to avoid things like accidentally grating your fingertips along with the parmesan.
Brisco’s number-one tip for avoiding catastrophe? “Pacing,” he says, and “being conscious” of what you’re facing and how you can handle it. “I’d say if you’re thinking about it, then you’re probably 70 percent of the way there to not embarrassing yourself in front of your family.”
Be cognizant of your own skills and limitations outside of drinking, too. For a pro chef whose expert knife-handling is a function of muscle memory, “You could probably cut an onion [even when] pretty fucking drunk,” Brisco says, adding that he still wouldn’t recommend it. For the average person, the risk of injury is substantially higher.
If nothing else dissuades you from pounding shots while you baste the turkey, consider this last pearl of wisdom from Davies. Drinking, he says, “deadens your taste senses.” In other words, all that time and effort you put into the meal will be for naught since you’ll be too wasted to even taste it.
Not being able to enjoy the fruits of your labor? Truly that would be the greatest tragedy of all.
Okay, no, drunkenly slicing off your thumb, setting the kitchen on fire or punching out your Uncle Walter would clearly be worse. But still, you know what I mean.