Hold the Sauce: Meet Joanie Simon
Good girl gone bad gets better than when she was good—that could be Joanie Simon’s tagline.
A third-generation Arizonan, Joanie lived her early life according to plan. She went to college and then graduate school. She worked in the family business. She married and had kids. After leaving the family business, she had success with her own business following her passion for food. There’s just one thing wrong with this idyllic picture: What everyone saw on the outside was not necessarily what was happening on the inside.
If you follow Joanie’s new food blog (joaniesimon.com), you will have read that just this past March she celebrated her first sober birthday. She’s open and honest about her journey because she believes it not only helps her but, more importantly, she’s hoping her candor will help others.
Even though Joanie grew up at a time when many young people were experimenting with drugs and alcohol, it wasn’t until her 21st birthday that she imbibed for the first time. Turned out that her 21st birthday “opened up a Pandora’s box of problems” for her.
A high-achieving student and often critical of herself, she used alcohol to self-medicate when her anxiety and striving for perfectionism became too much to handle.
“Drinking made me numb and released me from my high-anxiety life,” Joanie says.
Joanie was what many practitioners refer to as a “high-functioning alcoholic.” She did well in school, kept her friends, landed a few really good high-responsibility jobs, met the man of her dreams, married and had kids all while living the life of a secret alcoholic.
How is it that no one knew? Because she kept it together. She worked hard in the family business, Copperstate Restaurant Technologies, moving up the ladder quickly because of her amiable ways, her skill and knowledge about restaurants and food.
While working at Copperstate she met many local folks working in the food industry from chefs to restaurateurs to marketing people. The more time she spent with them, the more she realized that what she wanted was to work directly with food.
Through the relationships she formed while working in the family business, she slowly began to move towards food and away from corporate life.
In 2013, she started AZ Restaurant Live, a podcast interviewing local chefs and food personalities. Her first interviews were with cheese monger Lara Mulchay and chef James Porter.
Joanie realized that she was spending all her time “celebrating other people’s cooking” while ignoring her own passion for the kitchen. She’d been in the kitchen since she was a kid, helping her mother and then cooking for her own family after she married. At one time, she even “staged” (worked as an unpaid intern) with Aaron Chamberlin at his restaurant. To this day, Joanie regards Aaron as her mentor and calls on him often for advice.
But still there was the drinking. She had a period of abstinence after a DUI many years ago but that didn’t last. And she abstained during her pregnancies. She told herself she could handle it. Joanie drank in secret. Alone in her office while working, mostly. She believed she had it under control. But she didn’t. Friends and family did not know because if they saw her tipsy at an event, they assumed she was just enjoying herself. Her mother suspected and was relieved when Joanie admitted to her family that her drinking was out of control.
Joanie credits her husband as her savior. One day in late 2014, he told her that it was time to do something about her drinking. “He was dead serious but compassionate and loving and not at all judgmental.” It took two months of therapy before she would finally commit to sobriety.
She has chosen to be open and honest about her problems. She has written blog posts and talked about it. As soon as she “came out,” with the news, her e-mail inbox was flooded with messages from other food industry professionals—some congratulating her on her sobriety and others admitting to their own problems with substance abuse.
When asked why it seems to outsiders that drug and alcohol abuse is a problem in the restaurant business, Joanie offered the following: “The food business is a highly intense environment and it attracts a particularly personality: someone who functions on a high for hours every day on the line, for instance. After work, you need a way to unwind and drinking or using drugs seems to satisfy that need for some people.”
Now that she’s sober, she is thinking more clearly about her future. “This is a super dynamic time for food and media so I’m honing my culinary and photography skills. I’d love to have my own TV show. I want to encourage people to get into the kitchen and I want to share what I’ve learned.”
Joanie says “I’m a super dangerous home cook. I understand the home cook. I often think of my mom, who is a very good cook but she depends on a few good recipes that she repeats over and over again each week. I want to get people to be brave enough to step out of their cooking rut. I strive to create a comfort zone for home cooks.”
With that in mind, Joanie has some suggestions for home cooks:
1. Everyone should have a good soup and a good chili recipe. As an Arizona native, Joanie’s flavor profiles tend towards Southwestern ingredients. She suggests that the cook figure out what she likes (veggies, beans, meat, spices) and through trial and error come up with soup and chili recipes that please her. (See below for Joanie’s favorite soup recipe.)
2. “No one should buy store-bought piecrust. It’s so easy to make one at home. A good piecrust takes you to quiches, potpies and desserts.”
3. A few kitchen gadgets for home cooks that Joanie can’t live without: her immersion blender, a good-quality knife, a few good mixing bowls and her Le Creuset castiron pots.
As for her recent professional successes, Joanie says, “If I weren’t sober now I wouldn’t be able to taste the sweetness of this time in my life.”