- Associated Press - Monday, September 14, 2020

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Brian Sonoskus is waiting for the new moon to reopen Star Diner in Marshall.

Sonoskus, the former executive chef at Tupelo Honey Cafe, recently graduated from Silver Ridge, which is to say he just emerged from rehab.

He and his wife Kate Sonoskus closed their restaurant on June 27, and he spent two months there drying out and writing new menus.

Now, he’s more in tune with the lunar cycles. He’s choosing the new moon for reopening because of the fresh slate it brings.

He meditates on his breath, counting the seconds it takes for air to fill his lungs, the seconds it takes to expel it, the space between before he draws another breath.

He once filled the narrow spaces between his mountains of duties with alcohol. Now he feels high on just breathing.

“For me, it’s a rebirth - a new beginning,” he said from his Asheville backyard, watching his 8- and 11-year old children.

“I’m starting fresh right now. I’m at a place where I left a lot of things behind from my past, and I’m going on to a new journey,” said the chef before pivoting, as always, to thoughts of food.

“I get to explore some things in my life in a way I haven’t done in quite a while, and with that comes a new style of menu.”


Sonoskus is ready to break out of the monotony the pandemic wrought. For much of this year, he managed the kitchen alone while his wife managed the dining room.

“All our employees basically furloughed themselves, and it’s been just Kate and I for the past 5-6 months,” he said.

They were also shepherding their kids through distance learning, often at the restaurant where their kids did homework and ate dinner at the same table.

“We didn’t have a viable childcare option at the time, nor could we pay for it with our limited income,” Sonoskus said. “That just added a whole other layer.”

A pandemic is hard for a self-described control freak. Sonoskus believed his food suffered in a to-go box, and he would drive it around just to see how it fared on the journey.

The tiny Star Diner couldn’t seat many people while still adhering to social distancing, and soon the restaurant was hemorrhaging money; sales dropped 70%, while the rent and bills stayed steady. The numbers just no longer worked.

“It was frustrating,” Sonoskus said. “It caused a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety and levels of depression - a feeling that there was no real end in sight for this,” he said.

The already stressful environment of running a restaurant became nearly unmanageable, watching the spiraling numbers, not knowing when anything would get better, or if it would.

Sonuskus soon felt he’d bitten off more than he could chew.

“I was self medicating, drinking more, and that was not helpful,” he said. “I was keeping everything at bay, more or less, pulling the covers over the problems, but not addressing them properly.”


The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2015 found food service workers had the highest rate of substance abuse disorder of any profession, outpacing miners and construction workers.

“It’s well documented that chefs like to drink,” said Sonoskus, who said he and his wife used to discuss whether they drank because they worked in restaurants, or worked in restaurants because they drank.

Sonoskus was a daily drinker, but not a particularly hard drinker. “Most days, I would get off work and have some drinks to unwind, but it was never excessive to where I couldn’t get up and function properly,” he said.

With many things, that changed in 2020 when the stress of the pandemic began taking its toll.

Sonoskus began sleeping raggedly, awakened by stress dreams about breaking the hollandaise or failing to get the vegetables to sit just right on the plate.

The dreams were of imperfection, not disaster, but they were enough to keep him from sleeping more than three hours some nights.

“I was so anxiety-ridden, so close to getting it right, and things just wouldn’t fall into place,” he said.

He woke up each morning stressed, craving a drink just to clear the fog of anxiety enough to function. “It was the beginning of a spiral,” he said.

His control had begun to slip away.

“Even living with him I didn’t realize how bad he had gotten,” Kate Sonoskus said.

She had noticed her husband drinking more in the morning. “But I chalked it up to it’s our day off, and I might have a mimosa with my breakfast at 11 a.m. too,” she said.

In the past, she said, one might pull the other back from drinking too much, though neither suspected a problem.

“There was this dawning realization, but still some surprise,” she said. “I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten.”

Since Star Diner opened in 2017, Brian Sonoskus has always been in the kitchen. If he was sick - that happened only twice before - the restaurant simply wouldn’t open.

In June 19, two days before the new moon, Sonoskus told his wife he needed help. They got through the following week, then closed the restaurant on Saturday. He was in treatment by Tuesday.

Kate initially quit drinking in solidarity. She has enough therapist friends to know the chances of getting sober are greater if your partner also takes the plunge.

But in talking with counselors at Silver Ridge, she realized she too might need to quit.

“I realized over the years I had normalized my daily drinking, and I did not have the understanding that I in fact had a dependency issue as well,” she said.

Her husband is 14 years older than she is, she said. She’s glad she realized she was traveling down the same road.

“Maybe one day I can enjoy a glass of wine without it turning into a whole bottle,” she said. “He basically bought me 14 years.”


When Star Diner reopens, Brian Sonoskus will be about 80 days sober. Target reopening day is Sept. 17, the date of the new moon.

“I’m reinvigorated to get back in there, do more things, take more risks and not be as safe,” he said.

Still, he knows his recovery hinges on his learning to make room to eat and sleep and simply to be.

When he was the chef at Tupelo Honey, the restaurant would stay open until 4 a.m. some nights.

Sonoskus rolled in one night after Christmas Jam to eat, finding the restaurant slammed, filled to the gills. His crew look relieved to see him, but he said he was in no condition to help out.

As he departed, he waved to the kitchen, then on the main level.

“Good luck to you,” he told his crew. “It’s just cooking. Cook them one at a time and get it done. You will survive this.”

Now, he’ll have to cultivate the same cool that let him leave his Tupelo Honey crew in the weeds.

Letting go is a tough thing for any artist, he said. It’s as much a trigger for anxiety as control issues, and a fine line to walk.

“As long as we’ve had Star Diner, we have not been open if Brian can’t cook,” his wife said.

The customers love that he has eyes on every plate, that she waits on tables. Both have to set better boundaries.

“I say, ’Honey, you cannot put yourself in the same position that got us here in the first place,” she said.

They’re looking for a sous chef, trying to figure out other ways to let go of the overwhelming cycle of work that had become their lives.

“More action, less idle talk, is going to be our future,” said Kate.

Brian Sonoskus has lots of ideas: Sunday suppers with an Italian focus, pop-ups, new menus. But he’ll have to take it one ticket, one plate, one step at a time.

“I feel better than I have in a long time, but I still feel like I’m in the process of getting somewhere,” he said. “The journey is really the goal, and I feel like I’m still on my journey and progressing each day.”

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