Director of Recovery Services

Our Stories: John Roesch

Suntra’s Director of Recovery Services tells us how he became New York City’s First Sober Sommelier

I adore food. The aromas, the textures, the artistry of a skillfully prepared meal

And of course, I love the taste. There is nothing that warms my heart more than preparing a meal made with love, like homemade tagliatelle with brown butter, wild mushrooms and fried sage, and plenty of crusty Pugliese bread for mopping.

It reminds me of home.

I developed a passion for food in my mom’s kitchen

My love of cooking and hospitality came very close behind. I loved to help my mother prepare the family dinners, giving hints and tips from what I was learning watching Julia Child or the Galloping Gourmet on T.V., and devouring any cookbooks that I could get my hands on. I took my self-appointed role of family sous-chef very seriously and helped my mom with grocery shopping and menu planning.

Inevitably, like a good Epicurean Staten Islander, I started working in a family-oriented Italian restaurant along with my two older brothers. The experience was like a homecoming, and being surrounded by like-minded people passionate about fine dining and hospitality was inspiring.

The “work hard, play harder” mentality fueled my passion

I kindled my passion for creating pleasurable experiences for customers during this time; we ensured that celebrations, from cementing business deals to birthdays to engagement proposals, created beautiful memories with our dining experiences. I equally loved the camaraderie found among the restaurant staff; we were brothers and sisters in arms, tackling the Saturday night army of patrons together.

The “work hard, play harder” mentality fueled my passion for giving my all in a profession I loved and for enjoying being a part of a team. But it was where I started to adopt many habits that would impact my life in ways I wasn’t aware of yet.

I graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC. I started working in professional kitchens, finding my niche in busy high-end catering organizations like Abigail Kirsch and Be Our Guest. I fiercely supported my kitchen crew, whether we were executing a seating dinner event for 1000 guests or partying till dawn and ensuring we all got home safely when the sun came up. I lived and breathed this life.

After many years of enduring the physical demands of cooking professionally and building connections in the industry, I shifted my focus from the kitchen to the dining room, concentrating on fine wines and food pairings. I took a job as the assistant cellar master at Windows on the World Restaurant. Working in a world-famous restaurant and learning the ABCs of wine from luminaries such as Keven Zraly was a dream come true for me.

Sure, I was making minimum wage, but tasting and learning about legendary vintage wines was an incredible experience. As an assistant sommelier, I worked my way up from the wine cellar and onto the dining room floor. Every evening was an exciting and meticulously orchestrated culinary event, and we rewarded ourselves with drinking and partying well into the morning.

Eventually, my hard work and dedication paid off.

I was offered the Beverage Director of Beacon Restaurant position in midtown Manhattan, owned by the Emil family, who also owned Windows on the World. This promotion was my first opportunity to create a wine list and beverage program and educate and lead a team of servers and bartenders on my vision. I was part of a management team created to complement the Windows Restaurant.

What happened on September 11th, 2001

I had an early meeting with the Purchasing Director, Charlie Mauro, to review inventory and accounting. I was looking forward to seeing some of my former colleagues at Windows on the World, especially Jeff Coale, my successor in the wine department.

I remember training Jeff and telling him the key to doing the cellarmaster’s job well was to get to work early. I slept through my alarm that morning because I had gotten home late the night before. I was scrambling to get dressed and half-watching the news on T.V. when I saw the first airplane crash into Tower 1 and another into Tower 2.

Soon after, I learned that many (72) Windows employees, including Charlie and Jeff, had gone into work early for a corporate breakfast meeting. They were unable to evacuate the restaurant because of damage caused by the planes, and they all perished when the towers collapsed. My team of co-workers was decimated, along with thousands of other lives.

The pain, grief, and loss associated with the events of 9/11 were devastating.

I tried to find comfort in the company of my remaining colleagues, but it was never enough to make the pain go away. My drinking and drug use, which had been an occasional part of my social life, quickly became a daily issue. Substance use became part of the arsenal I needed to “stay on the beam” and do what I had to do.

As part of my coping strategy, I immersed myself in work, building my knowledge about fine wines. To that extent, I decided to pursue my Master of Wine credential while working as a Fine Wine Key Account Director for a large importer and distributor.

I became an expert in European wines and frequently traveled on buying trips, tasting the new vintages, advising portfolio investors about auctions, consulting with restaurants, and creating award-winning wine lists. All the while, I always had my secret cache in my wine bag and plenty of wine and liquor samples that I used to make the pain go away.

As marriage problems and work pressures grew, my drinking and using increased

I was married with two children by this time. We lived in a picturesque house in a well-manicured suburb in New Jersey. However, as marriage problems and work pressures grew, my drinking and using increased frequency and volume. I was forever justifying my drinking by acknowledging it’s getting out of hand, but at least I’m not getting in trouble at work–until I did; or getting fired because of my drinking–until I did; or crashing my car and getting arrested for a DWI–until I did.

If I stopped, how would I get through the day?

I was walking around with this 1000 lb. problem on my shoulders: wine and spirits were my passion and profession and provided a livelihood for my family and me, but at the same time, it was also physically, mentally, and emotionally destroying me.

I didn’t want anyone to know that I had a problem that I couldn’t fix myself

Blackouts and binge drinking were becoming more and more commonplace, and I was warned by medical professionals that my drinking was damaging my liver and stomach. More importantly, I could “feel it” in all aspects of my life. If I revealed this secret to the World, how could I survive? If I stopped, how would I get through the day?

I tried to get help many times but found it very difficult to access care because my job kept me busy; I often traveled to Europe and South America for wine buying trips. There were times that I wanted to get detoxed, but I feared losing my livelihood if I went away to treatment for a prolonged period. It was also hard to find providers (a doctor or therapist) who even really understood addiction and treated it effectively. Most importantly, I didn’t want anyone to know that I had a problem that I couldn’t fix myself.

I continued to perpetuate a false persona as a hard-working professional and good provider

The more I drank and used, the harder it became to hide the secrets, and whenever someone discovered one of my secrets, the shame compelled me to drink and use more.

My dramatic bottom came in the summer of 2012–complete with sirens, handcuffs, criminal court, jail sentences, family separations, firings, my car being seized, and Emergency Room visits. I was devastated, and I had nothing and no one. I looked at myself finally, and I was not living my best life; truthfully, I wasn’t even living life.

I kept showing up to AA, accepting help, and taking suggestions

That summer, I finally had a spiritual awakening: I needed to give myself the best shot at sobriety. One evening, I went to an A.A. meeting, raised my hand, and identified as an alcoholic. I said out loud, “My life is a mess; I don’t know how to help myself,” and I asked for help.

Help came from other men just like me who shared their own experiences of getting and staying sober. This mishmash crew of men from all walks of life was the network, the fellowship, the non-judgmental friendship, love, and support I had craved my entire life. I prayed to share the deepest and darkest parts of myself without worrying about being judged. And I found those who were willing to do that. I kept showing up, accepting help, and taking suggestions on staying sober.

John Roesch

Director of Recovery Services

I was fully aware that I couldn’t go back to my career in wine sales, but I could still cook. Given my experience as a professional chef in the past, I accepted a chef position at a sober living facility in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (N.Y.). Before long, I began working in Client Support Services, then as a Night Manager, then a Sober Coach, and eventually a Case Manager. I discovered a passion for helping other people in recovery that matched my passion for food and beverage, eventually altering my career path.

In early Spring of 2016, the administrators at the sober living facility sent me to Tennessee for a 3-day training in the ARISE Intervention model. There, I had an opportunity to meet and work with Dr. Judith Landau, a recognized pioneer in intervention, addiction treatment, trauma, and family therapy.

I studied the ARISE Invitational Family Intervention Model and became certified as an ARISE Interventionist. Over time, I worked with several other interventionists, learning other addiction intervention modalities. I eventually would launch my practice, Life Assurance Recovery Services, based in New York City in October 2016. I also returned to school to further my education and credentials in recovery coaching and concierge addiction recovery.

I met Adam Banks and Dr. Neptune, who had recently launched Suntra Modern Recovery

In getting to know Adam and J.L., I found compatriots: husbands and fathers like me, who were similarly passionate about helping people with addiction. At Suntra, Adam and J.L. were developing a concierge-style recovery service-based company that addressed all the problems I encountered when I sought help for my addiction. I loved what they were doing, and I wanted to be a part of that. In early 2020 I officially joined up with them as a co-founder.

The work that I do in recovery service to individuals and families is some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done in my life. The opportunity to live my best life and give the World the best version of me is the force that drives me every day. I continue to educate myself on addiction, recovery, effective therapies, treatment plans, and medicines that can help combat this deadly disease.

In addition to being a Certified Intervention Professional and Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor, I am a certified Recovery Coach and Peer Advocate. I am also completing a Master’s degree and license in marriage and family therapy. Additionally, my lived experience with addiction and recovery provides unique insights that can only be fully understood by others who are (or have been) addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Today, where I feel most comfortable and accepted is surrounded by my supportive family and friends and handling life’s twists and turns as a team. It fuels my passion, knowing that I am making a difference in the lives of individuals and families struggling with addiction and mental health issues. My most profound connections to others are almost always enhanced over good food, music, and sharing in the simple pleasures of life.

— John Roesch for Suntra Modern Recovery

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