Cafe 180 exec chef Dirk Holmberg on alcoholism, being homeless and finding shelter in the kitchen
This is part one of my interview with Dirk Holmberg, exec chef of Cafe 180. Part two of our interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Dirk Holmberg squirms if you call him a chef. "I had always wanted to be a chef, but I had -- and still have -- low self-esteem, and I never had the guts, at least in the beginning, to stand up and call myself a chef. I still have issues with it," admits Holmberg, who, despite his self-doubts, is very much the chef in charge of the kitchen at Cafe 180, a "pay what you can" restaurant in Englewood that's mostly staffed by volunteers whom Holmberg trains.
But Holmberg's apprehensions run deep. His hearing began to fade in the fourth grade, and over the past two decades, he's struggled with alcoholism. While he's been sober for nearly seven years, he did some time in the clink, lost jobs because of his addiction and sought shelter with friends -- until they kicked him out -- and then lived on the streets for more than a year. "When I was thirty, my alcoholism had gotten the best of me, and I ended up homeless for a year and a half, crashing on people's couches, on sidewalks and living in shelters," he recalls.
But through it all, Holmberg found solace in the kitchen. "When I was growing up, Kraft macaroni and cheese wasn't allowed in my house, because my mom did everything from scratch, and when my mom told me that if I wanted to lick the batter I had to help bake the cake, I started immersing myself in cooking," says Holmberg. During his elementary-school days, his friends would trot home behind him because he was the only kid on the block who was allowed to use the stove. "Then the invention of the microwave came along, and everything changed," he laments.
He started working in professional kitchens as a teenager, bumping from restaurant to restaurant, including Marie Callender's, IHOP, the long-gone Peppermill and a few Mexican joints, before eventually landing in the kitchen as a pizza chef at Macaroni Grill when he was 26. "Without knowing it at the time, it was my first introduction to a full kitchen brigade," says Holmberg, who put in nearly three years on the line before taking off.