Tragic Details That Have Come Out About These Celebrity Chefs

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Sometimes, it's tough to think of celebrities as normal people with normal-people-problems. While they might not have precisely the same struggles as the majority of us, that doesn't mean they don't carry their own demons. And sometimes, those demons are extra horrible.

For some, tragedy came before the stardom and cooking was their way out of horrible circumstances. For others, it came after everyone knew their name and after they had risen to the world stage — and that has to make talking about it even harder. They've struggled with addiction, survived abusive relationships, and buried loved ones. Some have buried children.

But here's the thing: in spite of it all, they continue to appear on our screens and in our homes, soldiering on through some of the most horrific moments life can throw at them. That's what people do, after all, and sometimes, realizing that tragedy strikes even the biggest celebrities can help make us normal people feel not-so-alone. Behind their smiles for the cameras while stirring up your favorite dishes, these are the major tragedies these celebrity chefs have dealt with. 

The unsolved death of Alton Brown's father

When The Wall Street Journal talked to Alton Brown about his childhood, he remember growing up in North Hollywood, in a white house with apricot and lemon trees. His father, Alton Sr., was an account executive at NBC, and eventually they moved to Cleveland, Georgia when they got the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream: buying a radio station. That was in 1969, and in 1972, Alton Sr. was found dead, sitting at his desk with a plastic bag taped over his head.

It was little Alton's last day in the sixth grade.

According to The New York Times, the death was officially ruled a suicide. But Brown has never been convinced that's all there was to it, and believes his father may have been murdered. He wrote, "In addition to owning the radio station, he owned a small newspaper in the next county and wound up pissing off the wrong people. ... They never figured out if it was suicide or murder, but my dad was hardly the suicidal type. It was a horrible shock for me and my mom, who had been the editor of the paper and now had the burden of figuring out how to make ends meet in a small town."

The moment that sent Andrew Zimmern on the path of addiction

Andrew Zimmern has been incredibly open about his struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, talking freely about how he turned to drugs when he was still a teenager and continuing down that path through his 20s. He's spoken about how he was, at one point, homeless in Manhattan and stealing to pay for his drug habit, even attempting to drink himself to death.

He has since cleaned up, and has been clean for more than 25 years. What happened to turn him down that path? He told People that he knows exactly what changed his life: "When I was 13, I came back from summer camp — summer of '74 — and my mother had had an accident during surgery and was in an oxygen tent in a coma. It was so traumatic... it was sort of the seminal event of my life."

Success says Zimmern was 30 when a handful of friends got together and handed him a one-way ticket to rehab center 1,200 miles away. At the time, he's said "I was a terrible alcoholic. I was a heroin addict, I was an everything addict. And for a long time, my addiction dominated my life..."

Fortunately, rehab worked for him, and he can look back at how he "reinvented" himself on January 28, 1992.

Nigella Lawson's horrible childhood

Take Nigella Lawson at face value, and it's easy to think she's culinary royalty. But somewhere along the line, her life became the stuff of tabloid scandal: there were drugs, abuse, a messy divorce, and court appearances (via The New York Times). 

In 2013, that all seemed to come to a head when the media published photos of her then-husband grabbing her and seeming to choke her. Then, it came out that being the victim of abuse was nothing new to her — it had come at the hands of her mother, Vanessa Salmon, from the time Lawson was very young.

"She just didn't like me," she said of her mother (via The Irish Independent). "I never thought I could please her." It went farther than that, though, and she's also spoken of the violence. "It wasn't a calculated thing; it was hot-blooded hitting, a thrashing out of things. Once she had to stop hitting Dominic (Lawson's brother) as she hurt her hand."

Lawson has also said that the emotional scars run deep, describing her TV persona as a "circus act" (via the Telegraph), saying that her mother often told her that she was autistic, condemning her melancholic personality and her refusal to ever cry. In the end, Salmon was diagnosed with cancer — and told her daughter she was relieved at the diagnosis, because with her death would come peace.

When Mary Berry lost her son

Mary Berry is a huge part of the success of The Great British Bake Off, but her life hasn't been all easy. In BBC2's The Mary Berry Story (via RTE), she opened up about the day she received the visit and the news that every parent dreads.

It was 1989, and her son, William, was just 19 years old. He was home from university for the weekend, and she remembered that she had made his favorite for dinner — roast lamb. The next day, he took his parents' car and went for a drive.

"And it was sort of one o'clock and he wasn't home. The doorbell rang and there was a policeman there and immediately then I knew why. And he said there's been an accident and I'm sorry to say your son is dead."

Years later — in 2018 — Berry was still helping others going through the same horrible thing that she and her family did, says Woman & Home. As the patron of Child Bereavement UK, Berry participated in a campaign that asked parents what they would say to their child if they just had one more minute. She said, simply, "I would thank him for being a brilliant son."

How losing her brother changed Giada De Laurentiis

In 2013, Giada De Laurentiis came to a heartbreaking anniversary: it was 10 years since she lost her younger brother, Dino, to skin cancer. She marked the occasion by partnering with The Melanoma Research Alliance and recording a PSA for Stand Up to Cancer where she reminded everyone just how important it is to see a dermatologist on a regular basis (via ET).

The loss, she says, was devastating. "Really, we felt like he was my older brother. He was the person I turned to for everything. When something great happened in my life, when something bad happened — I would talk to him 2-3 times per day."

And it's a loss that's had a lasting impact on her, and it's one that has shown her just why she — and everyone else — needs to make the most of every moment. She told The Cut, "I realized that life is fleeting and it can be taken away at any time. I feel like I only have a limited amount of time on this planet. I have to get as much done as possible. As sad as that might sound, it's the truth."

Gordon Ramsay's family suffered a miscarriage

Gordon Ramsay might have a bit of a reputation as being a tyrant in the kitchen, but outside, he's a pretty decent guy. He and his wife, Tana, do a ton of charity work, particularly with the Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Louis Dundas Centre for Children's Palliative Care. Who knew he was such a family man?

But that family has had their share of tragedy in recent years. In 2016, Ramsay posted a heartbreaking message on social media, announcing that his wife had suffered a miscarriage at five months. Miscarriage at any stage is traumatic, and according to Tommy's, late miscarriage (loss of a pregnancy between 13-24 weeks of gestation) can be particularly devastating in part because there is often no way to determine the cause. Figuring out the "why" can be an important part of the healing process, and the grief that comes with miscarriage is unlike any other.

But fortunately, the Ramsay family followed tragedy with some happy news, announcing (via USA Today) in 2019 that they were expecting again. In April, they announced (via People) they had welcomed a healthy baby boy named Oscar into their family.

Cat Cora's childhood of abuse

When Cat Cora released her book Cooking As Fast As I Can (via Delish), she shared a heartbreaking story that changed her life: years and years of sexual abuse that started when she was just 6 years old.

Summer vacations included a week-long trip to visit friends of the family. They had a 15-year-old son who molested her for years, until finally her father walked in on it happening. But instead of ending it right there, Cora wrote that her father simply turned and walked away. "I knew instantly and intuitively that even though my father had broken my heart by failing to protect me, it was over; AH had been found out."

Her father later apologized, saying that he hadn't been able to deal with the knowledge of what was going on, and his failure to protect her. Cora has gone on to inspire with her firm "refusal to be done in by shame and guilt", and she's also written extensively on bullying and the impact it can have on kids. She wrote for Larry King Live: "I want to talk to the bullied kids of the world. Tell them to hang on, it will get better. Know that an Iron Chef, actors, musicians, artists, and all successful people have probably been bullied in their life. And the best part of your life is yet to come. Whatever it takes to live, do it!"

Gordon Ramsay grew up in an abusive home

In 2007, Ramsay and his wife partnered with Women's Aid, a UK-based charity that helps women and children who are the victims of domestic abuse. In a moving piece for CNN, Ramsay wrote about how it was a cause dear to his heart, because he had been one of those child victims.

"Growing up, my father was less than a perfect role model. I watched how he battled alcoholism and how he became terribly violent with my mum, to the point where she feared for her life... There were instances when the police were called to take him away; mum was taken to the hospital while we kids were taken to a children's home."

He went on to describe a vicious cycle of violence and homelessness, when the entire family would be forced to move on again and again. He later told CNN's Talk Asia that between the age of 5 and 16, he attended 17 different schools. He's said that growing up in such an abusive place is the reason for his hot temper, his rage, and his drive to succeed, at the same time he's admitted, "I never should have made it this far."

But Ramsay has also broken the cycle, saying, "... I could never see myself behaving the way my father did when I was a child. I want to be a role model for my children and have them look up to me."

Anthony Bourdain's comments about being unhappy

The world was shocked when news broke about Anthony Bourdain's suicide in 2018. In hindsight, people began to realize that he had talked a lot about how unhappy he was, and many pointed to the Buenos Aires episode of Parts Unknown. It was heavy stuff, and when it aired, Eater even ran a piece wondering if we needed to worry.

He spoke a lot about depression, saying, "Suddenly I look at the hamburger and I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days." He even spoke about how a certain interpretation of humans — and therefore, his job — impacted him. "George Orwell said something that really upset me. He talked about how human beings are essentially tubes into which we shove food. And this is my job. I travel around the world ... and then for a certain period of time, my job is to shove food into my face."

John E. Richters, PhD, compiled an even more disturbing collection of quotes, and found that he also talked about hanging himself... a lot. On at least 19 separate occasions, he made comments about the act, and one quote from an episode of No Reservations was particularly chilling in hindsight: "Oh boy, just saved myself from a poisonous blowhole-inspired bout of depression and self-loathing by the healing powers of pork. I determine not to hang myself in the shower stall of my lonely hotel room."

Prue Leith watched her brother die in slow agony

Prue Leith might be the star of one of the kindest, gentlest reality shows out there, but The Great British Bake Off personality is a vocal supporter of an unlikely cause — Dignity in Dying, an organization working to overturn the ban on assisted suicide.

The Telegraph says Leith has publicly spoken of the horrific death her brother was forced to suffer after being diagnosed with bone cancer. She told the story on the chat show Lorraine (via Pretty52), explaining that the cancer he was diagnosed with was extraordinarily painful, but not deadly. "You have to wait for an organ to collapse for the cancer to get into an organ and for that to kill you, so he had a really painful, miserable death."

Doctors had refused to give him morphine, she says, so he was forced to suffer until he developed pneumonia. Then, he saw no choice but to refuse antibiotics, in hopes the illness would kill him. It did. "The awful thing is that's bad enough, but his family have never quite got over those last weeks of not being able to help him, him being in agony, finally drowning in his own phlegm..."

Michael Lomonaco saw 79 employees and coworkers die on 9/11

Everyone remembers where they were when they heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center. For Michael Lomonaco, he remembers that he should have been at the restaurant where he worked as executive chef, Windows on the World, in the North Tower. He would have been, too, he told Reuters, if he hadn't taken a pre-work detour to order new reading glasses on that fateful day.

The tragedy is that 79 of his fellow employees were already at work when the attack happened, and every single one was lost in the devastation that followed. According to The New Yorker, Lomonaco embarked on a mission to not only raise money for their families (and he did, collecting $22 million in donations), but to continue doing what they had all loved.

"I said to myself on September 12th that I will continue to work in the restaurant business in New York because that's what I want to do and what my friends want me to do. It's really a tribute to my colleagues, my co-workers, my friends whom I lost that day."

Rachael Ray's family split after a heartbreaking death

In 2013, The New York Post was reporting on a heartbreaking story. Not only had Rachael Ray's family suffered a tragic loss, but the family had split in the aftermath. 

Ray's aunt, 77-year-old Geraldine Dominica Scuderi, was house-sitting for her sister — Ray's mother — when she was accidentally locked out of the house. She had been going to feed the birds, reports say, when the door locked behind her. Security footage showed her trying to get back inside, but tragically, she was found outside the next morning in below-freezing weather. 

Ray's cousin — Scuderi's daughter — went on record with the National Enquirer to say just what she thought of the whole situation, saying, "My mother is dead today because [the] Ray family neglected her." 

The rift grew even wider when Ray and her husband didn't attend the funeral, says USA Today, although they did issue a statement saying, in part, "She was deeply loved and cared for by all."

When the camera was off the Neelys, life was miserable

Pat and Gina Neely — of Down Home With the Neelys — seemed to be the perfect couple. They were the ones that viewers wanted to be and the ones that everyone wanted to hang out with, so when they announced they were divorcing in 2014, viewers were stunned. They had been together for 20 years at that point, and when Gina spoke with Wendy Williams (via the Huffington Post), she said that she had actually moved out two years before they made the tragic announcement. 

Since then, some heartbreaking details have been revealed about the couple's struggles. Gina told OWN's Where Are They Now? (via People) that she had tried to leave five times, and that she hadn't been living the dream — at least, being on TV was never her dream. 

"That was Pat's dream. Everybody was over the moon except for me. This wasn't the life I planned for me. The TV show became bigger than the marriage. He became more my business partner than my husband. I didn't ask for a business partner. I needed my husband. ... I would cry in my pillow at night. I would cry in the car. I would cry anywhere anyone couldn't see me." 

There was light at the end of the tunnel, though. By 2018, both seemed to have moved on. Pat remarried in 2017, and Gina told People that she hadn't given up on finding love.

Paula Deen success came in the midst of multiple personal tragedies

Paula Deen seems to have gotten it all, but life wasn't always so easy for the star. In the midst of controversy over her endorsement of a diabetes drug, she appeared on Oprah's Next Chapter (via the Huffington Post) to talk about the events that shaped her. First, she talked about the death of her father — a loss that came when she was just 19 years old. 

Deen's faith made it difficult for her to deal with the tragic loss, and she finally began to rationalize it like this: "I was my daddy's princess. And God was gonna take me. I was gonna die. And God knew my daddy couldn't take that, so He went ahead and took him first. So at 19, I woke up every day waiting to die."

Deen's mother passed away just four years later, and the following financial difficulties left her with anxiety that still persists and, she says, manifests itself in a recurring nightmare where she doesn't even have two nickels. Salon says that for years, Deen couldn't even leave her home without triggering panic attacks, and it wasn't until after she divorced her first husband — who was an alcoholic — that she found the courage to take her $200 in savings and start her first business. It was called The Bag Lady, and her days making sandwiches for her sons to deliver to local businesses would kick-start the rest of her career.

Ashish Alfred's addiction-filled childhood

Maryland chef Ashish Alfred gained a certain amount of notoriety when he told Bethesda Magazine he'd become known as "the Indian guy getting sent home from Cutthroat Kitchen on a curry," but in all fairness, it can't be easy to cook while perched on a balance beam. It didn't hurt his career, though, and in 2019 he was talking freely (via Today) about the tragedies and struggles he'd faced as a teen — and how he'd overcome them with help from his mother. 

He was only 13 when he started drinking to deal with bullying, a coping mechanism he'd learned from his alcoholic father. He was addicted to cocaine by the time he was 17, and from there, went on to experiment with opioids and heroin. Against a backdrop of drugs and alcohol, he attended the French Culinary Institute and opened his own restaurant. Not long after, he fell and smashed about five teeth as he was running to break into his own restaurant and steal drug money from the safe. That was when his mother gave him an ultimatum: go to rehab, or never see her again. 

It worked. He spent 28 days in detox, and when he got out, he started over. As of 2019, he was five years sober and had opened three restaurants.

Juan-Carlos Cruz's attempt to have his wife murdered

Remember the Calorie Commando? You don't hear much from Juan-Carlos Cruz anymore, and that's because of a bizarre and tragic saga that unfolded around him in 2010. 

According to CNN, Cruz was arrested in May 2010 for hiring two homeless men to kill his wife. Prosecutors said he had not only offered them $500 for the killing, but that he had taken them to his home and shown them how to get past security. 

At the same time, friends of his wife said she still loved him, and described him as "nothing but a loving and devoted husband." When more details came out, they're not what anyone expected. 

Sources claimed that his wife, Jennifer Campbell, had been heartbroken over 20 years of attempting to have a child and failing. She had been pushed to the brink of suicide, but as a Roman Catholic, didn't end her life because of the consequences her faith told her she would suffer. According to ABC, Cruz had likely interpreted his actions as merciful. 

He ultimately plead no contest and was sentenced to nine years in jail.

Keith Floyd's self-sabotaging alcoholism and paranoia

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Keith Floyd was all over the TV, showing people how to cook in an atmosphere of what The Guardian called "cheerful mayhem," where "wine destined for the pot was drunk instead by the presenter." He taught countless people the basics, made cooking accessible and fun, all through his own personal struggles. 

His was "a life that seemed punctuated by bankruptcy and bust-ups," and in spite of his success on television and with his books, he was frequently broke. According to the Irish Independent, he fought constant struggles with alcoholism and depression, opened — then closed — 12 different restaurants, and his four marriages ended in divorce. Part of that, they say, was a constantly escalating paranoia. One marriage dissolved after the birth of their child, for a strange reason. While in the hospital, he called in and a nurse remarked that it was "Mrs. Floyd's second child." She had simply been referring to another Mrs. Floyd who had just given birth there, but Floyd became convinced his wife was hiding another child from him. 

Subsequent wives also cited his alcoholism as a reason for his unsuccessful marriages, and The Telegraph says end of his life was even more tragic. He died in 2009, just hours after doctors had told him he was in the clear from bowel cancer. After telling friends he hadn't felt so good in a long time, he sat down to watch TV, and died of a heart attack.

Guy Fieri's sister struggled with cancer from 4 years old

In 2011, Guy Fieri released a cookbook called Guy Fieri Food: Cookin' It, Livin' It, Lovin' It. The dedication was particularly personal to him, and he had originally written it to his mother, father, and sister. But even as he was writing the book, his sister was losing her battle with cancer. She passed away just as the book was going to print, and Fieri had them change the dedication to her.

He told Travel, Food, and Drink, "It gave me the biggest sigh of relief because what it does for me — and it does for my parents and my nephew — is that my sister lives on forever. My sister lives on in the book shelves and in the homes, with the families of people forever."

Morgan lost her battle with melanoma when she was 39, but her fight was a long one. According to Delish, she was first diagnosed when she was only 4 years old. Fieri was only 8 at the time, and he remembers the family staying at the Ronald McDonald House as she underwent treatment.

"...we battled it for years as a family and it was just the most devastating thing I had happen in my life," Fieri has said. He continues to remember her, including her favorite fire-roasted vegetable lasagna in a recent cookbook, posting tributes to her on social media, and sporting his "Namaste" tattoo as a reminder of her spirit.