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Alive and cooking

From a meteoric rise as a culinary star to the depths of drug use, chef Todd Hall reclaims his life

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By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / June 15, 2011

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Over his long career as a celebrity chef, Todd Hall has been associated with numerous high-end restaurants. His newest, Temazcal Tequila Cantina, opened in Boston’s Seaport District this spring to overflow crowds. A two-time James Beard Foundation honoree, Hall moved here in 2009 to help launch Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar & Grille chain, another homegrown hit.

More surprising than any success Hall has achieved, though, is the fact that he’s still alive and cooking. A series of personal tragedies and self-destructive choices threatened to end Hall’s career years ago. In 1992, the youngest of his four children drowned in the family’s backyard swimming pool. Three years later, a parking-lot shooting — the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad — nearly killed Hall.

Drug-free for a decade now, Hall, who mastered Mexican cuisine while working in upscale Southwest kitchens, has designed Temazcal to reflect his formidable culinary ambitions — and flair for the unusual. In this cantina, menu items include lobster guacamole, roast suckling pig, goat basted in grapefruit and molasses, and nearly 300 brands of tequila, some rare. The restaurant overlooks Boston Harbor, seating 126 diners inside and another 40 on its waterside patio. Hall runs a kitchen staff of 12 and boasts of having one of the first restaurants to develop its own full-menu iPad app, allowing diners to browse pictures and recipes of what they might consider ordering.

Boston developer Jon Cronin, who hired Hall as a consulting chef on Remy’s sports bars, says he was fully aware of Hall’s checkered past before bringing him in as a partner in the opening of Temazcal. Cronin even read an unpublished memoir Hall wrote, in all its sordid detail, before going into business with him.

Working with Hall carried significant risks, but Cronin admired how Hall had pulled his life and career back together. “Everything Todd’s gone through and where he’s gotten to now is such an achievement,’’ he said. “Look, I’ve worked with several local organizations that treat addiction. If he falls back in six months, so be it.’’

But Hall is also “the hardest worker I know,’’ Cronin added, and his take on Mexican cuisine is an attractive addition to Boston’s restaurant scene. “To me, Todd’s a winner,’’ he said. “His is a fantastic story.’’

In many ways it is also a disturbing one, if ultimately uplifting.

Hall’s marriage went up in smoke long ago, another consequence of drug abuse that spiraled out of control. He shot up enough cocaine to leave both arms permanently bruised and spent months in jail for fraud and theft, victimizing some of the very same luxury hotels that had once employed him.

Dismissed from more jobs than he can easily count, Hall, who is 49, did not just burn bridges during his meteoric rise and fall as a culinary star. “I burned the whole damn town,’’ he writes in his memoir. No wonder he takes restaurant reviews, good or bad, with a grain of salt.

“My life has been so crazy, I honestly don’t care if my new place is a runaway success — just that it’s as good as I can make it,’’ he said during an interview near his Northern Avenue restaurant. “When you take three .38 bullets point-blank and think you’ll never see your children again, or nearly kill yourself with needles, nothing else really matters.’’

Hall encountered legendary chef Jacques Pepin at a recent Beard Foundation dinner in Manhattan. Twenty-three years ago, Pepin wrote to Julia Child praising Hall’s cooking and placing him among America’s top young chefs. To say Hall squandered that professional capital would be putting it mildly.

“Jacques told me, ‘I hope that letter didn’t ruin your life,’ ’’ said Hall, smiling. “And I said, ‘No, only I can do that.’ ’’

The story of Hall’s rise, fall, and reclamation of a once-promising career — a story he shares candidly, if warily — began in Utah, where he grew up in a disturbingly dysfunctional family where physical beatings and sexual assaults were routine, he writes in his memoir. In his teens, Hall did a three-year apprenticeship at the American Culinary Foundation and worked under chef Roger Cortello at the Hotel Utah. In 1986, he bought his first restaurant, in Salt Lake City. Cooking at high-end Arizona resorts in Sedona and Scottsdale in the early 1990s cemented his reputation as a brilliant, if temperamental, chef whose dishes attracted foodies from around the country.

Even as his reputation soared, however, Hall was ensnared in a cycle of drugging — first marijuana and LSD, then cocaine and methamphetamines — that took on a predictable pattern, progressing from a few months of casual use to months of bingeing. The cycle typically ended with a strung-out Hall either being fired or quitting, his personal finances as frayed as his health.

At one of his lowest points, he began checking into luxury hotels under false pretenses and smoking meth while running up room and food charges before he’d skip town, leaving all bills unpaid. He eventually served more than six months in jail and repaid thousands in fines, narrowly averting a longer prison sentence he admits might have killed him.

“Todd was looked on as a comer, somebody to pay attention to,’’ said Beard Foundation executive Diane Harris Brown, who has followed Hall’s career for 20 years or more. “Then he fell off the radar screen, and frankly I didn’t know why.’’

Above all, Hall was devastated by the death of his son Cody at age 18 months. Hall and his wife, Stacey, were living in Scottsdale, Ariz., when Hall emerged from the shower one morning and heard Stacey screaming. Cody lay at the bottom of the pool, in 10 feet of water. Hall, who had trained as an EMT, frantically tried resuscitating the toddler. But Cody died in a Phoenix hospital, a tragedy that would haunt every member of that family for years to come.

Hall still refers to having four children, not three, and admits that notwithstanding years of family therapy, he’ll never get over Cody’s loss — or blame it for driving him to screw up his life.

“What’s nuts is, on drugs I get humble, quiet,’’ Hall said. “I’m not a humble person, though. I’m gruff. I rub plenty of people the wrong way. Even straight, I don’t agree with everyone when I should. I go big or I go home.’’

Doug Cole, a managing director with the Pyramid Hotel Group and one hotel executive who has seen all sides of Hall’s personality, freely acknowledges that Hall’s talents have often been eclipsed by his confrontational style.

Cole first hired Hall in the late 1990s to work for Paradise Valley Resorts in Arizona. After learning that Hall had once served jail time for fraud, which Hall failed to disclose on his application, Cole fired his star chef. Still, Cole rehired Hall to consult on various Pyramid Hotel properties a few years ago, convinced that he had cleaned up his act.

“I’ve been in this business 46 years, and very rarely do you run into somebody with Todd’s talent and technical knowledge,’’ Cole said.

Even then, well after Hall had kicked drugs and embraced Catholicism, he ruffled enough feathers to get in trouble with his bosses, Cole said.

“Todd never did anything illegal or immoral,’’ said Cole, still a close friend of Hall, “but people got tired of him. My advice was, don’t work in a strong corporate-culture environment. Find a platform to do what you do best.’’

Estranged from his wife for many years, Hall is in a relationship with a supportive partner who commutes between New Jersey and Boston. That and a renewed closeness to his grown children — his two sons work in the hotel and restaurant business; his daughter is an engineer with a semiconductor company — have restored balance to his life, says Hall.

“For a lot of years, I didn’t think he’d have this chance to do something great with his life again,’’ said his daughter, Chelse Tijerina, who’s in touch with him almost daily. “He’s definitely changed in the past five years, become more grounded in his life. It’s more the typical parent-child relationship now, where he’s more worried about me than I am about him.’’

As for going public with his story, Hall often thinks of actor Robert Downey Jr.

“If just one chef out there is smoking meth and reads what I’m saying, it’s worth it,’’ he said. “If someone who’s already ruined his career reads this, it’s worth it, too. Because when no one would hire me or talk to me, when I was damaged goods, I saw Downey relapse and relapse and relapse again. Now he’s fricking Iron Man.’’

With a hard-won smile on his face, Hall added, “He better not relapse, either. If he does, I’m dead.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.