My Tale of Becoming Smoke Free

Chef Paolo Neville
5 min readJul 8, 2021

One day I sat on the couch contemplating our lives, I was about to head off to one of my last few shifts at Bob’s waterfront disaster, and our nine month adventure in San Francisco would be coming to an end. I loved the city and all of its characters but was happy with the direction we were headed. Jojo and I were a good team and had fun working together. I took one last long drag of my cigarette and put it out in the ashtray on the coffee table. Our apartment was mostly cleaned and ready for the move. I wanted to keep it that way and emptied the ashtray into the waste bin in the kitchen, grabbed my knife roll and headed out the door.

Yup… you guessed it. I had fucked up big time. Ten hours later as Jojo and I stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor and started down the hallway towards our apartment, we started to notice the carpet getting increasingly dirty the closer we got to our door. The black footprints led right up to our door and there was a note taped on it from the San Francisco fire department. The walls were covered in soot and where the waste bin had been was now a giant patch of melted linoleum. Luckily, the window above the waste bin was cracked open a little and a neighbor had seen the smoke and called 911. I could have burnt down the whole building. We would lose our entire security deposit and I would continue to smoke for the next twenty years, despite all evidence that it was really fucking stupid.

Twenty years later, I was living back in Colorado, and my boys were doing great. Their mom, Justine and her husband Chip had recently moved out to Dear Trail, seven acres out in the middle of nowhere. They had a 2-year-old daughter, a few horses, and a bunch of chickens. Money was tight but they loved living in the country away from all distractions of city life. I was supposed to drive out and pick up the boys on Sunday night after a weekend-long workshop I had helped put together for a men’s group I was part of. We had flown a guy by the name of Howard Lagarde out from Oregon. Along with a man by the name of Cal Ozbourn, he would lead us through a process of helping us move closer towards being the men we always wanted to be. There were about ten of us, I was the captain of the team and Howard pointed out right away that I was defensive and had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. This man was highly respected and well known in other men’s divisions and in his 85 years of life had mentored and helped to change a lot of men’s lives. He was retired but did consulting for some pretty big companies, helping them shift their culture and find ways to thrive, be a stronger team and have a bigger impact on the world. I was trying hard to chill out and listen, absorb as much as I could from this man.

I wasn’t a very good listener. “You should always listen, to learn,” Howard told me. I knew he was right but I would need to work on it. I’m not sure how the conversation landed on me, but I was describing to Howard the struggles I’ve had with trying to quit smoking. I’d been trying really hard for the last year and had failed every time. I explained that I had made lists of all the reasons I wanted to quit and what I was grateful for, my boys being at the heart of it all. “It’s simple” said Howard. Well that’s news to me I thought.

“Please enlighten me” I said.

“You just love smoking.” Howard took a long pause “You love smoking more than you love your boys.” I flushed red and I could feel the anger welling up inside me. I swear I would lay this guy out right here and now. Instead, I paused. Howard didn’t know me. We had only just met the day before. He had no idea how much my boys meant to me. But as I sat there I knew that Howard had only made an observation from the information I had given him and there was some truth to it. I had made the boys take a back seat to something I really loved. I loved the relief I would feel as I sucked in that first drag. I loved smoking more than I cared to help make sure I could stick around for my sons for as long as possible, to help them navigate life. Cigarettes gave me comfort and peace on my most stressful days. I was angry, at first with Howard, but as the statement set in I shifted that anger towards the cigarettes. They were like a lover I had cared deeply about and they had let me down. They controlled my life and had been more important than my boys. I took a deep breath and stood up. Fishing the pack of Marlboro Reds out of my pocket. I walked over to the trash can. I stood there staring at them for a long minute. I started squeezing the pack. Breaking and crushing all of the cigarettes, I tossed them in the trash.

“Adios mother fuckers!” I knew in that moment that I could never, ever, take another drag of a cigarette. One drag and I would be right back to a pack a day within days. I was scared and I knew it would be tough but from that day forward I would never hold anything closer to my heart than my boys. It’s been over two years since that day and I’ve stayed true to my boys. It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I feel better than ever and the control

cigarettes had over my thoughts is long gone. Plenty of demons remain but Howard helped my slay that one on a Saturday afternoon and I am grateful for his honesty. I still call Howard from time to time when I am struggling. Usually I just need to change my context and Howard is more than happy to point it out.



Chef Paolo Neville

Executive Chef and author with 30 + years in the service industry. I have two amazing sons and a passion for food and the restaurant industry.