We had the good fortune of connecting with Charles Withers and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Charles, any advice for those thinking about whether to keep going or to give up?
My first Chef / mentor gave me a book my first few months working in a kitchen – “How I learned to cook”, by Peter Meehan. It described in picturesque detail the hardest days in some of the most successful chefs’ careers. This book taught me from day 1 that it’s okay to fail, you just can’t ever give up. It’ll be worth it one day. Starting out as a hungry young cook, you make about $300 a week and you work 100 hours. You’re on your feet all day, you get shouted at all the time, you’re constantly cutting yourself and getting burned. Yet your senses are alive in a way they never have been before. The adrenaline that courses through your body each service increases each day. Working in a kitchen – at least the way I approached it – changed my perspective on life. I spent my first year cooking in Boston. I “staged”, or worked for free in as many kitchens as I could on my days off. All the cash I made I spent on eating in as many restaurants as I could. I would sit at the bar and order as many plates as I could afford and write down as much as I could about the experience. I then spent the next few years running around San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, London, Paris & Norway working 7 days a week, learning, writing and eating. Throughout these years, I’d say 3 weeks out of every month I had less than 100$ in my bank account. I had a duffel bag, a couple pairs of jeans, my knives, a Hedley and Bennet apron and some H&M white t-shirts. There were so many days I closed my eyes and wondered what the hell I was doing. Today I’m 26 years old and about to open my first restaurant. Those experiences were invaluable and I wouldn’t be in the position I am now without them. Learning from some of the best chefs around the world, seeing how far you can take things, these things have helped sculpt my understanding of food. There were so many days I thought about giving up. But ultimately if you want to achieve your dreams, the sacrifice is worth it.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Some of my earliest memories are related to food. My childhood was spent moving every 2 years, from Singapore, London, South Africa and America. My anchor to these places all centered around food. Specifically, in the East Coast of the United States, my Italian grandmother imparted her culinary wisdom upon me. From a young age, my summers were spent helping her char peppers, roll sheets of pasta, chop vegetables and stir risottos. And I loved it. I loved the emotion of sitting at a table and enjoying life with your friends and family. It’s funny because I never intended to cook professionally. I started an “underground” dinner series of sorts when I was in college. After that, I remember deciding to try and spend a few weeks in a commercial kitchen, desiring to better my culinary ability. The owner of the restaurant – now a friend – decided to give me a shot. He helped me purchase my first knife, gave me my first pair of kitchen shoes and taught me how to fold a kitchen towel properly. He sent me all around the city interning for different chefs and restaurants. Despite the fact I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, I think he saw from the beginning how passionate I was, and how hard I was willing to work. And I have never looked back. This philosophy has served me well over the beginning of my career. However, there is a flip side. I spent 3 years so focused on food and learning and traveling that I forgot what balance looked like. I lost relationships, and essentially dropped off the map in pursuit of my goals. Most days I was so singularly focused on my goals. But there would be days I would wonder what the heck I was doing. My friends were settling down, buying their first homes, cars, getting engaged. And I was learning how to cook, making $300 a week. with my world possessions fitting into a duffel bag. I think that we live in a time where cooking and celebrity chefs have become very sensationalized. And the side that most people don’t get to see is the sacrifice necessary to achieve those goals. At the age of 24 I finally ran my own kitchen, in London, and earned a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide. At the age of 26, I’m about to open my first restaurant. I have 5 or 6 concepts I would like to build out and draw intersections between different industries like music and fashion. I am excited to see what’s on the horizon. The sky is the limit.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Every city I go to, I look at it through the lens of food. I think that it’s one of the most interesting ways to learn about a place, its people and rhythm. I have a special place in my heart from Boston. It’s where I learned to cook. The first place I would go to is Saus. Located on Union St, it’s a casual spot providing made from scratch food. The owners represent what hospitality means and their French fries are out of this world. Select Oyster Bar, just off Newbury street is where you will find some of the best seafood / cooking in Boston. Michael Serpa – owner – just opened a couple new restaurants as well. But I can’t go to Boston and not go in to Select. They also have a killer wine list. Alden and Harlow is a must. They serve thoughtfully sourced food in a speakeasy style basement with bumping tunes. Their cocktail program is unreal. Bar Mezzana is probably the best Italian you will find in Boston. I would go to Hojoko for drinks, a Japanese izakaya that also has an amazing late night menu. Their late night burger is what dreams are made of. I could spend an entire day sitting in Coppa in the North End. It’s an all day Italian eatery focused on charcuterie and pasta. Sit at the bar and order an Aperol Spritz and a grinder. You won’t be disappointed. O Ya will give you the best sushi experience you’ll get outside of Japan. And if you’re in the mood for pizza I still think Pino’s Pizza, in Brighton is my favorite pizza of the city. Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Michael Scelfo is a chef and restauranteur in Boston. He taught me what it means to be a chef, how to build layers of flavor and every aspect of how to run a successful business. I was part of the opening team of Michael’s second restaurant, Waypoint. There was a day where I had driven myself so hard into the ground. I remember Michael dragging me out of the restaurant towards the end of service and taking me to a little restaurant down the street. I sat opposite him and a gentleman who was helping write his cookbook. We spent hours eating food and drinking wine and I just listened to his stories about who he is and how he got to where he was. It was a singularly important moment for me. It was one of the first days I knew how far I wanted to take my ambitions. I wouldn’t be where I am today without working for Michael.