(Originally published December 1, 2012 on Examiner.com).
Note since this article was originally published, Chef Parker returned to San Francisco.
With so many cooking shows on the Food Network and elsewhere depicting the restaurant world so glamorously, many people entering this sector, as well as many customers, have a lot of misperceptions about what it takes to succeed in this business. The truth is that success requires many dedicated long hours, often doing tedious work, initially for low wages with high food costs and slim profit margins. Additionally, to get a restaurant open and running requires a lot of startup capital as well as a lot of patience in dealing with all the bureaucracies whose approvals are required to open and stay open.
As with any business and profession, a balance between time for work and family is difficult to achieve, and another balance between costs and commitment to principles isn’t always easy to maintain. A thorough understanding of who your audience is and what menu items best serve their wants and desires is also essential to understand since, being a service industry, happy customers are infinitely more important then fulfilling a chef’s ego.
Freddy Smalls‘ Chef Charlie Parker, with his impressive resume, has made changes in his career to achieve better balance in his life, and made changes with his cuisine to fit his current clientele while still maintaining the principles that have shaped his cooking beliefs. Having endured one concussion too many playing football, Parker’s career began when he enrolled and graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
After graduating, Parker got an externship at David Kinsch’s (two Michelin Star) restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos, CA and stayed there for three years eventually becoming sous chef. Next were six month stints at the Village Pub in Woodside, CA and working as a butcher which was followed the next year as fellow Manresa alum’s chef Jeremy Fox’s sous chef at Ubuntu. Then Parker did a four month internship at Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. Parker’s tenure at Noma was before this restaurant’s reputation blew up as one of the best restaurants in the world. But since Parker was there in the dead of winter, he didn’t do much foraging which is one of the things that Redzepi is best known for doing. Rather Noma’s menu, at that time with its super local emphasis, featured lots of root vegetables, crustaceans, and other sea food.
When Parker returned to the San Francisco area, through David Kinsch’s help, Parker became the Executive Chef at Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Cellar Door Café in Santa Cruz. A year later Charlie moved on to become the Executive Chef at Daniel Patterson’s Plum in Oakland, CA. Though Patterson and Parker had different cooking styles, Patterson was very supportive of Parker’s menu. After a year and an half working very hard and being fully dedicated to Plum’s kitchen, Parker was ready to make changes. Wanting to start a family, Parker looked now for a better way to get some balance in his life. The balance between career and family life is a difficult balance for many top chefs (many of whom are single) since so many of these chefs are married in very committed relationships to their kitchens.
An opportunity for balance between career and family presented itself when Parker was introduced by Jeremy Fox to Jeff Weinstein, the owner of the Counter. Parker and Weinstein, immediately hit it off. Parker and Fox worked on the menu prototype for Weinstein’s new West Los Angeles location Freddy Smalls, a menu that Parker ultimately developed all the recipes, and one that could be produced quickly from a small constrained kitchen in a bar environment.
A bar environment was something new in a new city Los Angeles for Chef Parker. Up until this time, Parker spent almost all of his time in the world of fine dining. His many mentors in this realm, including Kinsch, Fox and Redzepi, all emphasized using local ingredients and other sustainable practices with menus that emphasized sourcing seasonal ingredients where the inherent flavors of those ingredients weren’t masked. Moving to Los Angeles from the Bay Region, as well as to this more casual bar segment presented a different set of issues, and customer expectations to respond to in putting together, and producing, the menu at Freddy Smalls.
According to Parker, understanding who your customers are is paramount. Expectations in a bar are different than expectations in a fine dining establishment. At Plum, in Oakland, people came for the dining experience, whereas at a bar like Freddy Smalls, people come to drink, be social and hang with friends. Such bar customers thus have lower food expectations but do want to get their more familiar, accessible and comforting food quickly. So not only does Parker’s food at Freddy Smalls far exceed expectations, as L.A. Times June 16, 2012 review demonstrates, this comforting, though still creative, food is gotten out of the small kitchen very quickly and efficiently.
The restaurant scene in Los Angeles is also quite a bit different than the scene in San Francisco. In Parker’s opinion doing sustainable and local is a lot harder in Southern California than it is up north simply because most of the farms food is sourced from are located up in Central and Northern California. Though Parker still gets produce from farmer markets, and meat as locally as possible, Parker noted few, if any, restaurants in Southern California have their own gardens, for example, like Manresa does. Additionally Los Angeles’s food culture is a lot more diverse especially with non-European influences particularly Korean, Thai, Chinese and Mexican. Unlike Northern California where Alice Water’s food philosophy is pervasive, Los Angeles food scene is still evolving and thus exciting, young and with the feeling that there is still a lot more to come.
Rather than being affected by this diversity, Parker sees his own cuisine coming from his roots, and those days with his family doing barbecues on his family’s patio, which along with a Southern grandmother; Parker’s quipped is why he likes to smoke “everything”. What’s forthcoming from Parker on other projects, he wouldn’t disclose, other than to note other concepts are being discussed with Weinstein, though replicating Freddy Smalls wasn’t one of these ideas. Freddy Smalls is conceived to be a one off that’s supposed to feel as though it’s a long time local neighborhood institution that one can come back to again and again.
With a young family and newly born son, though whatever concepts are in Parker’s future, Parker’s hope to maintain a balance between his career as a chef and the rest of his life; a balance he wasn’t able to previously achieve in the fine dining sector. Since as Parker quipped, though living in Los Angeles, Parker has seen his parents more often than he did when he worked across the Bay from them in Oakland. So as Parker’s career has so ably demonstrated, being a “top chef “ (as Parker has been recognized by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of San Francisco’s “Rising Star Chefs”) requires a tremendous amount of dues being paid, commitment and sacrifice, unlike what’s too frequently and wrongly depicted as very glamorous on TV.