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Common Foodsense: Notes From The Charlies

Comfortably slumped in my chair at the Pantages, I was enjoying a video which explained that eating is vulnerable and dangerous when it occurred to me: the Charlies are now a thing.

Ten years ago, they weren’t, so this is, therefore, a recent phenomenon. There is a progression in any endeavor from idea-ness to thingitude (from ideation to realization for you corporate types), and it’s a particularly challenging process when, in order to become a thing, a great many people need to agree that it is, yes, a thing.

There was clearly a need for this, though. These awards began at about the time when our local foodservice industry had just experienced an amazing three decades. In the early ‘80s the eponymous Charlie’s was one of just a few culinary stars showing through a relatively overcast sky. I worked at the Black Angus at the time, which considered itself to be a peer of Charlie’s in the fine dining stratum, and we served steak. A couple other things for the weenies, like lobster and shrimp, but basically: steak. This was the criterion of fine dining. Charlie’s had steak, too, but you could also order a squab. And sweetbreads, whatever they were.

Since then, we’ve been energized by immigrants and the food they’ve brought with them, by the explosion of food media, by travel, by an expanding pool of skilled craftspeople, by newly demanding customers and by newly fearless menus. And, importantly, by an awakening pride in the industry, as outsiders began to recognize what we’d been helping to grow. So it was time to formalize a celebration of us, for us, by us. Just like Walt Whitman: I celebrate myself and… eat myself? Okay, strike that.

At the beginning, the survival of the Charlie Awards seemed by no means assured. It’s a busy business, and taking a night off is tough even if someone is going to say nice things about you. If you were a betting person, though, you’d have looked at your racing form and noticed that Sue Zelickson was the jockey on this particular horse, which made the odds pretty good. She just told everyone in the industry that we had to come, so we did. Force of personality is an odd thing. I think if she replaced the entire Vikings’ offensive line, she’d simply point out to the opposing linemen that they’d do more for the world if they went to help out at Kids’ Café and left Kirk alone, and he’d have all the time to pass that he wants.

I missed most of the early awards ceremonies—I was in the Art Institutes kitchen with my students, frantically preparing for the after-parties—so I didn’t get to see their evolution. But from the beginning,  it gave us the chance to see people we hadn’t seen in a while, to get a drink from someone we knew by name, and to bitch with others about the same things in the same language. Of course, the ceremony was nice—it was good to see colleagues recognized for their work, but the Charlies were new. With no weight of tradition yet, the plates wouldn’t sell on Ebay like a Tony.

Now, though, it seems to have taken its place in the culture. The recipients of this year’s awards were clearly honored: In their acceptance speeches I counted four instances of “overwhelming” and two of “Holy sh*t!’” They know who nominated them—us—and who is celebrating their contributions. 

The speeches themselves were a nod to our foodservice culture. There were a couple of shout-outs to immigrants, who have been the backbone of American hospitality since there was an America.  And for me, the most poignant remark of the evening came from Katie Elsing, who won Best Baker/Pastry Chef, when she expressed her gratitude to an industry that welcomes any misfit… “as long as you can hold down a station on a Saturday night.”  

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a chef-instructor at St. Paul College. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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