Squad | The Charlie Hallowell Galaxy
How one chef fostered three unique talents — and how they keep his restaurant family together.
May 12, 2016
"Every salad you make in a night that you know was sub par, that didn't match the standards established during a menu meeting, should haunt you in your sleep.
It should follow you around like a chip on your shoulder so you remember that you still have room to learn, to keep you humble." — Charlie Hallowell, chef-owner of Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service, and Penrose.
Charlie just happened to be dropping off a market order as I began my first night cooking on the line at Boot & Shoe Service in Oakland. I was slow, nervous, unsure, and I was struggling to get my mise together. It was one of the busiest nights of service we had, starting with a 12-person wedding party who ordered four of everything off my station. I went down hard.
At the end of the night, nearly in tears, I chugged my staff beer and everyone in the kitchen gave me a chuckle and a pat on the back. "It will get easier," Charlie reassured me. "I promise, if you keep practicing, if you taste every single thing, give yourself completely to this craft, you will get it back with the pride you'll feel when you see what you're capable of."
For the chefs and cooks who work for Charlie at any of his three restaurants, cooking is about a lifelong pursuit. It spans not just strict culinary technique, but constantly strives to foster a cultural understanding. "There is nothing that makes us more human, except maybe sex. If you don't eat, you die,” he told me once. “That's why we do what we do; because we believe in it, and we believe we are doing something good for the world."
He has a deft grip on that blazing conviction of his, which is perhaps why, in a time when restaurants are notoriously having a hard time keeping good cooks, Charlie manages to keep the same team year after year. By simultaneously allowing his chefs a great amount of creative space and — crucially — defining the ethos within which they can execute their own vision, Charlie has established a clear message discernible at all three places, through three loyal lieutenants.
I'll let them tell you how they do it.
Julya Shin, Penrose
Like Charlie, Julya is a Chez Panisse alum, and while they overlapped for a few years, it was actually through frequenting Pizzaiolo as a patron that Julya sensed she might belong there. Marc Baltes (the sous chef at the time) was leaving California for a while, and there was a vacant management position; Julya was beginning to find it difficult to carve out a space of her own at Chez, and craved a new challenge: to notably affect a restaurant, and to further develop her own message. After nine years, Charlie asked her to move to Penrose, the third and newest addition to the restaurant group, as Chef.
More and more, I'm hiring based on personality, not just skill. Sure, I look at where you've been, but it's become about finding people who are willing to be humble enough to adapt to a team. Of course I'm happy when my cooks have ambition, that's important to foster. But we must see the kitchen as one large organism, with various parts that must fit together.
One of those parts? Learning through humility.
I got [to Chez Panisse] thinking I knew how to turn an artichoke, but I was corrected. I had to swallow my pride and just do it their way. Our conversations about food were about achieving certain tastes and textures, not necessarily following specific recipes. When I talked about a puttanesca with people like Cal [Peternell] and Jean-Pierre [Moullé] it was like, Okay, how wet do we want the pasta, are we going to go for clean and bright, or stanky and oily, how are we going to balance it all?
I was learning where this pasta came from, who made it first, why they made it that way. It's about a total history that informs the making of this one plate of food. That, for me, is what it means to be a cook and a chef. You try to help your cooks understand food and ingredients beyond a menu on a given night. This holistic approach to cooking will make the food taste better.
Ben Harris, Pizzaiolo
Ben and Charlie have known each other the longest of this bunch — going on twelve years. Ben first joined up as sous under Julya, ultimately rising to chef de cuisine after her departure.
[During] my first real job in a kitchen, I had the fortune to work for someone who I still revere greatly. I was green, and this chef was the one who taught me how to expect a lot from people while still treating them with respect. After that job, I worked in a total frat house kitchen — and I made a decision that I wouldn't run my own kitchen like that. You just don't need to have a space driven by ego and competition to get the best out of people; in fact, it works against that.
I hold myself to the high standard I expect from my cooks, and lead by example with fairness and compassion. And it's not easy, trying to make level-headed decisions that aren't affected by the emotion and stress of restaurant work. Some may think this process is not efficient, but it takes time to really rub off on your cooks, and develop a relationship of trust and communication. I always take [their] ideas and thoughts into consideration from how to season a sauce, to who we hire.
In my restaurant there are no egos and no yelling. A lot of the kids who come in can cook, but they aren't ‘cooks.’ They can take a piece of portioned fish and sear it in a pan, but they can't take that same fish whole and break it down into those portions. And when they're told they still need to learn that before they can sear it in a pan, they don't want to hear it. They want the glory without the hard work.
Marc Baltes, Boot & Shoe Service
One day while perusing Craigslist, Marc came across the most outrageous ad: a restaurant seeking a cook who 'dreams about making bolognese while making love,' and wanted to 'craft gnocchi like an old Italian grandmother.' That was Pizzaiolo, and before he became its first sous chef, he'd seen both the grungy underbelly of 80's kitchens and the world of the white tablecloth at spots like San Francisco's Quince. After a brief hiatus in 2011 (during which he moved to St. Louis to spend time with his family and Julya took the helm), he returned to the Bay Area and has been the acting chef of the Boot & Shoe since 2012.
The kitchen used to be a pirate ship. It was a place where people who literally couldn't fit into the rest of society found a place to work. It was really tough; I remember a chef literally climbing over the line to yell at me. It shouldn't be that way, we shouldn't have to throw pans to run a kitchen. But, at the same time, these young cooks don't know what it's like to work for someone like that. Their threshold of what's acceptable, or hard work, is different.
When you do find the anomalies, you have to foster a place where they feel they can grow. I frequently sit down with my cooks and ask, ‘What are we going to make tomorrow?’ This isn't unique, a lot of chefs do that. But I cannot emphasize enough how crucial it is to make people feel that they have a space to be creative. It's not sustainable anymore to expect the impossible from people and work them into the ground. Not if you want them to stick around.
Working for Charlie's team taught me to love the struggle. To constantly search for the truth about food no matter the cost; to expect more from myself.
“If you can just shut your mouth and put your ego aside, someone will offer you a broom and tell you to clean. And if you can be humble enough to take that broom and do that job as best you can until you get a chance to do something better, good things will come to you,” he says. “The garde manger position at Chez is literally getting a broom and cleaning the walk in at five in the morning. I could've said no, I could've thought that was beneath me. But I did it, and that's where all this started.”
Therein lies the truth of the kitchen, and the philosophy that permeates Charlie's restaurants: it's not glamorous or fancy. The beauty is in the grit.