Chef Charlie Mitchell did not realize he was a history maker after being announced as Michelin’s 2022 New York Young Chef Award winner.
The African-American executive chef reportedly has become not only the first Black New Yorker to win the honor but the second Black person in the nation to boast such a claim.
“You always think about the people, so many people have come before you,” Mitchell, 30, said in an interview with “Today” co-host Craig Melvin. “You just assume that someone has already done this; you know, it doesn’t cross your mind that you may be the first or second to do really anything, especially here in New York City.”
Mitchell, the co-owner of Clover Hill with Clay Castillo and Gabriel Merino was recognized as the top young chef of the year, but after only one year of being open, the establishment earned a Michelin star.
But this acclaim has not happened overnight.
The Detroit native grew up on the Motor City’s west side and was inspired to cook by watching his grandmother as a child, recalling, “I think the thing that stuck with me the most is she used to do this whole fry fish, like whole fry bass all the time when I was younger. I think that stood out the most.”
One of his first jobs, according to The Detroit News, was working at Forest Grill in Birmingham, Michigan, under chef Brian Polcyn. He stayed at the restaurant for three years, including when the eatery was acquired by Samy Eid. Eid brought in Nick Janutol, who served as the executive chef in 2015. Many of the techniques that Janutol taught him he was able to bring with him to New York.
“During that time, I was sous-chef,” he said. “At that time Nick was fresh out of fine dining, he had just left Chicago, and he had popped up in Detroit … for that opening crew that we had, he really ran that place like a fine dining restaurant. He gave me all of my foundations like how to work in a more classic kitchen. We did a lot of classic Italian and a lot of classic French food, and he just taught us how to behave in fine dining kitchens.”
By 2016, the young chef took the great leap of faith and ventured to New York to earn his stripes up against some of the world’s most competitive kitchens.
“I showed up here into these intense kitchens, and I already knew how to be clean, say ‘yes chef,’ move fast … so I think that helped my transition the most,” he said.
At first, he tried his hand in culinary school but dropped out before a full year to work in the industry. He rose to his newfound celebrity when he and his partners opened Clover Hill in Brooklyn Heights in 2021.
As the only person to serve as executive chef in this location, he curates the unique eight-course tasting menu — one that regularly changes based on the availability of seasonal foods.
“I guess it’s challenging, but we’re always changing something, or we’re always trying to make the dish the best version of itself, right?” Mitchell said. “So, we may tweak it every day for two weeks, if we have to, to get it to be like the perfect dish.”
The care that Mitchell takes comes from years of working in kitchens and sacrificing as a sous chef to learn from the best.
When asked about why there are not many Black people who are executive chefs in fine dining venues, Mitchell says he believes that many can’t afford apprenticeships, especially when they are young chefs.
“I think a lot of times, we’re chasing a very different American dream, then to kind of put up with these aggressive environments that are often led by people who don’t look like us,” he said.
These obstacles did not stop Mitchell, and the Michelin Star is not the only achievement he has in sight. Currently, Mitchell is a semifinalist for a James Beard Award: Emerging Chef.
He is not letting the accolades define him. For him, his arch of success is based on how people enjoy his food.
“Well, number one, I want them to feel like they got their money’s worth and then from there, I want them to kind of be excited or inspired about food. That is something that is very important to us,” Mitchell said.