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Charlie Awards Coverage: A Salute to the Créme de La Cremme

The winners in all 14 categories were called back to stage for a toast before heading to Seven Steakhouse next door for the Afterparty.

Photos by Joe Veen

The opening song at this year’s Charlie Awards, from crooner Erin Schwab with Jay Fuchs and his All-Star Band, welcomed the hospitality crowd to their industry’s premier local recognition event in fitting style: “Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you ever-y-thing,” she sang, covering a Rosemary Clooney classic.

Songbird Erin Schwab and Jay Fuchs and his All-Star Band

Finalists and winners in the eighth annual Charlie Awards, presented by Foodservice News, express that exact sentiment to their guests every day, each in their own style, from Southeast Asian-inspired Hai Hai to playful and fun Can Can Wonderland to Wisconsin-style supper club Birch’s on the Lake. 

Birch’s on the Lake won in the Hidden Gem category, and owner Burton Joseph was gracious and brief in his acceptance talk. “This is the first award I’ve ever had. On behalf of the team, thank you and I’m glad to be part of this community.”

Joshua Walbolt of Lat 14 accepted the Rising Star award, given to an under 30-ish, up-and-coming foodservice professional. A two-time state champion in the ProStart culinary competition who went on to work for Iron Chef Morimoto in New York City, he was glad to accept his award from his former ProStart instructor, Monique Sabby, and current ProStart participants.

“It’s been a warm welcome back to Minneapolis,” he said, after acknowledging an “I love you” shout-out from the crowd. “I see Minneapolis being the next big city” on the food scene.

The founders of St. Paul’s Meritage accepted the Outstanding Service award, with owners Russell and Desta Klein noting they had received a Charlies several years ago. “It’s weird after nearly a dozen years to be doing this again,” said Desta Klein, thanking her staff for their collective years of service. “Today it’s 98 years,” she said, taken all together, “and the average is five years per person and that means a lot.”

Hosts Joy Summers and Jason DeRusha, plus Brian “BT” Turner (not pictured) who was that melodic Voice of God that booms from the back of the theater

Perhaps because of the impending snowstorm barreling into the Twin Cities Sunday evening, January 27, many of the guests dialed down their attire, opting for practical jeans-and-boots choices more often than the prior year. Justin Sutherland, winner in the Outstanding Chef category, was a noteworthy exception, wearing a sharp suit with a cropped pant, bright blue socks showing above a smart shoe and his trademark Snapback hat. “2018 was out of control,” said Sutherland, the recent winner on “Iron Chef America” (not to mention Top Chef, where his fate is still a secret) and co-owner and executive chef of Pearl & the Thief and managing partner of the Madison Restaurant Group, including Handsome Hog and seven other concepts. “It’s honestly not me,” but the people around him, he said. “I’ve always lived by surrounding yourself with people better than you.” He named a number of local chefs who have inspired and mentored him, adding, “now they’re my peers and my friends. Thank you.”

The most honest speech of the night, however, has to go to Sean Jones of Fhima MPLS as Outstanding Bartender. He grew up in a family that operated restaurants up and down the East Coast, his bio said. He started bartending in high school, and by 21 he was legally tending bar in a seasonal fine-dining restaurant in Boston. The description for Outstanding Bartender read in part that he or she guides their customers’ beverage journey with diplomacy and grace,” which elicited a hearty “Amen!” from the crowd. When Jones reached the stage, he quipped. “I really want to thank the guy that didn’t show up for his shift so I got to be a bartender. Thanks, I’m going to go cry now.”

This year’s Charlie Awards also featured a return appearance via video by Zac La Cremme, the pretentious and infamous chef played by local playwright and actor Joey Hamburger of Sheep Theater, delivering his hilarious take on the celebrity chef scene.

His featured dish: pickled herring gnocchi, which he insisted should be placed in a Ziplok bag and stored under a mattress for pickling. And since “you can’t pickle something without pickles,” he added dill spears, too. The crowd loved the line: “All gnocchi is, is a rolled up mashed potato.”

In “drinking with Zac,” he shared a cocktail recipe so easy to make, children could do it. He poured in ice, some gin and about half a bottle of vodka. “I don’t really follow recipes,” he said, to the delight of the audience.

“The best element in the restaurant is surprise,” he continued in his faux-chef nasal intonation. “You want your customers to say, WHOA! I did not order that.”

Joey Hamburger of Sheep Theater as Chef Zac La Cremme.

Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool of the 2 Sugars Show provided three comedy sketches based on beverages. In the first they were wearing jeans and sweaters and drinking coffee. In the second they had donned elegant gowns and were sipping wine. By the third they were in pajamas and robes and chugging big glasses of whiskey.  “What’s the difference between wine and whiskey?” they asked the crowd. “Soft pants,” was the reply. “Get ready Pantages, because I might sleep here tonight,” Custer said to the Pantages Theatre crowd as that storm moved in.

The sole standing ovation was reserved for the end of the afternoon: Sue Zelickson, the original co-founder of the Charlies, now an adviser to Foodservice News since the magazine began producing the awards show in 2018. As Scott Mayer, her Charlies co-founder, said about her, “The saying at The Charlies is if we want something done, ask Sue, and then she’ll ask someone to do it,” and they will. Dubbed the First Lady of Food by her nominators, Zelickson accepted her Lifetime Achievement award and was cited for receiving a James Beard award; starting Minnesota Monthly’s Food & Wine Experience; founding the networking group Women Who Really Cook; starting the Kid’s Café to teach at-risk youth how to cook; among many other contributions to the local culinary scene.

“The love of my life has been the culinary community,” Zelickson said, recalling as a teenager taking the streetcar in Minneapolis to visit her grandmother, who taught her to cook with a little bit of this, a little bit of that. 

“I’m going to be 85 next year and I want to keep going, and going and going. I just hope it keeps on going forever,” she said of the Charlie Awards and the beautiful community of people gathered to celebrate, all of them with hospitality in their bones. 

Carolyn Pool and Shanan Custer from the 2 Sugars Show delighted the audience with comedy sketches honoring coffee, wine and whiskey. 

2019 Charlie's Winners >>

Presenting the Plates pictures >>

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