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Common Foodsense: And the Winner is…Keep Reading

With the Charlie Awards behind us for another year, perhaps it’s time for one more hymn to institutional memory. I grant you, I’m not much of a hymnster—my preferences run more to the snide—but I do harbor a good deal of reverence for the traditions of professional hospitality, and for its long and checkered history. 

My own career, like that of most of my colleagues, has been similarly patterned. Maybe the black-and-white houndstooth that I put on every afternoon was a warning. Or a logo. Either way, it nicely reflected both my tenure in jobs and the durability of my employers.

I was just running over them in my mind the other day, and they make quite a litany. While the difficulty of keeping a restaurant in business has become a cliché, it is easy to overlook the fact that clichés have to come from somewhere. A short sample, with the fate of the restaurants I worked for in my first 10 years: the Pink Adobe is still in operation, near the Plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico. An auspicious start. It’s the only one left.

The next few, in order: failed; burned; closed and was redeveloped; sold and was renamed; failed; closed without a sale and everybody was fired; sold; and yet another closed/fired. OK, that’s actually 12 years, and I left out a couple of places—but trust me, they’re gone too.

It’s easy to see why restaurants get forgotten. Three of the best-known places in 1980s San Francisco are in that tale of woe above, and without the internet (see “Washbag Closes!”) you’d have to dig through yellowed newspaper clippings to get any sense of them, or search out the few remaining veterans who somehow avoided cirrhosis. And this is a pity; each of them had its own special culture made of menu and ambiance, service and geography, and the intangible je-ne-sais-whatever provided by its peculiar inhabitants.

And so, while most award ceremonies just irritate me (why is there no category for “best vitriol”?), I find the Charlies soothing and a bit nostalgic. It’s nice to see my peers recognized for their work, even though these things are all set up as competitions, with some winning and some not—but all the names of the nominees and the winners will be remembered for a while, at least, and still leave fond traces even if their present incarnations disappear. 

Which brings us back to Charlie’s Café Exceptionale, the restaurant that defined fine dining in the Twin Cities for half a century, beginning right after the 21st Amendment. It is remembered more for its potato salad than its deft touch with organ meats, its ‘Baked Filet of Pompano Papilotte’, its inability to spell papillote, its two full-time butchers, its house baker, its home-pressed tablecloths. But potato salad is important here. It’s a cultural thing. And potato salad, like a trail of breadcrumbs, can lead to the rest of its history.

I hope that with its namesake awards, Charlie’s legacy will be a trail of breadcrumbs that leads future hospitality folks back to their past: our present, in other words. 

We are living in amazing culinary times in this neck of the urban forest, thanks to immigration, observation and appropriation (and transportation and refrigeration, if you want to get technical) and you can get an amazing meal for the price of a used paperback or a used car, depending on your preferences.

We’ve never seen a culinary flowering like this before, so we should pat ourselves on the back, celebrate it, and go out to lunch more often. 

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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