“I’m just a sous chef from Chicago…but now I feel like I’m getting there.”
Executive Chef and Partner of Honey’s Chicago, Charles Welch, deserves to feel an element of accomplishment as he looks back on his still-young career. His name rose to the top quickly enough. Chef Welch attended culinary school on a whim after attempting to spend some time at a local community college. “I didn’t know anything about fine dining other than being sure I wanted to get into it. I played a lot of sports growing up and have a very competitive, aggressive personality. So, I told myself I was just going to go get a fine dining job. I got good at it fast.” So good, in fact, that he got a job offer at mk The Restaurant after staging for just one day.
“You only get one shot at it. Nobody is going to push you along and there’s no timeline.”
From staging and working at mk Chicago to then becoming the sous chef of one of Chicago’s most prestigious restaurants, Sepia, Chef Welch made the scariest leap of all when he shook hands with Justin Furman and Andrew Miller to partner on a new restaurant.
“They were looking for sous chefs in the West Loop area,” Chef Welch explains. “They had gone in to all the different restaurants and tried out the foods. I wanted to take the next step into managing all the way…and we instantly clicked.”
Chef Welch executed a five-course tasting menu at one of their homes and was offered the job almost immediately. Then came the fundraising stage. For two years, the Honey’s Chicago team worked to conceptualize the restaurant and court investors.
“Preparing for a job while you have a job is tough. I’d work long work weeks and then go straight into cooking tasting menus for investor dinners.”
At the time, Chef Welch was working at Sepia. “It was a great opportunity to get my name out,” he says gratefully of his time there. After he left, Sepia helped him out by letting the Honey’s Chicago staff store some things in their storage area. “Never burn bridges,” Chef Welch quipped.
Investor dinners and fundraising wasn’t all that Chef Welch had to concern himself with. “I had a lot of confidence in my food and the space but staffing was my biggest worry,” he mentioned. “Steve, my sous chef, is a rock star but finding staff was tough. It was a race to get open because Roister and Elske were opening at the same time.”
And the staff didn’t just include the for the kitchen. First, the partners had to assemble the initial task force. “You have to get the fire marshal, the electrician, the gas and plumbing, plus all final walk-throughs. Then you go through a health inspection. All this before you can even bring food in.” His tone picked up in pace, which is a feat since Chef Welch is a characteristically speedy talker. “I was nervous people would leave because there were weeks when there wasn’t a lot to do and not a lot of pay to give. I got really emotional about it. I was panicking, basically.”
The week before Honey’s Chicago opened in the spring of 2016, Chef Welch lay awake every night “overthinking everything.” Once a restaurant is open and thriving, few think to acknowledge the emotional and physical toil that went into every little detail outside of the food. “It was a tough gut check for two or three years. Everything they say about this business…well, when you know that you personally helped to screw tables together, [the restaurant] takes on a different viewpoint.”
Chef Welch proved that panic, when productive, can be profitable. Honey’s Chicago opened with a lot of great buzz to carry them through the review season. Most notably was Phil Vittel’s extremely favorable write up in the Chicago Tribune. Chef Welch lit up when discussing it. “I’ve been cooking in this city and reading his reviews for my whole career. And now he’s in my restaurant and I’m being written about. It was incredible. I freaked out. I ran over to my sister, who was eating here that night, to tell her.”
Chef Welch’s competitive nature ensures that diners will keep coming back to new, homey experiences at Honey’s Chicago. From being the reliable hand-raiser in culinary school to demo any new technique, to challenging himself consistently with his own techniques and ingredients, Chef Welch is constantly pushing perfection for himself and his staff. “I love showcasing a good knife skill or blanching technique or puree. We have a lot of young kids in the kitchen and I want them to use classic technique and instinct to make the food. Learn first. Mess around and be fussy later. We maintain the values learned in culinary school.”
Chef Welch’s attitude towards his own career encompasses the same characteristics he looks for from his staff. “I seek out people that just get in there and get their hands dirty.” He laughed and made a reference to the Double Dutch jump rope game. “I tend to avoid the ones that look like they want to jump in but don’t actually do it.”
When it comes to running a business and running a kitchen, Chef Welch has the same mantra: Get Uncomfortable. “So many people are scared to get uncomfortable. Just try it. It’s okay to jump in and screw up.”
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