Charlie Parker, 29, launched his culinary career under the tutelage of David Kinch of Manresa. Working with Kinch and eventually with Jeremy Fox at Napa's Ubuntu, Parker eventually landed the executive chef position at Jeff Weinstein's (The Counter Burger) passion project, Freddy Smalls Bar + Kitchen. The dimuitive gastropub fills in a huge gap for a relatively under served part of West L.A., with farm-to-table cuisine that's unpretentious, fresh, and inventive. Learning from his mentors, Parker brings a Bay-Area aesthetic of hearty flavors fused with the incredible produce of L.A., where things like house-made charcuterie, thin-sliced rib steak sandwiches, and fried brussels sprouts rule the roost. Below, the Eater Young Guns semi-finalist discusses his path to Freddy Smalls and his future plans.
What was it like working with David Kinch at Manresa?
It was great. At first he was very hard on me. He broke you down. It was a very intense kitchen, or it used to be at the time. I started there when it had only been open for a year, at the beginning of 2004. The restaurant was trying to get press and recogniton in a very different part of the Bay Area. He was actually at Freddy Smalls last week for the first time while on a layover on route to Australia. We have a great relationship. He's a friend, and almost like a father figure for me. I owe him so much.
How high did you move up in that kitchen, and what was it like working at an institution like that?
I became the sous chef. There was product that I never saw again. Coming straight out of culinary school, it was great to work with guys like Jeremy Fox, James Syhabout (Commis). Deanie Fox was the pastry chef at the time. There were a lot of great people working in that kitchen. There was some crazy shit at that restaurant, like when Ridge did an entire vertical of their Monte Bello wine from the late 1960s to present today, all with large format bottles. It was pretty cool.
After Manresa, where did you go?
I tried to get a position at the Fat Duck in London, but there was an issue with my visa. I ended up coming right back to Manresa to work for another year before going to the Village Pub in Woodside, which has a Michelin star. It was a totally different kitchen from Manresa. I wanted to experience something other than fine dining, the whole restaurant experience. You can't just be a spoiled brat. I was paid very well at the Village Pub to be a line cook.
What was the next step?
I worked at a butcher shop in Santa Cruz for six months. It was a great experience, working closely with Jim Dunlop from TLC Ranch, which is a pig ranch. We were doing everything, fully fabricating them until the USDA found out and told us we had to slaughter them at a certified slaughterhouse. I learned butchering, as well as making charcuterie, pâtés, curing meats, and more. From there Jeremy Fox and I went to work at Ubuntu, which was weird because I went from butchering pigs to working at a vegetarian restaurant.
What are some of the challenges you've had because of your age?
It's hard to come into kitchens and take over. You have to be a complete ball-buster to do it. There was definitely a lot of push back when I became the chef at Plum in Oakland. It's such a young man's profession anyway.
How do you think Freddy Smalls fits in the L.A. dining scene?
I like it fits with the whole bar scene. LA's big on the bar scene right now, which I don't know how long that's going to last. Cocktails have exploded, they've progressed. There are "bar chefs." I feel like San Francisco is a little more progressive than L.A., and I've noticed that there was a big cocktail trend there, and it's coming back to wine, due to the fact that it's closer to Napa Valley. I think it'll start turning around again. I don't care what anyone else says, but cocktails do not pair as well with food. Cocktails are their own experience, their own beautiful thing, and tends to overshadow the food. Wine goes together better with food.
What about the food at Freddy Smalls? Did you come here with your own thoughts, or did you want to try and fit in with what was going on with the scene?
I didn't really know the L.A. dining scene. I knew Josiah Citrin's food at Melisse. I know Ludo Lefebvre because he did some dinners at Manresa. I've eaten at Animal, but that was only reference I had in L.A. Now that I've been down here, I feel like L.A. is awesome. It's so diverse, so many different cuisines going on. I feel like the food we do at Freddy Smalls is more normal American compared to what I've been having.
Where do you like eating in L.A?
I love Park's BBQ in Koreatown.
What are your future plans?
I'm going to see how Freddy Smalls does and keep working on it.
What are some dishes you can never take off the menu? What are your signature dishes?
The buffalo deviled eggs and the brussels sprouts. One of those dishes is going to every single table.
Do you feel like Freddy Smalls is where you want it to be?
I'm never satisfied. We'll always have certain dishes on the menu, but since I'm here in the kitchen all the time, I constantly want to progress. The menu will change with seasons, I'll source better produce and meat. You're trying to reach perfection even though it's impossible to attain. This is food that I like to eat, my more casual side, but I think eventually I'm going to have a fine dining restaurant.