In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Charles Bililies.
Charles Bililies wasn’t originally planning to get into the restaurant business. He knew how difficult the field could be from watching his grandfather, a Boston chef and restaurateur with whom he shares a name. But, fortunately for the people of San Francisco, he did: In 2014, Bililies opened Souvla, a fast-casual Greek restaurant that is now an enormously popular Bay Area chain that counts first lady Michelle Obama and critics at the San Francisco Chronicle among its fans. Bililies has further parlayed that success into advising food and tech start-ups.
It’s almost hard to believe there was a time when Bililies was worried about being the only culinary school graduate at Cornell without a job lined up. In the following interview, Bililies explains why he finally decided to pursue a culinary career — and how one of his culinary school professors helped him get it kick-started by introducing Bililies to the legendary restaurateur Thomas Keller, whom Bililies served as a culinary assistant for years before opening Souvla. Bililies also shares his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and explains the importance of treating your employees well in the hospitality business.
Eater: What was your first job and what did it involve?
Charles Bililies: By my last semester of Cornell, I was perhaps one of the only students who didn’t have a job lined up. I was struggling with what to do; how could I combine my culinary background working the line or in a hotel banquet kitchen with this business degree? At the time I was a teaching assistant for Giuseppe Pezzotti, one of Cornell’s food and beverage management professors and a living legend who has taught so many amazingly successful people in our business. I was sitting in his office one afternoon, mentioning my concern of being the only student to graduate without a job. In his Italianate and wise way, he simply said, “Well, who do you want to work for? Who do you really admire and respect?” I quickly said, “Thomas Keller.” At that moment, he picked up the phone and dialed the French Laundry.
It was a total right place, right time situation. A few months later, after a series of phone interviews, emails, a spring break trip with a buddy to eat at the French Laundry (while all our friends were in Cancun), and an in-person interview at Per Se, I became Thomas Keller’s first culinary assistant.
That job was pretty intense, but also pretty amazing. No two days were the same, aside from typing and printing the menu (which changed daily and went through three rounds of proofs and revisions). It was everything from flying with Thomas to assist him with cooking demos to managing the stagiaires (interns) to project-managing a construction project or fabrication of a custom kitchen piece to planning and executing offsite events like the organization’s first Culinary Summit. I think the best part is that, to my knowledge, the position still exists within the restaurant group.
What does your job involve?
At the moment, my job exists simultaneously in the weeds and up in the clouds. In the weeds, because I still love the creative process and continuing to iterate and grow the Souvla brand, so I’m very hands-on with special projects, collaborations, and development opportunities. In the clouds, because I am so fortunate to have an amazing, talented team now running our restaurants day-to-day. In that respect, I am now more in a support role, empowering these individuals to operate our restaurants and providing input, guidance, and resources when needed.
On any given day it can vary — from attending restaurant manager meetings or profit and loss reviews to teaching a class on Greek wine to taste-testing products for a brand collaboration to touring future restaurant spaces to driving our vintage frozen Greek yogurt truck to an event to speaking on an industry panel. No two days are the same and I love every single one of them.
What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
It’s sort of funny, because despite growing up in a food-focused family — always around food, cooking, and always out to eat (My first spoken sentence, no joke, was ordering lunch at a restaurant) — I sort of swore off that profession. My grandfather was a chef and owned restaurants in and around Boston and, though he passed away before I started my career, he was fairly explicit about how brutal the business was — the hours and the back-breaking work.
In high school, I ran cross country, skied, raced mountain bikes, and worked as a bike mechanic. I wanted to be outdoors, so after high school, I went to the University of Vermont as a natural resources major with the thought that I could turn my bike hobby into a profession. On winter break, a bunch of high school buddies got together for New Year’s, and, as always, I was the one who cooked. Midway through trying to cook chicken parm and spaghetti for 30 in a tiny, cramped cabin kitchen — everyone hanging out, trying to taste the food, and help out — the lightbulb went off. I thought, “This is what I love to do. I really love cooking food and making people happy. Why am I not doing this?” I came back from that trip and told my parents I wanted to transfer to culinary school after the school year, and went from there.
You went to both college and culinary school. Would you recommend it?
It’s become somewhat of a running joke now, but my father, every six months or so, will say, “Would you do it again? Would you go to Johnson and Wales? Would you go to Cornell?” The short answer is yes, I would. Do you need to? Of course not. Did both provide a tremendous technical foundation to build off of and open incredible doors for me within the industry? Absolutely.
What would you have done differently at school or paid more attention to?
I think something that doesn’t get spoken much about is the fixation on grades or one’s grade point average, especially in college. Do you know how many times I’ve been asked by a potential employer or, well, anyone really what my GPA was? Zero.
I have always been a proponent of the philosophy that you get out what you put in. Take classes that you’re genuinely interested in, ask lots of questions, get to know your professors, join clubs, and attend the non-required seminars and guest lectures.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
I’m sure this parallel exists in other professions, but in the beginning most kitchens wouldn’t hire me for a cook position without any prior experience, but I couldn’t gain any experience if I didn’t have a job in a kitchen. It’s somewhat of a double-edged sword. That was one of the advantages of going to culinary school; once I had a few classes under my belt and gained the trust of some instructors, I was able to get my foot in the door.
When was the first time you felt successful?
I’m certainly very proud of what we’ve built at Souvla and so grateful to those who come to work every day and believe in our vision. I must say, though, paying our investors back just one year after opening our first restaurant felt pretty damn good.
Did you have any setbacks? What were they?
So. Many. Setbacks. Honestly, we deal with setbacks each and every week still; we’re just better equipped to deal with them.
Certainly, an early one in my career was when I left the Napa Valley to move down to San Francisco, because I really wanted to learn the development side of the restaurant business: how to create a concept, build a brand, and stuff like that. I landed in the city without a job, but a bunch of promising interviews with several growing restaurant groups. This was the fall of 2008, and shortly after my move, the economy crashed and everyone’s projects were on hold. In better times, this mythical development role I was seeking could have been a possibility, but all that quickly disappeared. The silver lining was that Michael Mina was looking for a culinary assistant and I knew how to do that.
With any modern restaurant, setbacks are always a thing, no matter how big or experienced you are. So much of it is keeping cool under pressure, not letting the person, agency, or incident control you and taking a solutions-focused approach.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
I had spent most of my 20s working for great chefs and operators like Thomas Keller and Michael Mina, dedicating basically all of my time and energy to them and their organizations. As I was nearing 30, I had somewhat of a realization that if I was going to continue to work as hard as I was and keep up that level of commitment, I was going to do it for myself.
What were the most important skills that got you to this point in your career?
Work ethic was certainly a big one. Growing up with entrepreneurs as parents who ran their (non-food) businesses out of the house, hustling and work was a way of life. They wore all the hats and did all of the things. Their life was work, but they loved what they did, so it really didn’t seem like work, and they approached it with the same zeal then as they do now.
With that entrepreneur mentality comes a certain degree of fearlessness, a willingness to jump in and get your hands dirty. When I first told my parents that I was going to resign from my stable, well-paying management job and open my own place, they were against it. I had to remind both of them that they did the exact same thing when they were my age. Heredity is a crazy thing.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field? How has that made a difference?
The first real mentor I had when I was cooking was Scott Crawford, who I met while doing my culinary externship at the Ritz-Carlton. He was the chef of their fine dining restaurant and took me under his wing, going so far as offering me a role in the restaurant he later went on to helm and letting me stay in his spare room for several months before I went to Cornell. Not only did he open my eyes to the world of fine dining, but he gave me many of the tools and principles to be a better and more focused cook and culinary professional. He’s gone on to open several incredibly successful restaurants of his own in North Carolina. I couldn’t be more grateful for his willingness to set a young, cocky culinary graduate straight — and setting me up for success.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
There are too many to list, but if I had to pick one, it’s watching the many women and men on our team grow and develop as leaders in our restaurants and in the field overall. The dining rooms of our five restaurants are run by two women, both of whom started at Souvla in entry-level roles over five years ago and now oversee the restaurant operations. To watch them embrace new challenges, find their respective voices as leaders, and mentor the next generation of Souvla talent is truly remarkable. I’m so proud of them and everyone on our team who sees the big picture and embraces the belief that you can have a rewarding career at Souvla.
What would surprise people about your job?
One of the big things that people don’t know about restaurateurs, or restaurant operators, is the level of understanding they need to have about a wide variety of subjects. Most people simply think that to run a restaurant well, you’ve got to know about food, wine, and service (more or less). In reality, you have to have an above-average understanding (and/or learn quickly) about things like plumbing, HVAC, contract negotiation, networking (internet, computers, and people), architecture, graphic design, social media, general contracting, structural engineering, computers, and, well, the list goes on.
What’s one of the coolest things you’ve gotten to do?
A few years back, someone emailed the restaurant asking if we could deliver food to a private airstrip for a flight out of San Francisco. The person mentioned that their guest had Souvla delivered to them while on previous visits to the city, and had specifically requested it for her and her team for their flight home. That “guest” turned out to be first lady Michelle Obama. While I didn’t get to meet her, she did graciously write us a thank you note that hangs in our office.
How are you making change in your industry?
One of the core tenets I had when structuring and growing the Souvla brand was to prioritize work-life balance — to reject the notion that working in restaurants required this absurd machismo of priding yourself in how many hours you worked, how long of a “stretch” of days you had worked, etc. At Souvla, every employee has two days off per week (consecutive if preferred), and no employee — management included — works more than 45 to 50 hours per week. Considering we’re a seven day a week operation open to the public 11 hours a day, it requires a larger management team than most operations in our space. But it allows us to recruit top-tier, full-service restaurant talent looking for the next step in their career, and who place a priority on their happiness both at work and outside of it.
The restaurant business, like everything in the hospitality space, is a people business. We are a team of 180-plus women and men who take care of thousands of guests every day. Human interaction is a critical part of the guest experience, whether they are dining in or taking away. A tired, overworked, or otherwise unhappy counter server or food runner can very easily taint the guest experience, and from there it’s a domino effect, ultimately impacting productivity, revenue, and profitability. This prioritization, as well as providing benefits like paid vacation, paid meal breaks, health insurance, and a 401K plan, are all part of creating an extraordinary place to work, even at our (relatively) small size.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
It was always instilled in me to go out and work for the absolute best people, brands, or companies that you possibly can, and in as many fitting roles as possible, absorbing everything along the way and volunteering to take on more. My career (so far) has spanned kitchens, dining rooms, offices, and everything in between. Those experiences have only given me a better understanding of every part of the restaurant development process and given me more empathy for every single role that exists in a restaurant organization.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Write a business plan. It’s a really important exercise that helps inform so much about who you are, what you want, and how seriously you want it. It took several years and countless iterations of the Souvla business plan to get it to a point where I was ready to share with peers and prospective investors and start to raise capital, but that time helped me really refine the concept and the vision.
The second bit of advice — and I’ve said it a few times to my amazing wife, Jen Pelka, who owns and operates the Riddler Champagne bars in San Francisco and New York — is that life happens outside your comfort zone. I took a huge leap in leaving my job to start Souvla, and that in and of itself took years to get off the ground. That was me going out on my own, which was incredibly scary, but it was only then when I really got to experience what is now such an important part of my life.
Starting and growing a restaurant brand from the ground up is not for the faint of heart. It’s a long, involved, and painful process that, for better or worse, never really ends. Having said that, it’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, and I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else.