Sitting in the office of Chef Charles Sémail, you might think you could pigeonhole him as a traditional small-town French chef. Framed pictures cover one wall, from black-and-white family photos in a pasture to smiling faces in restaurant kitchens.
Another wall boasts a large map of the wine-producing areas of Bordeaux. Near the door hangs a classic black beret.
Yet a glance to the right shows a large window overlooking an expansive modern kitchen filled with gleaming stainless steel and a small army of hard-working cooks.
While he describes his career in an unmistakable French accent, everything about Chef Charles today is 100% American entrepreneur.
The owner of Chef Charles Catering grew into the kitchen in the familiar way. “Mother was cooking all the time for a family of six [children],” he says. “I used to live on a farm,” he continues, indicating one of the aforementioned photos. “That’s me with my grandpa and the sheep.”
Ok, so maybe his roots do boast some of that small-town soil. But early on he was ready to change things up, switching from an academic track to a trade program at age 14. Four years later he received his certification in charcuterie, and moved on to his first food job: cooking for officers during his required year of military service.
After the army, the only constant in Sémail’s varied career was food – from a butcher shop on the Ile de Ré on the Atlantic coast (where he met his wife Pascale), to a ski resort in the French Alps, and a Michelin-starred restaurant in Dublin (where the couple married). The newlyweds briefly settled on Ile de Ré, running a small restaurant on the summer resort island, but Charles’ feet still itched.
“Ile de Ré was good, but at that time it was good for two months a year,” he says. “We were young… and it’s always like that. You don’t always like the city or the village you grew up in, you want to go see different things.”
So at age 25, he found himself a position at a hotel restaurant in Palm Beach, FL. He bounced back and forth for a few years between France and the US before coming to a conclusion. “I said to Pascale, ‘You know what? I truly want to do my career in America.’ The life is not easy, but it’s so much better; so much less complicated.”
Family connections found them a place in Los Angeles, but the Northridge Earthquake in 1994 convinced the couple, then with a 2-year old son, to move elsewhere. “We put the map on the floor and picked six different cities,” he says. Charlotte, “green and growing,” was the winner.
About six years after doing the usual chef’s rotation through various jobs, from Dean & Deluca to Quail Hollow Country Club, he set off on his own. In 2002, Chef Charles Catering was born in the kitchen of Forest Hill Church. Two years later Sémail graduated to his own space and hired business manager Sylvain Gaudron, who still works with him today.
In less than five years, Sémail expanded to an even larger kitchen, buying a building and hiring a larger staff. There was only one hitch in this growth: that last move was in 2008, in the face of the Great Recession, which cut his business nearly in half. But the chef’s determination and industry contacts kept him afloat.
“The Panthers and the markets saved my business,” he says. That year Sémail won the contract for the tailgating Villages around Bank of America Stadium, filling dozens of tents with high-quality fare for corporate guests. He also entered the local farmers’ markets, selling pâtés, baguettes and other prepared foods in Davidson and Matthews. Another wing of business, Chef Charles Inflight Catering service, provides restaurant-quality food for private and corporate jets.
Across all these outlets, Sémail has mastered everything from elevated, seasonal plates to real smoked Carolina barbeque and fixin’s. But he is also generous with his knowledge, readily hiring students from both Johnson & Wales and the nearby Art Institute.
“When I worked for him, I was really impressed by his breadth of knowledge, and never felt talked down to or taken for granted,” says PCG Vice Chair Terra Ciotta, now a Chef Instructor at the Art Institute. Three of her former students currently work for Sémail.
Today Sémail and his wife split time between their homes on the Ile de Ré and in Charlotte.
While he will never shake the French soil from his soul, his new love of the Panthers and efforts to foster the next generation of chefs make it clear that Chef Charles’ Carolina roots have grown deep and strong.
“I have great people working with me,” he says. “They don’t work for me. They are working with me, and I work for them. We all work together.”
Profile written by Alison Leininger