According to the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, 30,480 people work in the food service industry in Charleston. That's 10.3 percent of the working population cutting, frying, greeting, sweeping, and serving this city's limitless appetite. And yet, even with the pages upon pages of copy dedicated to reporting on the Holy City's culinary scene, the supporting staffers often get little more than a footnote. So we decided to talk to five food and bev veterans on what life is like making a living in one of the city's biggest industries.
Meet the man who kept Rue de Jean's bar patrons happy for 15 years
Nights of revelry blanketed in thick layers of cigarette smoke, the sounds of boozy merriment spilling onto Upper King. Hearing the description, one might think Stephen Smoak was reminiscing about a recent night at A.C.'s. But no, he's talking about 39 Rue de Jean at a time when John Street was the wild west of the peninsula. An era when Rue was like a Roaring '20s brasserie filled with Friends haircuts. At least that's how Smoak remembers it. He'd know, he's been tending bar there since 2000.
"It was crazy," Smoak recalls with a mischievous grin. "Yes, ma'am, I could tell you a lot of stories."
Sitting at Kudu on a breezy December day, those years of late-night mayhem seem a distant dream, especially in light of the hour. It's 9 a.m. and Smoak has just dropped off his daughter at Buist Elementary School. Yes, long gone are the post-shift ragers, like that time his buddy decided to play human Frogger on King Street and lept onto the roof of an unmanned car. "Oh, he flattened it," Smoak says laughing. His years of wild behavior are probably why Smoak is so confused by this interview.
"When you contacted me for this article, you said it was about unsung heroes, but I thought, unsung heroes? More like unsung outlaws," he says.
As it turns out, Smoak is a little bit of both — a hero and an outlaw; a fly fisherman, a bartender, and a father too. He's also about as Lowcountry as they come with sirs and ma'ams rolling off his tongue with such a thick drawl you'd think his vocal chords had been cured in pluff mud; he's one of those folks you hear about from time to time, but rarely ever see. You know, a real local.
"Back in the day we were all from Charleston, be it Summerville or West Ashley," Smoak says. "Now everybody's started coming in and you have your J.I.s and Folly Beach and Mt. Pleasant. It's all changed a lot. Snee Farms used to seem like a long way away."
Smoak grew up in Park Circle, but after high school he moved downtown. "I lived on Cannon Street when you didn't live on Cannon Street," he says. That's when he first began working at Mesa Grill, a restaurant that used to be on the Market
In his younger years Smoak navigated a handful of local restaurant jobs. "I worked at Mesa, then moved to Columbia and opened Mr. Friendly's Cafe," he says. But it wasn't long before the Atlantic drew him home. A friend told him about a new French place way up on King that was looking for a bar manager. Smoak got the job.
"It is nothing like it was," he says thinking back on Rue's early days. "There was literally nothing up here. My buddies were like, 'You're gonna get robbed.' In fact, Smoak did have some close calls like the night he got knocked out with a water glass.
"There was a benefit party down the street serving liquor," he begins. As the party let out, guests arrived at Rue and Smoak found himself facing a drunk patron asking for a Bud Light and a pack of Camel cigarettes.
"I said, 'Man, I can give you the Camel Lights, but I can't give you the beer. You're more than welcome to smoke and hang out, no big deal,'" Smoak recalls. But the guest had other ideas and managed to secure a Heineken from the other bartender. "So I grab it and throw it away," says Smoak. "I say, 'Dude, I told you, I'm not allowing you to drink in here. It's not gonna happen.'"
Smoak offered the guy a glass of water instead. Bad choice. All of a sudden, a gibraltar glass was flying at Smoak's face.
"It crushes me right here through my forehead," Smoak says indicating with cigarette in hand. "So I'm like, 'Get the fuck out of here.' Then he pops me."
Smoak spun like a cartoon character. "The reason I know how hard he hit me is because we had a coat rack and I turned and was like, 'Huh, those are nice coats,'" he laughs.
Punched and bleeding, Smoak turned around to the hammered patron and said, "Motherfucker, it's on."
Swinging into the middle of the floor, the bartender and man boxed it out. "I'm calling to my bar partner — the godfather to my daughter," Smoak says. "Well, he dives over the bar, lands on both of us, my arm hits the hardwood floor and pops out of socket."
Not finished with the fight however, Smoak went in for a final punch. "I wanted to hit him so bad and I went to swing at him and my arm was kinda like the Matrix or Bionic Man and it wraps around my head. I'm like, 'Motherfucker!'"
Now bleeding, and lame, Smoak watched as the drunk guy ran out the door. "I'm calling 911 with my good hand. I'm like, 'I need officers now at 39 Rue de Jean.'" Craig Nelson of Proof, Rue's then-manager took off, chasing the guy down the street. The cops eventually arrived. "They arrested him," Smoak says. "But I told the ambulance, 'Don't carry me out on a stretcher. We're three deep at the bar. I don't want to be carried off on the stretcher. I can hold my arm.'"
He pauses, then says, "And that was my craziest night at Rue."
Today, things have calmed down. Until last month when he finally decided to retire from the French restaurant, you were more likely to see Smoak making small talk with a regular than deflecting blows from a shit-faced patron. And that suited him just fine. Smoak never got into F&B for its often exaggerated reputation for crazy. No, he chose the business for two reasons: the freedom and his love of making people happy.
One might suggest, as we did, that the job of bartender is, more often than not, part therapist, but Smoak disagrees.
"To be honest, people are part therapist for me," he says, eyes pooling. "I just love making people smile."
And don't ever go telling Smoak that bartending is an undignified career.
"I had a guy who said, 'Man, it's gotta be a hard life, you doing what you do,'" Smoak remembers. "And I said, "What'd you do today? He's like, 'Well' — he's a sales rep — 'I spent five hours driving from Atlanta to Charleston.' Then he basically told me my job sucked."
"I said, 'You know what I did today?' I said, 'I was fly fishing this morning ... What were you doing?' People don't understand."
You see Smoak never bought into the sitcom-guy lifestyle. You know the "Honey, I'm home. What's for dinner?" kind of man.
"Most guys they do their nine to five, come home at 5 p.m., and put the kids to bed," he says. "I got to spend nine hours with mine. People think you're staying up doing cocaine and drinking all night," he says of the F&B life. "It's not that way."
Of course, that's not to say there weren't some crazy nights as his bar fight memory will attest. But, Smoak says, "When you get older, you just go home. A bourbon tastes just as good on the back porch as it does in a bar. That's the way it is — wholesome." He takes a drag.
"Well sorta wholesome," he adds looking at his cigarette.
Maybe there is a little bit of outlaw left in this longtime, everyman barkeep. —Kinsey Gidick
The General Manager
Nearly a decade at Oak Steakhouse honed Michelle Pavlakos' knack for hospitality
Michelle Pavlakos has seen her share of roses come in and out of Oak Steakhouse. Birthdays, Valentine's Day, anniversaries — the flowers are as common at the restaurant as a side béarnaise. But it's not so often that the general manager gets a bouquet. Perhaps that's why she sums up her eight-and-a-half years at the restaurant with the story of a fresh-faced Citadel cadet who arrived for dinner with his family on the eve of his first day as a knob.
"He was the most timid young man I had ever met," she recalls. Over the next four years, whenever his parents would come to town, the family would visit Oak together. When he graduated, they celebrated at Oak and greeted Pavlakos with a rose.
"That was such an amazing moment," says Pavlakos. "He grew up with me."
"Michael Jordan, that was his name," recalls Jackson Holland, a former Oak server (and the former manager of The Cocktail Club). He remembers the cadet well. "Michelle nourished that relationship every time his family came in." And that, Holland says, has been the key to Pavlakos success. "Her respect for Oak's customers, whether they were new or and lifelong patrons, was almost unparalleled," he says. Why the "was"? After moving from hostess to GM of the tony chophouse, Pavlakos has been promoted to GM for Indigo Road's latest project — The Cigar Factory's Mercantile, Mash, and Cedar Room, a gourmet food, retail, bar, and event space.
"What drew me to her was her super outgoing demeanor and professional appearance," says Steve Palmer, managing partner of Indigo Road. The irony is, Pavlakos admits she's not a great small-talker, and she had to learn how to quell her Greek temper and instead offer a smiling face around "all types of attitudes." Not always the easiest task. Even at the upscale restaurants where she's built a career, Pavlakos has dealt with her share of belligerent drunks and hostile guests — even audible sex in the bathroom.
"Adapt and overcome — that's become my motto," she laughs.
The ultimate general manager mantra — adapt, overcome, and wait for those truly amazing moments, like her favorite: when, after a perfect dinner, a husband glances over to tell her "'thank you' with his eyes." That's the good stuff. —Stratton Lawrence
71-year-old Angelo Bevilacqua is still serving up la dolce vita at La Fontana
When Angelo Bevilacqua comes to your table at La Fontana, a cozy, dimly lit, small Italian eatery in West Ashley, you instantly feel respect for him. Maybe it's his calm demeanor, maybe his thick Italian accent, maybe his debonair grey mustache, or maybe he reminds you of Italian-American actor Don Ameche. Whatever the reason, his slow, deliberate cadence is charming.
What you might not know, and few do, is that Angelo Bevilacqua is a trained executive chef who has worked all over the world, from nine-star hotels in Dubai to jobs in Genoa, Italy, and Boston. He owned restaurants on the Isle of Palms and Edinburgh, Scotland, and he once hitchhiked from southern Europe to Scandinavia. This is a man of the world, an experienced chef, working as a waiter in a small suburban eatery on Highway 17 South. How did this come to be?
"I'm an old guy," he says with a spry wink indicating there's still plenty of fire within. "I've been 50 years in this industry, and I'm still alive and kicking. But I no longer want to work in the kitchen. Being in charge of the cuisine is like the Japanese hara-kiri, the suicide system with the knife in the stomach. In aging, I lost my ability to be in a very intense kitchen. Here in the front-of-the-house, I am free. I do as I like."
Bevilacqua grew up in Taranto, Italy, a 2,000-year-old port city. His father wanted him to become a lawyer. When he chose instead to pursue a six-year degree in culinary arts, economics, and administration, his father didn't speak to him for a year. After two marriages and educating his four children, Bevilacqua came to Charleston, just after Hurricane Hugo, and opened a sushi restaurant on the Isle of Palms. His restaurant closed. Charlestonians weren't ready. How things have changed.
His return to restaurants began at, of all places, TJMaxx. While shopping, Bevilacqua heard Italian voices and met Chef Gary Langevin and his extended family. The shared heritage resonated with Bevilacqua, since he felt distanced from his own home town. He'd been traveling for too long and no longer felt welcomed in Italy by Italians. "I used to go back. But in Italian culture, if you are not married, and you don't have family or friends there, by culture nobody speaks to a stranger unless introductions are made. Even if you go to a bar, the bartender will ignore you," he says. "I was ignored. I decided not to return. Besides, I have all my children here. I am changed. I am Italian by birth, but by mentality I am complicated."
Later, when Bevilacqua again ran into Langevin shopping at an Asian market in North Charleston, he jokingly asked, "Do you have a job for me?" and Langevin replied, "When do you start?" Together, they opened La Fontana North, then La Fontana in West Ashley, La Fontana in Hilton Head. Bevilacqua helps with administration, management, counseling, but five days a week, he works evening shifts as a server. And he has quite a following.
"Word of mouth travels extremely fast," he says with a bashful shrug. "It's like I am honey, and the flies come to me. People ask for me. It's an honor." And indeed, if you look on TripAdvisor under La Fontana West Ashley, it's a long list of praises for Angelo, Angelo, Angelo.
Does he have his bad days? Sure. "There is lots of sufferance, because the public are like a wet fish. You take the fish from the end, it slides to the tail, and vice versa. You never win with the public, because they can sometimes be pretentious. They don't know anything about me, and I'm not going to open the book [of my life] for them. They are paying guests, and that gives them the freedom to be smart sometimes. Most of the time I ignore. There is no point to argue with ignorance."
Ultimately what keeps Bevilacqua coming back is his view of La Fontana as family. "Sometimes I make a dollar, sometimes I don't. I'm retired, so it's not important to me. I don't live from this by necessity. I'm already established in my life. This is a distraction, although the extra money is convenient because I have sophisticated taste."
It is the interaction with customers that keeps him youthful. "I live alone with my dog, a King Charles cavalier spaniel, a noble dog. I'm quite sure if I stayed home I will die fast. I have been active all my life. I can't change because I'm old. My spirit is young because my environment has always been young." —Allston McCrady
The Sous Chef
Jon Mitchell keeps a keen eye on the details at the Charleston Grill
Charleston's fine-dining kitchens are generally not touchy feely you-can-do-it-kiddo kind of environments. "You walk in there and there's 12 chefs and it's like I gotta bring my A-game," says Jon Mitchell recalling his first days on the line at Peninsula Grill. "You didn't really get told, 'Oh, that dish looks nice,''' Mitchell laughs. "If it got sent out, you knew it was OK."
But it was a great boot camp. It's where the now-sous chef of Charleston Grill acquired his very technical and precise approach to cooking. And after working under Chef Robert Carter — a man known for dumping inconsistent plates in the garbage and the same chef who mentored Jacques Larson and Sean Brock — Mitchell says, "I felt like I was ready to play with the big boys." In 2012 he sent out applications, and Charleston Grill was the first to approach him. Mitchell leaped at the offer, jumping from line cook to sous after just one year. A challenging promotion to say the least.
"Let's just say, I wasn't the best at nurturing an egg so to speak," he says. Managing his own team of 12 cooks took some getting used to. Luckily Executive Chef Michelle Weaver was there to help. Under her tutelage the 28-year-old has learned how to take charge and apparently learned fast. Hiring him, Weaver says, was "one of the best decisions I've made in my career."
"He has one of the strongest work ethics of anyone I have ever worked with in a kitchen," says Weaver. "He never slows down; he never says 'no.' He puts his heart and soul into everything he does. He's the first one here and the last one to leave every day."
Mitchell arrives at the restaurant by 11 a.m. each day. After reviewing the previous night's orders, he does a preliminary prep of each station on the line. From noon until 2 p.m., he and a line cook prepare that night's "proteins," like breaking down whole fish. At 2 p.m., the rest of the line cooks arrive, and Mitchell handles his ordering for the next day, before working with his sous partner Patrick Balcom to get everyone ready for service. It's typically after 11:30 p.m. or so before he heads out the door.
Like many area sous chefs, Mitchell's work weeks frequently tops 60 hours. "I'd work more if they'd let me," he claims. When he does take a break, it's food focused. For a vacation last November, he got a wild hair to see Peter Gabriel in London, so he flew over with his mother and the two spent the week eating and drinking their way through the city, from pub food to high-end dining (Savoy Grill was a highlight, he says), taking notes along the way. Even lazy days at home are spent nerding out on cookbooks.
"That's always my first question when hiring line cooks — What are you reading?" he says. It's the key, Mitchell believes, to developing the craft.
"What inspires me the most are the details of a dining experience, even if you're just coming into the bar to have an appetizer," Mitchell remarks. "Even in the back of the house, we carry ourselves with a demeanor that shows our care and love for the food. When a new guy comes in, the first thing we ingrain in their brain is the idea of 'complete perfection.'"
And that eye for detail means his biggest moments of joy at work occur when he walks up to the window and sees a dish prepared by one of his cooks that appears flawless in every way.
If that sounds like a high-pressure job, it is. But that's the standard in a city teeming with talent. And that behind-the-scenes force of eager young sous are who keep our star chefs in the limelight.
"No chef stands alone," says Weaver. "The executive chef may be the face you recognize, but the sous chefs and cooks are the ones making the chef's vision happen every day, plate after plate." —Stratton Lawrence
The Prep Team Member
The Tom Petty of FIG is a 90-pound woman
The last time FIG prep team member Lucy Becerra saw her parents was 17 years ago. Poor and under-educated, Becerra left her small town in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico to move to the United States. She was 26.
The tale, like that of so many immigrants who come to this country looking for better opportunities, sounds familiar.
"I came to help my parents a little bit, so they could live better," she explains through translator and City Paper staff writer Paul Bowers.
And yet her boss Mike Lata, co-owner of FIG and chef of The Ordinary, will be the first to tell you that in fact, Becerra's story is different.
"Lucy," Lata says, "is unique."
When the petite 4'11 woman was hired at FIG eight years ago, she only had a little F&B experience — two years at a North Charleston Mexican restaurant. But the job wasn't the right fit and she was hoping to find something else.
"My sister worked in a Mexican store," Becerra recalls. "Two people came in looking for people. My sister talked to them and to me, and told them 'My sister is looking for work.'" The two people were from a contract company FIG hired to find unskilled labor — dishwashers, janitors, etc. Becerra got the job and soon began handling a variety of duties at FIG from mopping the floors to breaking down produce boxes.
"About nine months after she started, she came to me one day," Lata recalls. "She said, 'I need some time off.' I said, 'Sure. Why?' And Lucy said, 'Because I'm going to have a baby.'"
Lata was stunned. "We had no idea she was pregnant," he says. "She didn't have this massive belly. Literally, we didn't know she was pregnant until three weeks before she had her baby."
But that's just how Becerra operates. "She rarely ever asks us for anything," says Lata. "In this business there are a whole host of people who are so incredibily high maintenance that ask for so much — the very privileged prototypical college student who comes in the door. But she doesn't complain at all."
One possible explanation for her low-key attitude: when one finds themselves working in a Mexican clothing factory at age 15, any job thereafter seems "no es difícil" as Becerra puts it.
Perhaps that's why Becerra is the second longest standing employee at arguably one of Charleston's most esteemed restaurants. "Day in and day out, thick and thin, she's been steady and great and gracious and happy and sweet," says Lata.
Like many unknown support staff who quietly serve in Charleston kitchens, Becerra has been one of the key factors in helping make the restaurant a success.
"She's so ingrained in the system, we think of her as like a manager," explains Executive Chef Jason Stanhope. "It's like asking a rock star to perform 365 days a year. It's crazy what Lucy can get done."
Take an average Friday. Lucy steps into the kitchen at 9 a.m There she's one of the first people to greet the various purveyors who grace FIG's backdoor.
"We receive vegetables from a ton of different people," Stanhope says. "We only get produce straight from the source — dirty and unfabricated." And because of that, it's Becerra's job to not only sort the various carrots and cucumbers, but to make sure they're washed, cleaned, and broken down properly. Sounds simple enough. But don't forget this is FIG, where freshly picked beets are treated with the same care typically reserved for newborn babes.
Together with Stanhope, Becerra and the prep team taste and decide how each vegetable should be treated for that day. "Say we get baby radishes, she helps me decide if we should leave the tops on them or if the greens are tender enough to leave the stem on or whether we should use them for a raw application," Stanhope explains. The choices are not taken lightly. And Stanhope says it's Becerra's thoughtful dedication to her role, just as much as his own cooking talent, that helps keep FIG's menu so consistent. Meanwhile her sweet disposition buoys the kitchen staff.
"Lucy is just a beacon of how the day is going to go," explains Stanhope. "The cooks walk in and she's the first person they see. She sets the tone for the whole day."
That's right, Becerra, a single mother of two who speaks little English, never went to school, and travels by bus to work sets the tone for FIG every day.
"It's like when Tom Petty comes on and everyone starts smiling, that's what it's like when Lucy comes in," says Stanhope.
And the staff agrees, her smile and positive attitude are omnipresent, even in tough times.
When Becerra mentions that her father passed away a few years ago, Bowers translates, "Did you go home for the funeral?" Lucy says no. "I have two kids," she explains. "I have to work very hard for them. My daughter needs a lot of help in school. She takes a lot of pills because she's very hyperactive."
But even though Becerra's father is gone, she still sends money home to her 85-year-old mother. She's their only child who can afford to do so.
"When I got here, I prayed, 'Dear Lord help me provide for my parents,'" she says. "This job has always provided that."
But there must be some hard parts? The mopping? The dishwashing? The high-pressure atmosphere of a restaurant named one of the nation's best year in and year out.
Becerra just shakes her head no and gives an unassuming shrug. "No he encontrado nada difícil todavía," she says meaning. "I haven't found anything hard yet."
It appears many people's idea of hard work — this writer's included — is just, well, work to Becerra. And that's even more apparent when Stanhope describes her actions on a light prep day. When there aren't boxes of veggies to chop or dishes to organize, the chef says he'll often find the tiny woman crouched behind the dish pit scrubbing the pipes. "I don't have to ask her," he says. "She just does it."
Looking at this petite woman — who, if you'd walked into FIG on any other morning could easily be dismissed as just another cog in the restaurant's wheel — I'm reminded of a quote from FDR: "Remember, remember always, that all of us, you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists."
Becerra is a good reminder.
Stanhope sums it up best. "There are leaders and followers," he says. "Lucy is a great follower, but because of her silent and humble demeanor she's such a good leader."
We close by asking Becerra one final question, something that I'm sure all immigrants must ponder when they weigh the life they've made abroad against the life they've left behind. Bowers translates, "Lucy, have the opportunities at FIG been what you were looking for in America?"
Becerra smiles, "Sí." —Kinsey Gidick