When Charlie Mitchell — executive chef at the newly-Michelin-starred Clover Hill restaurant in Brooklyn Heights — learned that he was the first and only Black chef to helm a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City, he was surprised, but it only intensified his career ambition.
“I used to always say that I wanted to be the first Black chef with three stars because I had never realized that none of us even had one star,” Mitchell said. “I thought it was normal! But when I learned that I would be the first [or second nationally] I thought it was crazy, though I can think of a number of reasons why. […] Now you feel special enough to be someone that people can look up to as an example.”
Clover Hill opened in Feb. 2022 serving seafood and produce-focused upscale American cuisine with dishes like Maine uni topped with caviar, as part of a $175 tasting menu. When the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star this fall, Mitchell became not only the first Black executive chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York, but also only the second Black chef nationally to earn that accolade.
Mitchell grew up in Detroit and got his culinary training on the job at restaurants in his hometown instead of going to culinary school. After deciding he wanted to go into fine dining, Mitchell left Detroit, since the city was really not a hotbed of high-end culinary activity, and then began working at restaurants in San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, D.C., before coming back to New York again one last time. At this point in his career, Mitchell has an impressive resume, with sous chef and executive sous chef positions under his belt at Eleven Madison Park, Jônt, Bresca, Villanelle, and One White Street.
When Clover Hill cofounder Clay Castillo asked him to head the kitchen at the Brooklyn restaurant, it became Mitchell’s first-ever executive chef position where he was truly in charge of the menu creation and execution.
“I came back to One White Street for a short time as executive sous chef but I was really ready to be on my own instead of executing someone else’s [menu vision],” he said. “Clay texted me when I was ready to quit my job. It was very much a timing thing. […] Some owners will tell you exactly what to do, but with Clay, we picked out everything together, from the wineglasses to the ingredients.”
When asked how Clover Hill was able to secure a Michelin star so quickly after opening, Mitchell attributed the success to a good PR team, a feature in the New York Times and their policy of integrity, even when the restaurant was slow on foot traffic.
“I remember we had to close a couple of Wednesdays and Thursdays because we had zero covers,” he said. “It was hard […] But we felt we had a great product and made sure we stood behind it whether we had two parties dining in the restaurant a night, or now when we have 60.”
Mitchell’s modesty might attribute the success of Clover Hill to good publicity, but his ingredients-focused vision is the heartbeat of the restaurant. Mitchell creates each dish on the menu at Clover Hill backward: starting with an in-season, local ingredient and creating a dish around it, rather than the other way around. Right now, mushrooms dominate his cuisine, including lobster and trumpet mushrooms as he attempts every day to “cook what the Earth is telling us is in season.”
But as one of only two Black chefs nationally recognized by the Michelin guide, is it lonely at the top? Mitchell said he hopes to be an example for other young chefs of color in the industry so that reaching the pinnacle of the restaurant industry can seem more attainable to other young Black chefs from Detroit like him.
“I think many chefs of color, maybe they get their foot in the door as a sous chef or something and they go and open up something more casual in their hometown,” he said. “And maybe they don’t stick with fine dining. I don’t think I’m the first Black chef [in the fine dining world] […] I just stayed the course and waited for my opportunity.”
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