Chef Charleen Badman's interest in food stems from two unlikely sources: her mom's less-than-stellar cooking and the teenage dream of owning a car. What started as a means to dream fulfillment - regarding both edibility and mobility - grew into a passion for food that has Badman traversing continents and staking out farms.
"I started in a program in high school called FEAST, which stood for Food Education and Service Training, in Tucson where I was born and raised," Badman says. "When I started that program, it was more or less because I wanted a car, but I did like to cook."
After high school and without any formal culinary training beyond FEAST, Badman worked for Donna Nordin at Café Terra Cotta in Tuscon and Scottsdale, Chrysa Robertson at Rancho Pinot on two occasions, and Anne Rosenzweig at Lobster Club in New York City.
Badman partnered with Pavle Milic to open FnB (short for "food and beverage") in the former Sea Saw space in Old Town Scottsdale after years of crossed paths and friendship in the restaurant world. Badman, who was the chef-owner of Inside in New York City for six self-described hard, long years, describes the tumultuous month leading up to FnB's opening, which will be one year ago this Thanksgiving.
Badman recalls their exchange amongst technical and monetary hang-ups last November:
"Pavle, just so you know, you never open a restaurant like this." Badman says. "You never open a restaurant with no money and never trying the food out."
Pavle reassures her, "Sister, it's going to be fine. It'll work out."
"If you say so," Badman responds.
"And it did," Badman says nearly a year later.
Today, Badman opens up about her career trajectory , the penny-pinching leading up to FnB's opening day, her summer vacation food-trek that had her eating her way though the big apple, and the estrogen infusion she'd like to see on the Valley food scene.
What did you eat growing up? I always tell people I don't come from that background where my parents took me to Paris and I ate foie gras when I was seven, fell in love with it, and decided I needed to become a chef. We didn't have a lot of money growing up. I was sick of what we ate. My mother is a very good baker but not a very good cook, and she had us when she was very young. It was more like cans and boxes and a lot of frozen food and a lot of prepackaged food - that was pretty much what we ate. I just remember sitting at the dinner table thinking, "It must be better than this. It can't be like this."
What instigated your move to New York City? I wanted to be out of Arizona, and I wanted to see something different. I saw an ad in Women Chefs & Restaurateurs looking for cooks for a new restaurant that Anne Rosenzweig was opening up [called Lobster Club]. I sent my résumé, and I didn't hear anything back and was sad about it. So Pavle calls the restaurant, gets in touch with the chef, and says he knows someone who really wants to work there, can you give her a call? So they call me, and they said, "We like your résumé and all that, but you live 3,000 miles away. We can't just hire you." I was like, "Okay." So I gave my notice that day and left January 1, 1996, with a couple suitcases. I didn't know anybody. Chris Bianco set it up so that his father would pick me up. His family was living in upstate New York at that time, and I stayed with them for a couple weeks. ... [When Badman arrived at Lobster Club], the chef said, "We don't really have anything available, but why don't you come in on Saturday." I went in, and I remember hearing Anne say, "Hire her. I want all females in the kitchen." So I got the job at the Lobster Club. I was a cook for the first year, the second year I was a sous chef, and the third year I was the chef [de cuisine].
What brought you back to Phoenix? We opened [Inside] February 12, 2001. It was a great time, up until September 11. We were only about a mile away, and it was really hard. I had it for six years, and it was rough: The economy was bad, the wars, and the rent. I was paying $10,000 per month in rent for a 60-seat restaurant. By the time I started making money, the lease was up and the landlord now wanted $15,000 a month in rent. I had to make a business decision. I love New York. I miss I miss it everyday, but I had to ask, "What kind of life is this? I'm working 24 hours a day. And now he's going to take the money that we're making into the rent." I said, I'm not going to keep doing this. I wound up coming back from New York with two suitcases and a lot of paperwork and books. Not a place to stay, not a car, nothing. I lived with Chrysa for the first year I came back. My parents gave me my grandmother's car. I kind of pieced it all together.
Why'd you leave all your stuff? I literally gave the landlord my keys at 5 p.m. and hopped on a plane at 5 a.m. the next morning to come here. I stuffed all my stuff in a bag, I sublet my apartment to a customer who was also a friend of mine, and left. I was like, "Here's the furniture, here's the television. Everything. Vacuum cleaner. Dishes. Keep it!" She thought it was great. It wouldn't fit on the plane. I was done packing. I'd packed all my books and the paperwork of six years of having a restaurant. I don't want any of it. I'll just start over.
How tight was your budget leading up to the opening of FnB? I remember Pavle was running around on Friday buying all the little small-ware things that I needed [before opening Saturday]. He's calling me saying, "Charleen, this scale is $57." And I say, "But I need a scale. I have to weigh the fish and the steaks. Put back one of the garbage cans. We'll buy another garbage can tomorrow." He's like, "Okay." I went to the restaurant supply store every single day for the first week and a half. I'd be there at 9 a.m. The guy is like "Oh you're back." "Yeah, I need an ice cream scoop and some squirt bottles, another garbage can, and a couple sheet trays." Every week we would buy something else.
Best FnB purchase? One month into it, we bought the new [mesquite] grill. I always said that was my Christmas present. And as we've gone along, we try to make a new improvement every month.
What do you miss most New York? My friends. The food. They're equal, but I miss the food so much. I spent my two weeks of vacation in New York. I get to see Anne, and we go out to eat. I see all my friends. I try to do about four meals a day. My best friend lives in Jersey, and she came into the city. We ate at seven restaurants in one day. By the end, I couldn't put anything else in my mouth. I'm having a cocktail at the seventh place. She ordered something small. I couldn't do it. Just to get to talk to people. My group of friends is so into food, most of them work in restaurants. Lots of them either worked at my restaurant or with me at Lobster Club. To see them, hang out, and get to talk about food. And go to the cheese stores. There's not just one cheese store there's five. And I spend a lot of time in Brooklyn, because I think it's really up and coming. A lot of great chefs are moving there because you don't have to pay the rent like you do in Manhattan. It's just so inspiring. The farmers' market was amazing in August. We're here - and we're so blessed because in January, it'll be snowing there and the only thing they're going to have will be apple cider, apple cider donuts and cactus and we'll have all this beautiful produce from Bob McClendon and Maya and Singh farms - but in August, when we're fried and there's nothing here. You just come back and you're like, "Ugh! This is all I have to work with?"
Did you bring anything back this time? I packed bags and brought stuff back! Romano beans. Steaks from my favorite butcher that was two doors down from my restaurant at the time. Tons of cheese. We had cheese for a month. It was amazing. Spanish sausages. The diversity of food that is there is incredible. The last day I was there, Anne and I went and had falafel at this great tiny place and then went and had ramen. You can do that there.
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Hardest kitchen lesson? When it's time for a cook to move on that you just encourage them and know that it's the best decision for them, even though it might not be the best decision for you. I've had a lot of cooks that have been very surprised that I've been supportive when they wanted to move on, but I wanted them to feel encouraged. I remember how I felt a lot of times when I was leaving, how guilty, but that's my own doing. You need to be supportive of them and know they need to take care of themselves. Sasha is our sous chef here. And she's talked about how she wants to move to Portland, from the very beginning. She has a dream and a vision. I know when she leaves, I'm going to be bawling my eyes out because she is my right and my left hand. We're such a small kitchen. But I know when she leaves, that's for her, and if I have to help move her there or get her a job in Portland, whatever she wants to do, Pavle and I would do that, even though it's not in our best interest. It just goes back to what I learned and that I wanted people to be supportive of my decisions and me. Donna, Chrysa, and Anne have all been supportive.
What does the Valley food scene need? More women chefs. There were a few, and then Deborah Knight's Mosaic closed. Now who is there? There's Chrysa: She's like the queen bee. There's Silvana Salcido Esparza at Barrio. I don't know. They're all pastry chefs. You can say that about Phoenix, but the say the same thing in New York, and the same thing in LA, and the same thing in San Francisco. It's not like it's just in Phoenix, but we could use some more women chefs. It'd be nice, not that we could all get together and sew or anything.
Tomorrow Badman dishes about her relatively new vegetable obsession and the $1,500 lunch she and a friend shared in Paris. And Thursday, she shares a recipe for a simple but delicious dish.