I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Churchill, Chef and Co-Founder at Charley St. Together with restaurant partners Aaron Cook, Kale Evans and Kieren Dwyer, Churchill is committed to sourcing from local farms and showcasing the stories behind the ingredients that make up Charley St’s colorful and health-focused menu. He and partners want to change the world through building a community over food and creating a positive environment in the process.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I’ve loved food and cooking from a very young age, and it’s the part of my life that gives me so much inspiration and joy. Simply seeing my family come together over food was what got me started. Having my own restaurant has always been a huge dream, and always something I hoped would be a reality one day. I take inspiration from seeing the joy and happiness I can create through food, and from bringing to life my mission of adding color and vibrancy to people’s diets. I’ve since then taken this mission and applied it to everything we stand for at Charley St.
What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?
It all really started with cooking from a young age, when I was just 12 and growing up on the beaches of Sydney, Australia. I’d make recipes with my parents and we started taking turns cooking for the entire family. I got to see firsthand how much joy food could bring to people. When I would cook meals for people, my mates would ask me for the recipes I was making — they wanted to be able to cook easy, nutritious recipes for their girlfriends or families. That was what drove me to write my first cookbook, Dude Food. I went from being a self taught chef creating relatable content to being a figurehead in the healthy cooking scene, with a genuine message of changing the world through food. I’ve been fortunate enough to cook in kitchens all over the world. While not always the easiest job, becoming a chef has challenged me to continue to be creative and innovative. Every day at Charley St I get to see smiles on faces when someone receives a plate or bowl of food, and that joy is why I do what I do. But the journey is not without its challenges: ups and downs are all part of the process as well. Especially with the launch of Charley St, there is a lot of behind the scenes and learning that takes place!
Do you have a specialty? If so, what drew you to that type of food?
My food is known to be super colorful and obviously healthy. For me it always has to tick the boxes of flavor, nutrients, and filling you up.I’m striving to create a movement about removing calories from the conversation and using color as a way to know how healthy our meals are. This can be seen in my motto “color always wins!” and I apply this to my cooking at home, for friends, and in the restaurant. My Masters in Exercise Science originally drew me to the world of cooking with color and nutritious ingredients. Food should always taste good, but it should also nourish you. I don’t necessarily think of food just as fuel, but rather as something that can bring people together. I’m all about adding a bit of color and vibrancy to the everyday diet. For example, growing up we used to have a lemon tree in the backyard of my family home. Dad did not bake a lot, but one thing he did every so often was a lemon meringue pie. I used to watch him create the three elements (crust, curd, meringue). This is a nostalgic memory for me, and when I went to recreate this pie and do my DC healthy spin, I was immediately struck by my memories of growing up. So I would say that my current style of cooking is based on the wholesome flavors I grew up with, and then putting my healthy and colorful take on it. And with my work at the restaurant, I of course bring in my specialties of healthy bowls and toasts as well as Aussie-inspired breakfasts. Of course, we always aim for our food to be as locally and sustainably sourced as possible.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef?
One of the funniest moments thus far was becoming business partner with a guy (my friend of a couple of years) named Kale — literally, Kale — known as the original superfood to us at the restaurant. His name alone is truly justifiable for my working with him.
What is your definition of success?
Most people want a quantitative figure or an accolade, but my definition of success is having a harmonic life where your message still shines through. For example, it’s important that I’m able to grow my business but still come home and see my loved ones at the end of the day. I’ve seen a lot of my friends do that, where they have the ability to tackle problems during the day but still come home to their families. On top of that, when someone comes to me and says that my food movement has come across to them more so than even my name, then you know that your brand is doing what you want it to do at the end of the day. I love when someone tells me that they’re cooking with more color because of me… I think that’s success. Being on TV, for example in my work with Good Morning America, I have a great sense of responsibility. If I am to use this platform in a positive way, it’s through adding value to people’s lives through food.
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
I don’t necessarily think about failures but more so learning experiences. Foe example, when testing recipes for new cookbooks, when trying out a recipe for the restaurant, you’re bound to make something that isn’t going to work the first time around. Another example is not checking that a burner is on during a live segment on TV. These are things that simply create awareness for the next time. I always try not to make the same mistakes twice. We all make mistakes each day but in life the most successful people I know are the ones that can learn to handle a challenge and grow from that.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Yes! With the restaurant we have had a dream of opening up a Studio Kitchen space, where we can work with community partners, host food demos and cooking classes, and produce photo and video content to share with our audiences. This is coming together slowly but surely, and we’re so excited to see where this can take us. We’re also very excited to launch fun events in the Charley St space, both in the mornings before we open and at night after we close. It’s all about bringing people together through food, getting the community engaged, and collaborating with awesome fitness and wellness professionals. In addition to this, there are always things in the works with my own brand and the amazing partners I’m privileged to work with. Always stay tuned at danchurchill.comfor more on that front. Also, be on the lookout for a new never-ending supply of olive oil, as I’m launching this as my first product in the coming months. We’ll be partnering with an organization we feel very fondly about.
What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
When it comes to being a chef in the modern age, the definition is quite broad. You’re looking at the ability to express your creativity via multiple platforms. You can ask yourself,What kind of chef do I want to be? You don’t need to limit yourself to a stereotype of the chef working crazy hours in the dungeons. You can create a personal brand or a brand in general. The food landscape is as exciting as it’s ever been, and you’ve only got one life, so the biggest thing to do is take a jump and just have a crack at it. I wouldn’t have ever known what it was like to take on NYC as a chef if I didn’t just go for it. My advice is: step 1, have a crack and get out there. Step 2, be consistent with your branding and core values (this is super important), and within your content as well. Try to stay top of mind when it comes to your process (for me, I want healthy cooking to be synonymous with my brand, so my Content Manager Maddie and I keep our messaging present across all media and content we push out).
What is the key to creating the perfect dish?
The perfect dish to me is something that’s true to you and tells a story, and maybe is nostalgic in some way. There are so many different mediums to approach health. For example, I always try to evoke a memory through food. The memories I have of something like spaghetti bolognese takes me back to a specific time with my family and bring me back to my love for family and love of life. A dish should take you back to memories and be nostalgic. It should be true to you. Start with three ingredients you love and come up with ways you relate to those flavors. For me, I once realized I always used to use sweet potato when I was younger. I had memories of cooking on the BBQ and of watching my dad make a specific dish. Bringing these things together helped me create new dishes.
It is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes food for a living, what does this saying mean to you?
This saying means everything; my mission is to change the world through food. Food is our universal language and something we all have in common; we don’t have to all speak the same language to relate to one another through food. Food is inundated with power, and community building so often happens over a shared meal. Bring people together around food and they’re instantly a bit happier. We all can bond over food, since we all eat. But more importantly we all come from different food backgrounds and have something to share with one another — whether it’s a childhood dish or a fond food memory. I can recall so distinctly the parts of my family’s food history that made me love cooking and eating. We’ve all experienced how much happiness can come from just cooking a meal for some friends. I’m lucky in that I get to do this every day!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef” and why?
- Staffing. Staffing is always going to be the biggest issue, since turnover in the restaurant world can be high. For example, there will always be times when people show up late and I need to take over in the kitchen.
- Replication. You may put the perfect recipe down on paper and give it to chefs but they don’t replicate it the way you want to, so you have to learn to be very patient.
- Empowerment. You have to learn to empower your team. Don’t be a dictator, but allow staff to grow within their own means and make mistakes. Give them the ability to be flexible within your own systems, which allows them to feel like they’re a part of the restaurant and the family.
- Learning. When you build a restaurant you immediately become a plumbing expert, a lighting expert, an architect, a project manager, etc. just by experience. This became immediately clear to me when we first started out, from the initial permits for the restaurant space to the final touches on the plants and lighting.
- Impact. In a good way, I didn’t realize how much of an impact chefs do have on the world. I wish someone had told me this earlier and I would’ve started my journey on that even sooner than I did. No regrets about where I’ve come, but it’s so interesting to know that we truly have a voice in an area of life that is so relatable to everyone.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d love to eradicate the need for calories and allow people to pick their food based on colors and thus become more intuitive as they cook, to create a healthy meal based on knowledge and sight instead of math. As my healthy message grows, I hope to be able to provide people with a skill set that supports their own education and awareness. Hopefully on a global scale, this can trigger other opportunities. For example, part of our mission is to bring awareness to the fact that 80% of the world doesn’t have access to clean drinking water. On top of this, there are so many diseases that can be prevented through a better diet. I hope that my food movement can be a figurehead behind that.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to cook for and why?
Michelle Obama — what she’s done with kids and nutrition in general really excites me. I’d love to sit down with her over a meal and discuss her philosophies in person, to figure out strategies to inspire throughout the world, partnering with business and schools. She’s such an inspiring individual to me.