Charlie Carrington vs The World

Charlie Carrington vs The World

Meet the young chef who created an ever-changing restaurant and is rethinking dining as a whole.

Journalists love a good hook. So when I first wrote about Charlie Carrington, the bait was irresistible: 22-year old chef opens restaurant that changes cuisine every three months!

But two-and-a-half years later, it turns out that neither Charlie Carrington - nor his restaurant, Atlas - were a gimmick. They’re both prescient examples of a new generation of dining, a generation that understands the tastes of future diners, and how to connect with them.

For those who aren’t already aware of Atlas, a little explanation: in his early career, Charlie had taken ample advantage of the stagiaire, a French tradition that sees young chefs volunteer in kitchens to gain valuable experience. In today’s hyper-competitive industry, a month or two at a Michelin-Starred restaurant can make a real difference to your curriculum vitae.

What’s often overlooked, however, is the creative benefits of said mentorship: it’s an opportunity to open one’s mind to something totally new. “I reckon honestly, it's career defining,” says Charlie. “I would say it's one of the most important practices for anyone. Working internationally, going and meeting all these new   people, it just gives you experience you wouldn't get otherwise, and for me has been a really big thing.”

After spending eight months travelling and working in top-shelf establishments in Antwerp, San Francisco and Mexico City, Charlie felt like he wanted to institutionalise the practice. So, he hit on a concept: how about opening a restaurant that operated as a kind of culinary travel journal, a place whose menu constantly changed to reflect the countries where he’d cooked and eaten? Thus began Atlas.

Kicking off with a Vietnamese menu inspired by his visit to the hills of Sara, Atlas then paused for two weeks while Charlie visited Israel to research a suite of new recipes. It’s a cycle that repeats every four months, with each trip generating a whole new menu. “The trips are all about getting inspired,” Charlie explains. “I designed the business in  a way where I could go overseas every four months and then to come back and teach myself something with the help of my whole team. I feel like we're teaching ourselves to cook a style of food, but   then our customers or our guests are trying it, and then they're learning something too.”

Obviously travelling is great for a chef’s creativity. But it’s good for business too. A revolving restaurant, as it were, solves one of the biggest problems bedevilling set-menu restaurants: return business.

As brilliant as any degustation might be, diners are fickle creatures. They’re unlikely to try a second time. Food writers are just as bad, and we tend to ignore a restaurant for a few years after it opens. Atlas, however, gives customers a compelling reason to return every four months - and gives journos something to write about. “Everyone is guilty of wanting to try the next best thing, which is great, but this concept gives people a big incentive to come back, especially if they enjoy   the first time,” says Charlie. “And even if they didn’t enjoy it. They might have hated our Korean menu, but they'll come back and try the Peruvian menu It's a get out of jail free card.”

Charlie even issues passports, which die-hards get stamped every visit. “A lot of people collect them, and have every one,” Charlie says. “That's insane when you   think about it, we've created a restaurant where people must go.”

It’s like Pokémon: gotta catch em all.

The trick with Pokémon, however, is that they’re inexpensive. Kids (and adults) might spend a lot of money on them, but they do so in smaller increments. Charlie wasn’t the first to notice the trend to more ‘casual’ eateries while overall dining increased. But his solution was to find a middle ground between fine and fast, where diners can afford to come every few months. “People are looking for somewhere where it's not gonna break the bank, but somewhere they love the food and the service and the whole   experience,” he explains. “If you spend $400 one night a week, you can go out once a week or once every two weeks or once a month. But if you spend $100 four times then you can go out four times as much.”

At Atlas, Charlie tried to deliver a version of the degustation experience. “People are very value sensitive. It's just human nature, and I think we should play to that - use that as a strength for your restaurant,” Charlie explains. “The last thing we ever do is cut costs or quality, but it just means that certain things I don't ever see us putting on the menu. For example marron is a beautiful product, and almost every restaurant I've ever worked in used them. But when you're paying $15 a dish, it's just not possible for us to serve that.”

Instead, what Charlie and the Atlas team do what great cooks have been doing for millenia - use technique (and fire) to transform cheaper produce. “I think of certain fine dining restaurants stand out for me as the best meals of my life,” he says. “But then I also think of all the other meals that I've just been blown away by or left changed as a person form, and they’ve been from the places where there's a couple of ingredients on the plate, served and seasoned perfectly. If we can, in our own way put that on our menus and give people a   taste of that, that to me is what makes me the happiest.”

He wasn’t always this business-savvy, however. While Charlie had already racked up some serious experience in kitchens around the world, real-life experience with the financial realities of running a restaurant was something he didn’t have. “I had no idea,” he admits. “I don't reckon anyone has ever opened a restaurant before with less financial idea than I did. When you go to trade   school or something, they tell you how to cook, and that's fine, but they don't really teach you the other side.”

Still, at the tender age of 22, Charlie could be forgiven for not being prepped for the role of team leader, human resources manager and CFO. “You’re running a restaurant, and the restaurant is a business, and... there's always something to be done,” he explains. “The thing is, I had only ever been a chef de partie.  I'd never been a sous chef or a head chef, so I just sort of jumped into it.”

Going feet-first worked out being a pretty solid strategy for Charlie. Atlas opened to both glowing reviews and a public fascination with the young chef’s audacity. And, it turned out that Carrington had an entrepreneurial streak. He was a natural at not only managing a kitchen, but his staff, his finances and the growing value of his brand. “To be honest I've really enjoyed that side of it,” he says. “And that's  probably the side I've found the most challenging, but I've found I've really enjoyed it because I've got to learn something completely new.”

Within a year, business was booming. But for a guy perpetually on the move, Charlie was ready for a new challenge. “It's one thing to be a chef, which is a really fantastic career, but it's also nice to, once you've started a restaurant and you've had a lot of success with it to then take it to the next level,” he says.

So, alongside his brother (also partner at Atlas), Charlie opened Colours, an even-more-accessible version of Atlas, playing the hits from the restaurant’s ever-changing menu in a more casual setting.

With Colours, Carrington joined  an ever-growing roster of name-brand chefs trying out ‘fast-casual’: Scott Pickett, Shane Delia, George Calombaris, Shannon Bennett, Neil Perry et al. Despite all the industry hype around the category, Charlie had discerned that there was still a significant gap in the market. “I think it's great time to be in this casual market,” he explains. “I genuinely believe that very very high end dining is slowing down quite a bit. People are looking for either, they're looking for UberEats at home, they're looking for really quick, casual experience, or they’re looking for places like Atlas.”

Despite the obvious attraction of the fast-casual model, achieving fine-dining standards in a take-away setting isn’t easy. While dishes can be simplified, and the level of service can be reduced, there are only so many corners that can be cut before quality is sacrificed. “We had to figure out the model,” Charlie explains. “How do you serve food that's quite inexpensive while maintaining standards; paying staff directly; how do you get enough people there; How do you serve the food quickly, so they like it?”

The other challenge with fast-casual is that it’s, well, fast. Diners come in and out of the restaurant without hanging around and emptying their wallets on added-value items like wine. “You're not really selling booze,” Charlie says. “At Atlas, you could get a group comes in and they could spend $1000. At Colours, you might have a group of six come in and they spend $70, but they all sit there, enjoy their food, chat.”

Nevertheless, it’s a challenge that Charlie is ready to rise to. He already has plans to open two more editions of Colours later this year, and intends to take both brands international. “I definitely want Atlas to be global. I really wanna make the idea that a cheap set   menu has a context and take that to the world I think that's something that and no-one has done before. And that's something that I really wanna pioneer,” he says. “I think I just like a challenge, and I want to see how big we can grow.”

Given the scale of his talent and ambition - and the fact he’s still only 25 - I reckon the rise of Charlie Carrington has a fair way to go...

published in foodservice news for yaffa media