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Say bonjour to Chef Charles

French chef stays afloat after crossing the pond

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Chef Charles Semail has an impressive resume: he has worked as head chef at top Charlotte restaurants, catered exclusive events, and fed some of the city's favorite athletes. Since arriving in the south more than 20 years ago, Semail has even carved out a niche in local cuisine.

"I'm pretty proud of my barbecue, for a French guy," he jokes.

Though Semail's pathway to success in the Queen City was a rough one, the French-native is certain about one thing: don't call it luck.

"I don't believe in luck," Semail says. "I believe in opportunity and grabbing what life hands you."

After listening to Semail's life story, it becomes clear that the chef's empire was built on a lifetime of hard work and enterprise. Visit his office on Phillip Davis Drive, and you'll find proof of that: a petite white apron on display, far too small for the seasoned chef.

Chef Charles with his mother and the famous apron.
  • Chef Charles with his mother and the famous apron.

"My first apron," he explains. His mother had fashioned the smock out of old bedding sheets, so that Semail had a proper uniform when he tinkered in the kitchen.

"My mother would always come home to me on the chair with the butter and sugar, trying to put something together," he recalls. "I knew since I was very little that I wanted to do something in relation with food."

Semail grew up in Chartres, France, a small town south of Paris that he refers to affectionately as "the backyard of Versailles." It was in Chartres that Semail's love affair with cooking began. More specifically, it was in his mother's kitchen.

"Growing up, mom was always cooking. I lived in a small village, on the farm. The rabbit stew with dried prunes and white wine was a favorite. Fresh boiled potatoes with fresh parsley on the top, that's what I remember," he says.

By the time he was 14 years old, Semail was ready to graduate from his mother's kitchen and commit to cooking full-time.

"School was not for me since day one," he explains.

So the aspiring chef dropped out and pursued a classic French apprenticeship. He spent the next four years training and studying under a mentor.

"I did my training first in charcuterie," he recalls. "The art of butchering pigs, everything from scratch." The job called for a little bit of everything — from preparing pork sausage, bacon and pig trotters, to making deliveries on his bicycle.

At 18 years old, Semail's career took the first of many detours when he joined the French Army. But even in the service, Semail found his way back to the kitchen.

"I did three months of training, and then I was placed to cook for officers," he recalls. "I've cooked every day since I was 14 years old."

When Semail got out of the army a year later, he found himself in the picturesque French island town of Île de Ré. It was there, operating a small summer restaurant, that he met his wife. The couple spent their first years moving between summers in Île de Ré and winters in the French alps, before deciding to chase a new opportunity that would bring them stateside.

"We have a special weekly newspaper for the food business, and we opened it and saw a job offer for Florida."

Semail touched down in Florida in 1985; "The year the Challenger space shuttle exploded," he recalls. "I came to the states to answer the ad in the newspaper. I met with the chef, had lunch with him, but he said, 'You don't have enough experience.'"

Still, the chef was impressed with Semail, and offered him a position as a butcher. Though Semail would return to France a few months later, his roots had been set in the states.

"In Florida I became friends with a maître d' who had married an American girl from Lexington, Kentucky. He said, 'We don't have French restaurants there, we should partner together.'"

A few years later, the maître d' made good on the offer: "He found a place, so I came back and we opened Acajou French restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky."

Unfortunately, the restaurant was short-lived.

"I got kicked out by immigration," Semail says. "They gave me 90 days to leave the country."

After getting a taste of America, Semail knew he wanted to return. Back in France, Semail and his wife began making plans to make the move permanently ... but with a unique stipulation.

"My wife made a deal with me," Semail recalls. "She said, 'We will go back to America only if I'm pregnant.'" In eight years of marriage, the couple had been unable to conceive.

"That means thank God to the help of the doctors in France," Semail quips. By the time he had lined up a work visa and sponsorship in California, his wife was seven months pregnant.

Semail moved to California and planned for his wife to join him before their son was born, but as the chef would learn repeatedly, even the best laid plans can go awry.

"My wife was supposed to take the plane to California on June 29, 1992. She went to a checkup the day before, and the doctor said, 'No way, ma'am, you're having your baby tomorrow."

"We tried everything possible to have a baby for eight years, but when my wife had a baby, I wasn't there! But that's ok," he adds, in true French fashion. "C'est la vie!"

As with many major events in Semail's life, the move to California was once again characterized with disaster. In the aftermath of a 6.5 richter earthquake that tore through their home in Culver City, the family decided it was time once again to move.

"We put a map on the floor and started to pinpoint some cities," he says. "We picked five or six different cities, and picked Charlotte. So for $500 I bought a Volkswagen bus, and I could cook and make coffee in the back of it, and we drove in 14 days."

Within days of arriving in Charlotte, Semail had found work as a line cook. "The guy was paying me peanuts, but my goal was to meet and connect with people, and then I moved on."

Semail continued to work his way up, eventually landing an interview with Eli's, a major catering company in Charlotte.

"I said, 'No, I'm not qualified to do what you're expecting.' She sent a nice letter to say, 'Let me know when you're ready, we have a job waiting for you.'"

Semail would spend the next four years working for Eli's, before eventually switching gears to work for the newly-opened Dean & DeLuca at Phillips Place.

"I started as a butcher," he recalls. "After a month I was sous chef, and after two months I was the chef of the store."

After opening several other Dean & DeLuca restaurants across Charlotte, a new opportunity came knocking, and Semail was hired as the chef for Quail Hollow Country Club. His first task: catering the Quail Hollow Golf Tournament.

Though Semail enjoyed a four-year reign at Quail Hollow, he once again found himself craving change.

"I was like, 'You know what, I'm 42, it's time to start my own business.' So I said to my wife, 'I'm going to start my small personal chef service.'"

The seal of approval came from a former mentor: "She said, 'You're going to be fine, you just need one customer.' Three weeks later, one of the football players needed a personal chef at his house. So I started my business that way — with one customer."

Launching his own business wasn't without it's challenges, though.

"I didn't have any equipment!" he recalls. "So I went to Target and bought a set of stainless pots and knives, $150 bucks. I'm not a gadget chef, with what's supposed to be the best knife on earth,' I cook with a basic knife.

"So I went to Home Depot, bought a tool box, took a couple knives from my house, went downtown, and started like that."

Fourteen years later, the humble business that began with a set of Target knives and a Home Depot toolbox now employs a crew of 12. In addition to catering events, Semail offers meal prep for private jets, corporate lunches and is even a regular at weekend farmer's markets, an endeavor that began in the aftermath of the recession.

"I bought this 4,000-square-foot building in 2008, and then the recession hit and I have a million-dollar investment in this building and the kitchen. A good 50 percent of my business was gone in no time."

"I had two options: put the key on the mat, run away, bankruptcy, go back to France, or start something to keep my mind occupied. So I started the farmer's market."

To this day, you can find him at the market every Saturday — he hasn't missed one in eight years.

He also has plans to start offering culinary tours to France, where he'll host a handful of guests in Île de Ré.

Reflecting on the often-bumpy ride, Semail reiterates that it wasn't luck, but rather hard work that got him where he is today: "You work hard, work work work work. Don't give up. Take opportunities," he says. "It's the American dream."

"I'm blessed and I believe in working hard, being honest. I do my job with my family and my business and that's it. I have good friends, a good life. and that's it."

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