The first time a young man in Detroit heard about a Michelin star, he was just starting his foray into fine dining. His understanding of what it meant to receive one or more of those stars shaped the ambitions of Charlie Mitchell, the executive chef of Clover Hill in Brooklyn Heights.
“Once I got immersed in it and started working at a kitchen where I was performing at a high level, Michelin became one of my goals, one of the only goals, to be honest,” says the Clover Hill co-owner.
In February, the executive chef met one of those goals when he received his first Michelin star for his culinary accomplishments at Clover Hill. “I thought that is what you did. You worked in fine dining. You get one, two or three Michelin stars if you are lucky. That is what made you a great chef. That is what I was taught when I started cooking seriously.”
Star Status at Clover Hill
The Michelin Guide’s recognition matters to most chefs, cooks and restaurateurs because it is viewed as an authority on restaurant quality in 32 countries. Mitchell’s star at Clover Hill validates the chef’s achieving Michelin standards for flavor, mastery of culinary techniques and personality of dishes. “It means everything. I was initially taken aback by it and didn’t know what it would mean,” Mitchell says.
Chef Mitchell believes his conversations with other cooks and chefs about the impact of Michelin stars and other top accolades deepened his understanding. His view of the award shifted from a more ego-driven goal to a broader business perspective.
“I’ve learned I have a different appreciation for the job at all levels. Other chefs work very hard too and don’t have Michelin stars,” adds the Brooklyn chef. “Now, my perspective is more like this thing is going to keep the business open. It’s going to allow us to put butts in seats and showcase what we do at a high level.”
Yet it is remarkable that Mitchell received the Michelin award in his first executive chef position and Clover Hill’s first full year in operation. General manager Clay Castillo and co-owner Gabriel Merino opened the Brooklyn Heights restaurant a few months before the COVID pandemic shut down businesses.
The rebirth in February 2022 introduced patrons to Mitchell and his partners’ new culinary vision for Clover Hill and the chef’s cooking. “People are coming here to support me, but they also love what we do and the product we are putting out,” says Mitchell.
The Detroit native is one of the few Black chefs in the world to receive a coveted star. Michelin also gave the Brooklyn Heights restaurant owner the 2022 New York Young Chef Award. This year, Mitchell became a semifinalist for the James Beard Emerging Chef Award. “I didn’t really have anyone like myself to look up to early in my career, so if I can be that for other young Black chefs, it’s awesome,” Clover Hill’s executive chef replies.
Seasonal, Seafood and Homey
How did Mitchell develop his culinary talents? He focused on mastering skills in fine-dining establishments where he was often the only Black person in the kitchen. He chose on-the-job training over culinary school and left Detroit for restaurant jobs in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
“Just committing to learning about food and caring about the food I’m serving to people made a big difference. I think about the meal and the guest first, and I think it shows.”
His work as sous chef and executive sous chef at NYC’s top-rated Eleven Madison Park, Villanelle and One White Street influenced Mitchell’s ingredients-first approach to creating his cuisine. “Primarily, the focus is finding the best ingredients I can to serve to my guests and have the cooking be very honest in that regard,” he says.
At Clover Hill, that translates into dishes Michelin describes as making “… the most out of top-rate seasonal ingredients, delicious sauces and thoughtful combinations.” The Guide applauded Mitchell’s fluke ceviche and Peekytoe crab salad from last summer’s menu.
Seafood ranks first among the chef’s favorites to prepare. “I always felt like the best cooks and chefs were really good at breaking down fish, so I kind of got obsessed with it at a young age,” says Mitchell. “You can do a lot of techniques with seafood, and it is a very sustainable product.”
Chef Mitchell appreciates another aspect of serving seafood and vegetables to his guests. “We want to keep in mind how people feel when they leave here. I think you feel better, and it helps keep the menu light.”
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That preference for lighter dishes does not require patrons to skip desserts created by Mitchell and his sous chef. “We like to make sure dessert is fun or nostalgic. We like to make sure we finish the meal on a good note, the same way we start the meal,” the chef shares.
Clover Hill’s fine-dining personality is about more than exceptional, seasonal food. The atmosphere at the 26-seat restaurant promotes coziness over intimidation. “We don’t want people to feel stuffy or like they can’t talk to their friends, laugh and joke,” says Mitchell. “It’s a little out of the box for typical fine-dining restaurants, especially in New York City.”
The restaurant in Brooklyn Heights Historic District welcomes diners into a warm, intimate setting with brick walls, an open kitchen and soulful music. “People should feel almost at home and relaxed. They feel like they are getting a home-cooked meal in a fine-dining environment. I think that is what we try to create, which is challenging,” Mitchell explains.
Cooking with Commitment
In the years before he cultivated his cooking skills in world-class restaurants, Mitchell’s grandmother impressed him with her culinary artistry in sharing love through food. “Just being in the kitchen and seeing the effect her great food had on family, friends and community,” the chef recalls. “I always thought the best way to do that was through a restaurant, where people come and try my food. I can cook for them and, hopefully, have a great effect on their day.”
Mitchell’s commitment to creating New American and French-influenced dishes mirrors his grandmother’s time and effort in preparing food. He compares learning cooking techniques and proper treatment of ingredients to the commitment required to become one of the best in art, sports or music. “You really have to commit your life to it. It requires a lot of preparation, planning and organization, so you don’t get overwhelmed.”
“I’m always thinking about food, and I’m always at the restaurant,” Mitchell continues. Although he feels he has not yet reached the highest level in his profession, Clover Hill’s executive chef sees the same qualities as others awarded Michelin stars. “Usually, this level of cooking requires a lot of work ethic, sacrifice and love and care going into the food.”
Clover Hill’s culinary leader joins Marcus Samuelsson as one of two African American chefs in New York City with Michelin stars. Samuelsson earned his in 2009 while at the helm of Aquavit’s kitchen. In 2019, Chicago’s Mariya Russell became the first African American woman to be given the honor. She created seven-course adventures for guests at Kikkō with her omakase-style Japanese cooking. Last year, Gerald Sombright’s Knife & Spoon at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando received a Michelin star. “All of us are doing something we love to do. We spend a lot of time in the kitchen and with the products,” Mitchell says.
According to Chef’s Pencil, Blacks are the most underrepresented group in Michelin’s lineup of starred executive chefs and restaurants. This holds true outside of the U.S. in other countries with sizable Black populations. In the UK, Michael Caines earned Michelin recognition within six months of transforming Lympstone Manor Hotel into an award-winning dining destination. Self-taught French chef Georgiana Viou recently received a star for the Benin-inspired Mediterranean cuisine she serves at her Rouge restaurant in Nimes, France.
Striving to Be the Best
An appearance on NBC’s “Today” increased the attention on Mitchell and his achievements. But for him, culinary excellence is not about which chef gets the most applause. “I don’t get into who is the most talented or creative. I think there is more involved. It’s about who is committed to the craft and cooking great meals for people. If you are, it will pan out for you.”
His beliefs about succeeding in the fine-dining world are the same ones he offers young cooks trying to improve their craft. “Learn about food, don’t take it for granted or rush it. That’s why chefs train for so long before they are executive chefs,” Mitchell advises. “But also learn about the business to make yourself more valued in the restaurant space.”
The NYC restaurateur knows it takes far more than talent in the kitchen to keep a restaurant profitable. Mitchell also acknowledges that financial backing is often more challenging for Black owners. “Especially when you step into a big city or want to do fine dining, it gets that much harder. They don’t see it as a safe investment, or they don’t see it the same as someone else’s restaurant project.”
It is one reason Mitchell has yet to determine whether he wants to own and operate multiple restaurants. “It’s kind of like having a kid. Once you have one, you’re not sure if you want another,” he laughs. “You’re like, this might be enough. It’s a lot of work.”