Restauranteur Leverages His English Education For Success

webIn what follows, Professor Nadia Ellis describes the singular role the English Department at Berkeley has played for alumnus Charlie Hallowell (pictured right, with his daughter Matilda) who owns two successful artisanal pizza restaurants in Oakland.


I went to the opening of Charlie Hallowell’s new restaurant on Sunday. It’s called Boot and Shoe Service, it’s on Grand Avenue, and it’s a pizza joint with a warm, open kitchen and an exceptional bar. The wood-fired oven means the pizza is fresh and delicious; the crust is excellent and the toppings are singularly good, in gorgeous combinations. There were so many people at the opening that it took several minutes to make it from one end of the restaurant to the other, a pleasurable impediment you will probably not encounter now that Boot and Shoe is officially open. You may have to wait a bit for a table, though. (It will be worth it.)

Most people who know Charlie are aware of these genial hazards of his talent for food, friendship, and community. The owner and chef of Pizzaiolo—his other fantastic restaurant, which has been open in Temescal for four years—told me recently that much of his approach to being a restaurateur was developed during the years he studied English literature here in the Department at Berkeley. The class of 2000 alum bears the marks of many of the Berkeley undergraduates that make such an impression on new faculty members like me. He came with a unique academic background, fuelled entirely by intellectual passion, and was seemingly indefatigable in pursuing courses, working a full-time job, raising a son, and curating his other interests in music, art, and film. One senses immediately Charlie’s expansiveness, wide-ranging interests, and wit. To hear him tell it, all of these attributes were focused and harnessed by such professors as Stephen Best and DA Miller during his time as an undergraduate here.

Charlie came to Berkeley in the early nineties for a visit, having spent a year in China after high school.  (An apt example of his apparent ability to conjure: during our interview, at the very moment Charlie said “I started studying Chinese in high school,” one Mr. Liu passes by the table and Charlie commences to speak Mandarin with him.) The plan was to go back to Asia. Soon, however, he had a new love, a new son, and the urgent need to find a job and make a plan. He found what he describes as the lowest possible job in the kitchen at Chez Pannise, without any previous experience or much conscious interest in food culture. The intellectually stimulating climate of the kitchen fuelled his passion to learn and he soon moved up to cook. His desire to structure his academic interests eventually led him to Cal where, after many personal and ultimately persuasive visits to the admissions office (there was a patchy high school record to contextualize) he enrolled to study English and visual art.

Speaking to Charlie now, it is clear that some alchemy of Berkeley and Chez Panisse, enabled by the transformative period in China, produced his enthusiasm for creating community; for bringing thought, care, and affection to every aspect of his life and work. The world he has helped to shape at Pizzaiolo and now at Boot and Shoe Service function essentially as a salon. There are the monthly speak-easy parties at Pizzaiolo with a live band and partiers in prohibition-era costumes. There is the beautiful art on the walls of both restaurants, all made by friends, local artists, some commissioned just for these spaces. There is a strong relationship with the farmers, whose food is grown locally and organically. The bars, the booths in his restaurants are made by skilled craftsmen Charlie counts as friends. An ethics of connection governs his approach to cooking and to space-making: “There are all these human beings around…and it’s easy in our world to lose sight of the fact that they are all just as interesting and complex as we think we are. I love that part of my job is going out into the world when I can and trying to find them. And then honor whatever it is their craft is that in some way fits into this space. For me that’s a huge part of being a restaurateur.”

A decade after graduating, Charlie still has clear memories of his time at Cal and a deep affection for the teachers he met here. As well as his English courses, he took paradigm-shifting classes with Ula Taylor in the African American Studies and Richard Shaw in Art Practice. But some of his most sustaining mentoring relationships were with professors here in our Department: “Stephen Best and DA Miller were huge influences in my life, as much intellectually as personally. I loved them and I felt like they were so smart and really able to help me navigate the intellectual world in a way that I couldn’t without them.” Given the huge shifts in funding currently underway, the story of Charlie’s passage through Cal is a reminder of what this great, public institution has made possible for people who have remained in our community: “It was a huge awakening for me going to Cal.  I can’t even tell you. It was like $3000 a semester, I was a single father working four nights a week, and I could still afford to put myself through school.” Now happily settled in Oakland, constantly inspired by his work and by the intersecting communities he has helped to build, Charlie says: “I really do feel like there have been three things in my life. Working with Alice Waters, having my children, the English department at Cal, are the three most defining things in my life. I will be forever grateful, really.”