Carving Your Own Career Path with Connie DeSousa
Chef and owner of Calgary’sCharcut Roast House
In the cutthroat culinary world where many hopefuls get chopped, this award-winning entrepreneur has whipped up a winning business recipe.
BY CAROLYN GRISOLD PHOTOGRAPHY CHARLES HOPE/KLIXPIX
Connie DeSousa’s days have changed since her award-winning steakhouse served its first meal four years ago. Lately, she’s been focusing attention on mentoring Jessica Pelland, her protégé and head chef of her next venture, another Calgary restaurant, Charbar, set to open in 2015. DeSousa has come a long way on her own professional development journey: from apprenticing under John Jackson at Calgary institution the Owl’s Nest restaurant, becoming his right-hand woman at the St. Regis in San Francisco after a stint in Germany where she competed with Team Alberta in the World Culinary Olympics, to opening Charcut with Jackson in 2009. DeSousa even appeared on Top Chef Canada, while simultaneously tending her then three-month-old business. While this thirtysomething culinary powerhouse once dreamt of becoming a prima ballerina, clearly she was cut out for something else.
DeSousa starts every morning with a workout at 7:00 a.m. before heading to Charcut. One of the main responsibilities of a restaurateur is the financials, and her first daily task includes the unglamorous yet necessary paperwork of running any business. The biggest difference between being a staff chef and restaurant owner? “[As a restaurateur] you work like your life depends on it every single day,” says DeSousa. At Charcut, management also take ownership of mentoring staff; an organized mentorship program encourages employees to “stage” [intern] all over the world at restaurants with which DeSousa and her partners have relationships. “We encourage longevity within our company,” DeSousa says. “Jessica started with us [in 2010] as a cook and moved her way up. Since John and I are never going to leave Charcut, someone else can’t become the head chef here, so at that point we open restaurants for them to run [such as Charbar].”
11am to 2pm
BEHIND THE SCENES
Lunch at Charcut has both DeSousa and Pelland cooking on the busy service line; afterwards the women turn their focus to media requests, answering emails, interviewing potential staff and meeting with vendors and farmers. DeSousa, Jackson and their spouses each play integral roles in running the business: Jackson handles public relations and business development; his wife is a lawyer and takes care of the accounting; Desousa and husband Jean François are the spokespeople, another role Pelland will be trained for. Being the face of the business is a natural fit for DeSousa—as she proved by moving that charm out of the kitchen and onto the screen during her Top Chef Canada experience.
WORKING THE LINE
After prepping her front of-house team on the night’s menu, DeSousa and Pelland head back to the kitchen for dinner service. “In the beginning I did think I would become a prima ballerina,” DeSousa says. “I studied ballet for 18 years.” But a love of sausages, combined with the influence of her Portuguese father and Irish-Canadian mother, sparked an interest in food that changed her course. It was while working in San Francisco that DeSousa and Jackson came up with the “farm to table” local-food concept for their own restaurant. And it worked: in 2010, Charcut was named one of Canada’s Best New Restaurants by enRoute magazine and, in 2011, Western Living Magazine called Jackson and DeSousa two of the best new West Coast chefs under the age of 40. “Everything was brand new with Charcut,” DeSousa says. “We had no sleep, no time off for four or five months. With Charbar, it’s still going to be a hard journey, but we hope that Jessica’s transition is a lot smoother than ours was.”
WALKING THE FLOOR
Although the restaurant stays open past midnight, DeSousa says, “We usually don’t stay that late anymore.” Once the kitchen closes, she and Pelland head out into the dining room to talk to their guests, many of whom are regulars. DeSousa prides herself on creating great guest-chef relationships, another aspect of ownership that she’s mindful to foster in her mentee. “There are a lot of female chefs in Calgary these days,” says DeSousa. “The industry is changing quite a bit. When I started 10 years ago, it was very different [but] I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors in the industry, including John.” More than half of the staff at Charcut are women, and both Jackson and DeSousa believe in gender equality in the kitchen. DeSousa’s dedication to success sees her through a six-day workweek, but Sunday is her family day; she’s expecting her first child in June. “I hope that our kids end up taking over the business,” she says. “Every year new goals come up, but I’ll never stop cooking; I’ll never stop being a restaurateur.”