Charles Wilford’s grandfather was not going to let him run the streets. And that’s how he learned to cook.
“You see, my grandfather had a tight grip on me and kept me inside with my grandmother, and I would sit in the kitchen and was amazed by how they would create meals for the family,” recalled Wilford, who in high school went on to work in one of Baton Rouge’s finest restaurants, Jake Staples’ The Place, under the tutelage of chef Amelia Griffin, known as Miss Maude.
“Miss Maude was one of the best in Louisiana,” Wilford said. “I would even put her in the same company as chef Leah Chase, of New Orleans.”
Following a stint in the Navy, Wilford found a new mentor at The Country Club of Louisiana where chef Sonny Creole “put me on the right track and the love for my craft today.”
The 54-year-old now runs his own place, Chef Charles House — The Bis’Treaux, with his wife and business partner, Lecia Wilford.
At the 11522 Merchant Drive eatery, he focuses on creating and serving healthy dishes with Louisiana flavor.
We stopped by to learn more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us the story behind Chef Charles House — The Bis’Treaux.
Before Chef Charles House — The Bis’Treaux, my business was Charles’jon’Sheaun Fine Cuisine Catering. For years, I was a caterer in the body of a fine dining chef. But it wasn’t until I started going to my second home, New Orleans, and meeting up with chef Leah Chase that I was encouraged to “just do me.” For years it was a dream never coming to light, waking up to see that I’m still looking at tomorrow still seeing yesterday in today. But God blessed me with my wife, Lecia W. Brown Wilford, a native of Orangeburg, South Carolina, and a graduate of Allen University. She kept pushing, and the name of the business went from Charles’jon’Sheauns to a name we feel is a symbol of who I am today, and a little of New Orleans, as well.
Your restaurant focuses on healthy food with a Louisiana flavor. Why?
Here at Chef Charles House, there’s not much fried food. Yes, I understand this is Louisiana, where fried food is king, and I do a little frying, but it’s not the focal point of my place. As a little boy, after my grandfather went to be with the Lord, I spent a summer with my uncles in New York. I was a jock at 198 pounds, and that summer in New York introduced me to the healthy side of food. When I returned to Baton Rouge, I was a slim 170, and I felt better and stronger than before. So that’s why you will see more items on my menu like grilled salmon, grilled chicken, steamed and/or roasted vegetables, baked or sauteed dishes using more virgin olive oil and canola oil. Oh, and I’m all about flavor, which is why my slogan is “The Experience is in the Creation.”
We also want to know if you are allergic to certain items, and I will create something off menu just for you.
How did the coronavirus lockdown and continuing regulations put in place affect your business?
COVID-19 has put not just me but all Americans in a hole spiritually, mentally and financially. From only going to church when you have to bury someone to losing friends, family and loved ones, I’m dealing with what all Americans are going through. I’ve had to lay off employees, close down and relocate. But God is good.
What food do you most enjoy working with and why?
I love working with eggplant, squash and mushrooms, but I most like working with fresh Louisiana seafood, and Louisiana farmers’ fresh produce is one-of-a-kind.
What’s your description of the perfect meal?
I don’t like using the word perfect, because it implies no one can do it better. And to be honest if you are a chef, nothing is ever perfect in your eyes, because you can always find something to improve or do better.
What dish that you created are you most proud of?
I have a few dishes I’m proud of, from duplicating my mother’s beef stew to my family’s hometown of Napoleonville’s old-fashion mac-and-cheese. But I’m really proud of my roasted salmon salad. I wanted to do something different from the traditional “smoked salmon tray.” I decided to create it with a twist. I roast my salmon to a tender medium, then let it chill. I use the traditional capers, diced red onion, diced egg, but then I make my own pimento cheese, then serve it with crostini toast points. It’s on my permanent menu, and my customers love it.
Do you like to travel? Is food part of the reason for the destination?
We travel mostly to New Orleans, and, yes, it is food related. We visit places like Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, Morrow’s and Middendorf’s. When we travel out of state, we go to Philly and my wife’s hometown, Orangeburg, South Carolina, for business and pleasure.
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We know that you love being in the kitchen, but what would be your second-choice dream job?
If it wasn’t the kitchen, then it would have been on the football field. I love football, and my love for football came from my high school coach, Elisha “Tack” Jackson, of Istrouma High, and I thank Coach for all he taught me on and off the field.