By Helen Mitternight
If you would have told a young Michelle Weaver that she would be at Charleston Grill for 21 years, becoming something of an institution, a food ambassador for the state and a mentor to young female chefs, she might have laughed.
The young Michelle never thought she’d stick.
“I thought I’d be here for a few years and bounce out,” she says now, sitting in the restaurant’s dining room during a rare quiet time before dinner service.
Michelle grew up in Alabama standing on a chair at the stove while her mother and grandmother cooked with a cast iron skillet, but she was going to be a “marketing mogul,” she says.
After a friend moved home to start a restaurant, she realized that there were schools that could teach her to cook and that was way more fun than marketing.
“I packed up my little red Cavalier and moved off to Vermont to go to New England Culinary Institute, where they had a 7-1 ratio. I was in quaint little Vermont. I thought this was perfect, little Alabama girl goes off to Vermont … and then the snow came,” she says.
Michelle stuck it out but then headed to New Orleans to cook and, later, to Nashville, where she met chef Bob Waggoner, who would become her mentor and lifelong friend. When Bob was offered a job at the Charleston Grill, Michelle was part of the package deal. She took over at Charleston Grill after his 2009 departure.
Then-Governor Nikki Haley asked Michelle to become one of the state’s chef ambassadors, a position she accepted in 2018, although it meant traveling to festivals and other events to promote the state and its products while still helming the Charleston Grill. The travel has abated this year with a new class of ambassadors being named, but “once an ambassador, always an ambassador,” Michelle says with a laugh.
Her natural leadership has made her a mentor to younger chefs, a role she takes seriously even though, she says, managing is her biggest challenge.
“I get older and the cooks stay the same age,” she says. “It’s a challenge to motivate them. I over-communicate. This generation, they don’t want retirement benefits, although we offer them. They just don’t want to work 12-hour days. I get it.”
Michelle has created a lending library of culinary books and cookbooks for her younger staff to read since they often can’t afford the books themselves. She wants them to be inspired, to “play” with food.
Mostly, she tries to create calm.
“It’s a very demanding job and, yes, there are long hours and yes, it gets crazy at times. But do we want to feed into that or find a way to get a little calmer? Let’s take some of that testosterone and bring it down to a little more of an Om place. Let’s just breathe. We’re here to take care of some people, create some good food.”
Speaking of testosterone, Michelle has seen changes in the attitudes toward women in the kitchen, although she says she was lucky enough to have missed the kinds of harassment that have made recent news.
“When I started out, there were still not a lot of women doing this,” she says, “You might be the only female in the kitchen, so you really had to work twice as hard, be twice as tough, be one of the guys. You couldn’t show emotion at all. And sometimes you had to put up with a bit of crap to work your way through those lines. You’d be tested. It wasn’t a welcome wagon, for sure. Here, I want to create a more level playing ground, more balance for everybody. I definitely do not tolerate disrespect, whether for female, male, color, gender, religion. We all have to do a job, we have to work together a lot of hours, and we’re all alike whether we believe it or not.”
Michelle has “coffee talks” with young women in the industry who call her for advice and encouragement. She says she’s glad that the food and beverage industry is evolving and that, “you don’t have to be one of the guys, thank God. You can just be yourself.”
Michelle says she can’t even imagine life after the Charleston Grill.
“Physically, it does take a toll, but I love the energy it brings. I can’t imagine not walking through a dining room and feeling that energy, like when the kids have an epiphany and finally get what you’ve been trying to teach them. It’s kind of like a drug,” she says.