Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Webster House's Charles d'Ablaing is driven to succeed in Kansas City

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 3:30 PM

Chef Charles d'Ablaing garnishes a dish in the kitchen at the Webster House.
  • Chef Charles d'Ablaing garnishes a dish in the kitchen at the Webster House.

Most men are forced to sell the motorcycle and give up their dream of the open road. It's the end of a midlife crisis or a concession to a pregnant spouse, an unhappy compromise that has taken years to accept. 

But most men don't sell the motorcycle when they're 18 years old. And they don't sell it for the chance to start over. For Webster House executive chef Charles d'Ablaing, selling his chopper is what allowed him to find the road he was meant to travel.

The only thing that d'Ablaing knew growing up was that he didn't want to be in the kitchen. Life took a little longer to figure out.

"I was a rotten kid, who did lots of bad things. Yet, I knew I hated working in restaurants," d'Ablaing says.

But working the floor at Carlos O'Kelly's in Wichita will harden anyone. Still, even two decades later, d'Ablaing admits that he can't help himself when it comes to the enchiladas from the Mexican chain.

"Some things you can't shake," d'Ablaing says. "There's lots of things we try and bring back from our childhood. I went back recently, and I'll admit I kinda liked it."

He was 18 years old when he moved from Wichita to Atlanta, Georgia, to live with his mother. And he had every intention of working at the Kawasaki manufacturing plant outside the city. But he promised his mom he would first take a tour of the Atlanta School of Culinary Arts. 

"There was prestige and respect, and the kitchen didn't smell like french fries. I asked how much money you make and they said nothing. I was sold," d'Ablaing says.

He enrolled with the $500 from the sale of his motorcycle and a merit scholarship that he had received based on his GED test scores. He worked the breakfast and lunch shift at a small hotel in south Atlanta before trekking across town to school, which started at 4 p.m. After nearly 18 hours in the two kitchens, he headed straight home to try and catch a few moments of sleep before starting the next day at 4 a.m. 

Upon graduation, he landed a job on the line at Fedora Cafe & Bar on the Plaza. It was the beginning of a 15-year on-and-off relationship with Kansas City. The beauty of Savannah, Georgia, pulled him away before he was too settled. He took a job at The Landings on Skidaway Island. And, for a time, at the clubhouse where The Legend of Bagger Vance was filmed, d'Ablaing found happiness.  

"I could pick my fish up from the pier, lug them back and break it down. And then I'd go out and play golf every afternoon," d'Ablaing says.

But some people need work to keep their mind from spinning. And d'Ablaing's internal drive forced him to move on, consulting for a country club in Culpepper, Virginia, and acting as the general manager and executive chef of the Pearl Restaurant & Lounge in Washington, D.C.

Still, he couldn't shake the idea of living again in Kansas City, especially with the chance to be the executive sous chef at the Hotel Phillips. After helping launch the Chop House, the Marcus Corporation (the parent company that owns the Hotel Phillips) asked him to move to their corporate headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  

"There was just something about Kansas City. I came back again," d'Ablaing says.

There was also his wife, Silvia. He did a tour at Figlio Italian Restaurant, but the rigid menu wasn't a good fit. Silvia told him that there was a place downtown that was hiring and suggested that he simply take a look. That place was Webster House.

"I never even knew this was here. Barely anybody did, unless you were a lady who lunches. And that's been the biggest challenge," d'Ablaing says.

He was hired a week after interviewing for the job. That was four years ago. Since then, he has adapted his style of New American cuisine to bring a whole new crowd in for lunch and dinner. And his wheels and mind are no longer spinning.

"I'm setting my roots down. I'm comfortable. I live in a great neighborhood with great people. Kansas City has been good for me," d'Ablaing says.

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