Some people travel to Cape Cod for a quick summer vacation; others adopt a restaurant and stay. That’s the case for Charles Withers, 27, who took over Falmouth’s C Salt in June. Born in London, he grew up all over the world before arriving in Massachusetts to study at Boston College. An unexpected job at Faneuil Hall’s Saus, the mentorship of Select Oyster Bar’s Michael Serpa, and other cooking stints around the country led him to the Cape, where his grandparents have a summer home. At C Salt, he serves local seafood and produce from the Falmouth Farmers’ Market.
What drew you to Cape Cod?
My mother is Italian. My grandparents, her parents, came to the US in about 1970, and they bought some land out here. I used to spend my summers ever since I was a little boy in Falmouth.
My wife and I came out when the pandemic first hit, and I never left. I stayed here. I had been cooking in Europe, and I was talking with a chef in New York City, a young chef by the name of Flynn McGarry, to cook with him at his restaurant called Gem. My plan was to figure out how to open something in New York City — it seemed like the right place for the ambitions that I had and what I wanted to do. And then, you know, everything kind of got pushed back, and the restaurant didn’t open, and everything was taking its time.
I found that this was kind of the perfect place to make my start and make my story known, and it just made sense that I had my family here and had been coming here since I was a little boy.
This might not have quite been the summer that we expected. There’s been staffing shortages, and the COVID outbreak in Provincetown, all sorts of things. How has the summer gone for you?
You want me to be very honest with you?
That’s the hope.
All right. So I feel like, based on conversations that I’ve had with other owners on Cape Cod, I have two stories. The first story is — and I’ve constantly experienced this every week that I’ve been open since I took over the restaurant — we’ve done better in sales than any of the previous years. It’s funny because I actually went out for a drink yesterday with a chef-owner on Nantucket, and he was telling me that it’s the same thing [there].
I feel like it’s almost the opposite effect of what’s happening in city centers. Everyone has basically just come down to the Cape, and a lot of people are staying here for longer than a week. So I’ve just experienced a ridiculously crazy summer. I mean, we’re a small restaurant, and we’re just packed every night to the brim.
Staffing has been very, very difficult. I’m very lucky that when I took over the restaurant, my entire staff, or the staff that was at the restaurant before, stayed to work with me. And the restaurant’s closed Mondays and Tuesdays. I think it’s funny that it worked out like that, because in the past, the restaurant had been open seven days during the summertime. I don’t have the staff to be able to do that, and I like the fact that I have two days off. It’s just really nice to not have to be in the restaurant seven days a week, so I don’t think that’s ever going to change. My staffing levels right now are perfect for five days. I haven’t really experienced as much of the hardship that I know a lot of other restaurant owners have. Every day on Instagram, I see posts from restaurants saying that they’re shutting down because they can’t find staff. I have such a small team that I haven’t really been affected or as hit as hard as other people.
How did you get your start in restaurants?
I was born in London. I only spent a couple of years there when I was a kid; I don’t really remember much of it. My dad was in finance, and my mother works in the startup industry. She’s an amazing woman. She was actually one of the first women in the United Kingdom to get a gold card with British Airways because she flew so much with work. Both of them had ridiculously strong work ethics, and they kind of translated that into me.
We moved to Singapore, and I have very small but very specific food memories of being in Southeast Asia and enjoying that. We lived in South Africa and in Mauritius for a period of time and a few other bits and places. We always did a lot of traveling. I was very lucky to be able to have those kinds of experiences that really helped shape me from a very young age.
I have two older brothers, and all three of us went to American colleges and universities. My mother went to Wellesley College when she came to the United States. She was super adamant that we get educated in the United States. I ended up going to Boston College, where I studied political science and philosophy. I really had no direction — just going through the motions of life without really any purpose.
About two semesters before graduation, I ended up finding my way into this little sandwich shop right next to Faneuil Hall, Saus. They kind of took me in and showed me a little bit about the industry. I was counter-service, and it was really, really fun. On Fridays and Saturdays, we were open until 2 o’clock in the morning just serving poutine and fries and all the sauces made in-house. It was the first little piece of hospitality that I had encountered, and I loved it. I loved it so much.
One of the owners put me in touch with one of her friends who owns a restaurant called Select Oyster Bar, Michael Serpa, and he allowed me — God knows why — into his kitchen to learn how to cook. I was helping butcher fish and all these crazy things that young cooks definitely don’t get the ability to do from the beginning. So it was kind of a crazy, crazy experience.
I wound up cooking for Michael Scelfo. I spent a lot of time at Alden & Harlow, and then I was on the opening team for Waypoint.
How would you classify the Cape’s restaurant scene versus Boston? What’s the appeal?
I haven’t cooked in the Boston scene for a few years, but I’m aware of what people are doing and whatnot. I think that Cape Cod is similar to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. This isn’t a knock or anything negative, but I think that the trends and what people are doing out here are a few years behind what a lot of people are doing in Boston or New York or San Francisco.
The food out here is still the old-school concept of a starch and a protein and a vegetable and maybe a sauce. It takes a little bit of time to change and develop. And there’s no young, next-generation shift that I’m starting to see where the younger chefs who have come up under these amazing, talented chefs are now branching out and doing their own thing. I think we’re still kind of a few years away from that in an environment like this.
That’s one of the long-term goals and visions that I have for this area. I would really like to be able to figure out how to pioneer that next-generation cooking. I want to have people come to work with me and learn and take some techniques and things that I know and really try and elevate the standard of cooking here in this restaurant. I can pass that knowledge on to my staff, and then I want to be able to send them off to San Francisco and be like, “Hey, why don’t you go work at Atelier Crenn for two or three months and then come back and show me what you’ve learned.” I want them to use me as a stepping stone to build their own restaurant, to really elevate the dining scene. I feel like we’re not quite there yet. I’m excited to be able to help shift that and move it along.
What do you think is the future of restaurants underneath this cloud of COVID?
From my perspective, there’s two different aspects. The first is that I think that this is really taking the lid off of how restaurants operate financially: how slim the margins are, the way that people get paid, how difficult it is to make a living doing this from all positions, whether you’re a bartender, whether you’re a chef, whether you’re a server or a busser. It’s a very difficult industry to survive in. And I think that the pandemic really just put a microscope on that. I think there’s going to have to be a shift, especially in places where rents are sky-high. I think that something is going to have to give; otherwise we’re just not going to have enough restaurants. And it’s going to be really, really sad.
I think the second part of it with restaurants is, you know, how are people going to eat? You know, I had a lot of conversations with people about fine dining and whether they thought that any kind of fine-dining experience would exist after COVID, because people would just not be interested anymore.
Are people’s tastes going to change? Are people going to want to be inside anymore? Are people going to go back to city centers? Or are people going to move and go into the rural country, in which case it’s not going to make sense to open up restaurants in the city anymore?
I don’t have any answers. I try to read as much as possible and talk to people about what they think is next, but I really don’t know. I think the best that we can do, the best that I can do, is make sure that this restaurant is successful, that my staff are successful, and control the small variables that I have around me.
Have customers been respectful? We’ve written stories about service-people being treated horribly by guests lately.
I’ve received a lot of messages, and I scroll through Instagram and see messages from people talking about how rude people have been, especially in this current environment. I’m lucky enough that I haven’t really experienced that very much at this restaurant. The guests who are coming in here are usually extremely polite, and I personally haven’t had any issues with any customers. I’ve experienced it in other places, but I haven’t seen it here.
What’s your stance on masking inside and vaccines for staff and customers?
My entire staff is vaccinated. It was not a requirement for them to be vaccinated in order to work, but all of my staff voluntarily got vaccinated. We wore masks; the front-of-house wore masks right through the first couple of weeks of July. And I was monitoring it very closely, you know, monitoring hospitals and ICUs and the transmission rate and what was going on, and also specifically looking at people coming into the restaurants to dine. That first week of July, I would say 0 percent of people were wearing masks. So at that point, I was like, “All right, I think we can probably relax the strategy based on what I’m seeing and based on the fact that we’re all vaccinated.”
So I dropped masks, and that existed all the way until the Delta variant became a lot bigger. I slowly started to see people masking up again, inside and outside, and coming into the restaurant with masks on. As soon as I saw that being over two or three people a night, I was like, “I think we should set an example where we should mask back up.” So my front of house is now fully masked again. I think it was important to set that standard so anybody coming out to eat who did have a mask on didn’t feel uncomfortable being served by somebody who didn’t have a mask. Until we reach that point where the transmission rate falls back down again, that’s not going to change.
As far as mandating my patrons to be vaccinated in order to come in here: That’s a tough one. I don’t know. I don’t know if there are restaurants right now on Cape Cod doing that. I think I would wait to see what other people decide. I want to have conversations with other restaurant owners on Cape Cod and see what they think and what they plan to do and wait for some guidance from [Governor] Charlie Baker. I’m going to cross that bridge when I get to it. By and large, I see most people masking up and being smart.
What’s your favorite restaurant to visit when you’re not working?
I’ve honestly been working so much that I really haven’t had time to go out. I’m a big fan of Epic Oyster. They do some really delicious things. There’s a restaurant in Plymouth called Su Casa. My wife has a business in Plymouth, so we go there all the time, and that’s a really fun little Mexican spot. I know the owners really well; they’re super-sweet.
My grandparents’ house is in a little spot called Little Island Road [in Falmouth], and there’s a little beach down the street called Little Island Beach. And that’s the beach that I’ve been going to since I was a kid.
I’m honestly not a big snacker. I have trouble eating, despite the fact that I work with food every day. I never eat, which is really bad. I will say that, over the course of the pandemic, I ate a lot of pasta. One of my favorites is probably just a really dirty carbonara with lots of cheese and egg yolk and black pepper.