When chef Charles Carroll was in the third grade, he started cooking breakfasts for guests at his father’s country inn in New England.
“I was a culinary gym rat,” Carroll says, “always in the kitchen, always trying to figure out how to make each dish better.” At 24, Charles competed in his first Culinary Olympics and came home with a gold medal. (Like its athletic counterpart, the Culinary Olympics happens every four years and draws competitors from around the world.) In the past three decades, he has participated in seven Olympics and taken home numerous gold medals.
Today as executive chef at Houston’s River Oaks Country Club (one of the highest rated in the nation), Carroll manages and mentors a team of 75 with six kitchens and three restaurants, putting on 80 to 100 banquet functions a week. He travels the country giving inspirational talks. He recently returned from logging 250,000 miles in his two-year stint as president of the World Association of Chefs Societies. And in his spare time, he’s putting out a book—a “culinary parable,” he calls it—with New York Times best-selling author John David Mann. The Recipe: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Ingredients of Greatness, releases Oct. 17. For more information see TheIngredientsOfGreatness.com.
Q: What inspired you to try out for the Culinary Olympics?
A: My last year in high school, I won my first bronze medal in a local competition. I was stoked. I told one of the judges, “Someday I’m going to get an Olympic gold medal.” He said, “Son, just getting on the team is nearly impossible. Why don’t you stick with the local events and focus on getting silver next time?”
At first, I was totally devastated. Then I got mad. Then I got motivated. Five years later, on a plane home from Germany, I wrote that judge a note, thanking him for inspiring me to go for it and enclosing a snapshot of myself with my first Olympic gold medal.
The world won’t always be supportive. You have to be able to use criticism, failure, naysayers—anything to propel you forward.
“You don’t get world-stage opportunities by sitting on the sidelines and hoping it’ll happen because you think you’re talented. You’ve got to claw and scratch—whatever it takes.”
Q: What impact did the Olympics have on you?
A: Competing in the Olympics changed my life. Up until then, everything was about achieving as an individual. Here we all rose together or sank together. I was the youngest of 10 chefs on our team. That year every one of us won an individual gold, and we took a collective gold for best regional team in the world. It was the first time I grasped what it is to be part of a team, what it means to lift each other up. That’s what my life has been about ever since.
Q: You’ve done everything at the Olympics, from taking gold as a competitor, to coaching gold-medal teams, to judging. What does it take to go all the way and reach that gold-medal level?
A: Three things: hunger, practice and respect.
I had the itch in my blood. In my high school culinary class, we watched footage of the Culinary Olympics. When I got to the Culinary Institute of America, the guys I’d seen in that footage were there teaching our classes. I started chasing them down in the hallway like a groupie, volunteering whenever and for whatever I could. You don’t get world-stage opportunities by sitting on the sidelines and hoping it’ll happen because you think you’re talented. You’ve got to claw and scratch, to chew off the end of the table—whatever it takes.
You’re only as good as you practice to be. The Culinary Olympics is just like the athletic Olympics: You train like crazy. You’re working 60 hours a week for your property and putting in another 40 hours for your craft. It’s like fencing or figure skating—you have to practice those techniques to the point of perfection because you’ll be going up against the best in the world.
Ultimately you forge your own path and style, but it starts with respect. Success in the culinary field is like success in any area: The bottom line is you need to take care of your relationships. It’s easy to get caught up in your own achievements. If you respect the people around you, you’re going to get that respect back, and you’ll go a lot further.
Q: You run food for one of the busiest country clubs in the U.S. How do you turn out that kind of volume and maintain top-level quality and consistency?
A: I have extremely high standards. I want every single team member in clean, pressed, starched whites with an apron and chef’s hat. I want them looking and feeling like professional chefs, and I treat them that way. My management style is based on giving respect, not demanding it. I listen to all of my people. Everyone has a voice. An autocratic, tyrant-style executive chef might make good drama on TV, but it doesn’t build relationships.
When the wheels start coming off and the team is struggling, there’s no better way to right the ship than to jump in there with them. When people see the executive chef washing dishes, the dynamic instantly changes. You can’t let management responsibilities take you over. You have to stay connected. Of those 80 to 100 functions per week, I’m on the line plating at 90 percent of them. I’ll usually do the first plate, we’ll take a look at it to make sure it’s exactly what we want, and then I’ll stay and plate with the team. It’s all hands on deck.
Q: How did you come to team up with John David Mann to write a “culinary parable”?
A: I’d written a few books on cooking and leadership, but I wanted to take it further. I wanted to convey the idea that genuine success is about more than just ourselves, that it’s about creating a tide that raises everyone’s ship. I loved John’s book The Go-Giver and was using it with my staff. We had him out to give a talk at the club, and while he was here I told him about an idea I had for a story about a young boy who goes through some hardship and learns what true greatness means and where it comes from—insights in the kitchen that turn out to have deeper life implications. The Karate Kid meets Master Chef.
John loved the idea, and we found our two experience sets—for me, teaching through cooking; for him, teaching through writing—meshed beautifully. We were both so busy it took us eight years, but we finally carved out the time and did it.
Related: 5 Steps to Personal Greatness
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.