“You were here last night too, weren’t you?” he asks a customer. “Blow your mother a kiss and tell her to come, it’s been a while since I’ve seen her,” he says, to another. “The mixer broke? I have one at home, pick it up and bring it back tomorrow while this one is being repaired”, he explains to a kitchen worker.
Thus, talking to each client – many of whom he calls by name – and each employee, the restaurateur Carlos Thomaz Whately Neto, better known as Charlô, 66 years old, runs his main house, the Bistrô Charlô, in the Cerqueira César neighborhood, in São Paulo.
They are 33 years in charge of one of the most famous restaurants in São Paulo, in a story that began with a job as a cook in a lady’s home in Paris. In fact, it started a little earlier: Charlô was studying business at Mackenzie and was already working in the financial area, but he wasn’t finding himself among the suits and the hustle and bustle of the Stock Exchange.
He talked to his father and mother and, in late 1980, he decided to venture into the French capital in a job his brother had found for him. It was with Madame Radot that he discovered that he had a talent for cooking pots. He took her cookbooks, went to the fair and the neighborhood market to buy the ingredients and prepared dishes that surprised his mistress.
It was about a year like this until the nostalgia hit and Charlô returned to Brazil. He wasn’t going back to business school, but he needed to do something, give his life a direction. He was already a cook, family and friends praised his creations, and then his mother started talking to her friends about the chicken liver pate with brandy and spices that her son, who had just arrived from a season in France, made.
“One day, she called me really early, I was sleeping, and said I would have to make a delivery the next day,” he recalls. Orders were placed and, just by word of mouth, increasing more and more.
Face of shame, as he considers himself, Charlô one day went to Santa Luzia, one of the main emporiums in São Paulo, to talk to the owner and starts selling his pate there too, still in small quantities. Everything was prepared in the kitchen of Grandma Albertina, who lived in the same building as he, on the corner of Alameda Franca and Rua Peixoto Gomide.
Charlô did everything from receipts to delivery and accounting. “I had a little notebook that worked as a ledger. A baker’s bill, he wrote down how much he spent, how much he sold…”, he remembers, who stayed at the market’s tasting point.
The pâté business was still taking its first steps when Charlô received an order for 40 kilos for the Clube Alto de Pinheiros New Year’s Eve party. The madness was such that he had to ask to use the fridge of neighbors and friends, as he didn’t have space for all that production, as he says in the book “Charlô Of Course”, a mixture of autobiographical memories with recipes for salads, soups and desserts, among other dishes – including the pate that kick-started his career.
With the success it was having, in 1985 it opened its first store, in Itaim Bibi. In addition to selling pates and cakes on site, Charlô’s buffet service also expanded. There were parties and more parties with their food and their service.
And, just three years later, he opened Bistrô Charlô, at the same address where it still works today, at 450 Barão de Capanema Street. Two more years and he increased his production, starting to sell wholesale. “It was all happening by chance in my life, nothing was very planned”, he guarantees.
Another event that marked his career was when he was invited to run the Jockey Club restaurant in São Paulo, in the late 1990s. The banqueter represented a time of rebirth for the place, where he stayed for about 15 years.
More recently, in 2015, Charlô opened Cha Cha, a more informal house that opens from breakfast to dinner at Itaim Bibi. Dishes such as chicken pie with leaves mix, termite braised with aligot farofa and mac’n cheese with shrimp are successful at the place, which mainly serves the public who work in the surroundings of Avenida Faria Lima and want to eat something good and quickly .
The modern development was opened in partnership with Felipe Sigrist, also a partner at Buffet Charlô, which has already held parties in destinations such as Paris, Saint Barth and New York, and Casa Charlô, an event space opened in 2017, in Itaim. There, parties are organized – from weddings to corporate events – for audiences from a hundred to a thousand people, offering all the knowledge that Charlô acquired over the years working with gastronomy. Now, during the pandemic, the House was at a standstill, but Charlô celebrates that parties and other events are starting to return.
Even with all his business and acumen for cooking, the restaurateur – who although he looks French, has a French nickname and exercises a profession typically linked to France, is from São Paulo – likes to point out that he doesn’t invent anything. “Before, I searched for references a lot in cookbooks and on trips, especially to Paris. In recent years, the internet has become a source for the creation of dishes as well”, he says.
nothing is created
He can say that he doesn’t invent recipes, but, like most restaurant owners in the city of São Paulo, he also had to reinvent himself during the pandemic so as not to close its doors, which occurred with approximately 50,000 establishments in the state (300,000 in the country ), according to the Brazilian Association of Bars and Restaurants of São Paulo (Abrasel-SP). Another alarming data from the agency was the closure of 1.2 million jobs throughout Brazil.
With the house closed in the first months after Covid-19’s arrival in Brazil, Charlô had to go to court to ask for a discount on the rent and fired 40 employees of the approximately 80 he had. Also, it could: in March 2020, its sales fell 95%, reaching less than R$ 20 thousand, according to a process in the Court of Justice of São Paulo.
Part of the gains came from the then recently launched e-commerce service for frozen foods, which later included fresh products as well, such as the well-known nut cake from Charlô, sold since the beginning of the restaurateur’s trajectory. “For sure, the pandemic was the most difficult period I’ve ever lived through,” he says.
The Bistro survived the opening-and-closing operation due to the quarantine and, if the house underwent some renovations in these 33 years, it was in 2021 that the longest one took place, lasting ten months. The restaurant reopened in October, smaller, with 50 seats and a rotisserie and patisserie space at the entrance, after an area open to the street. “It’s almost like going back in time, because when I opened here, I sold take-out food too,” he recalls.
The new menu also came with changes, with the inclusion of cheaper dishes. “Eating in a restaurant doesn’t have to be expensive,” he says. “You can come with friends and have two or three appetizers for lunch, paying R$80 at the end.” There are portions, such as pastrami croqueta and Asterix potato, for R$49, for example.
In this sense of making it cheaper, pork ribs are one of the ingredients that can be included on the menu. And recipes that used more expensive items, such as pistol shrimp, dropped out. “You can’t make a cheap dish with this ingredient,” says the restaurateur. The picadinho at the Bistro, one of the house’s flagships, remains firm and strong, accompanied by rice, black beans, farofa, poached country egg, banana and cabbage.
It is in search of these and other flavors that customers are filling the house again – on weekends, the space has attracted around 200 people a day.
To continue as a reference in São Paulo gastronomy, Charlô is always innovating. In January, he should add another item to the Bistro’s menu: the salted paçoca. “It’s not a common dish that we see in restaurants around. I like to bring this, something simple and different”, he says.
In the mind of the restaurateur who is constantly launching trends, there are always plans for the future, such as opening other bistros in São Paulo. “This new, smaller model of the house is easier to replicate.” Now, wait and see – and experience – what’s next.
Reference: CNN Brasil