116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A chef in the Czech Village is making a name for himself not by mimicking the stereotypes of Michelin-starred restaurants, but by recalibrating the simplicity of good food.
At Rodina, Chef Samuel Charles, 34, of Cedar Rapids, opts for things like roasted chicken instead of emulsified foam. In doing so, he’s credited with establishing a new category of food that recently earned him 2021’s title of Chef of the Year by the Iowa Restaurant Association.
At the 72-seat upscale eatery at 1507 C St. SW, Charles is reclaiming the term “meat and potatoes,” which has become more of a pejorative term in fine dining.
“It’s based on a very simple palate,” he said. “Some people might call it bland. I would call it simple.”
With an emphasis on “heavy nurturing” and “lots of butter,” he believes “simple” should not be a bad word in dining. Within that embrace could be the key to a new category of dining — Midwest Comfort Food — that has not yet become a trend.
“Chef Samuel Charles is helping elevate the culinary game in the Midwest and by bringing recognition to the amazing cuisine across our state,” said Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association.
But what’s more is that by getting back to the basics, Charles’ food through Rodina is restoring the relationships with food that many diners have lost. Food is about more than eliminating hunger in a tasty way, he said — it’s about our relationship to each other and the things that nourish us.
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Having grown up in several locations, his menu and philosophy is partly inspired by summers spent on the coast of Oregon, where his family caught crabs and mussels. Other menu items, like his roasted chicken, come from family traditions that took course over a matter of days, not minutes or hours.
With a mother from Tennessee, Charles set out to create flavor profiles that evoked the feelings of Southern comfort food in a Midwestern style.
“The kitchen has always been the focal point. I was the kid that had to have dinner with my family on a Saturday night, whether I wanted to or not,” Charles said. “The relationship with food was always there.”
Today he said that relationship is different for many, “because we’re getting introduced to it a lot differently.”
“People don’t pass down recipes any more. (Those are) stories — that’s what people don’t understand,” he said. “You might see that as a sauerkraut. It’s more than that now. When they used it, it was a means for actual survival and a story of hardship.”
Part of centering the family around a table again means family-style meals at Rodina — a concept underplayed in most markets. And while some food critics on the coasts might turn up their noses at the images evoked by well-known Midwestern obsessions — like ranch dressing and giant pork tenderloins — travelers remain one of Rodina’s most consistent customer bases.
“We wanted to create a restaurant that felt familiar when you came in, that felt like you were walking into a home,” Charles said.
Decor around the restaurant makes a public location feel private with items like a grandfather’s painting, a grandmother’s furniture or Czech glass brought home during a world war.
With a deliberate stance on sustainability and local sourcing, Charles said it took years for them to add something as basic as ranch or beef to the menu. Not because they were hard things to make or find, but because he wanted them to be done well and without an environmental impact.
And although the chef insists that the future of the food world lies in local sustainability, he will never call Rodina “farm-to-table,” a trendy term in cuisine.
“Everything comes from a farm,” he said of the phrase, calling it a gimmick.
To Charles, Midwest comfort food is about enriching the diner, not just satiating their hunger. The beauty of enrichment through this genre is you don’t have to adjust to unfamiliar dishes or complicated concepts. In Iowa, it might mean a little bit of salt and pepper, a lot of butter and some heat.
Although others credit him for starting a new trend, Charles is on the fence about whether he’s started something noteworthy yet.
“I’ve done nothing but jump on a bandwagon that other people started,” he said. “The award’s great, but it’s always going to be about what the team has accomplished. ... It’s about collectively what we do, which is why I believe this restaurant is special.”
For Charles, that humility carries through to his recent award. He credits his staff for that success, too, unable to articulate why he was chosen for the big recognition.
Charles has worked under three James Beard semifinalists; played an integral role in seven restaurant openings; has been honored as one of StarChefs’ 2017 Colorado Rising Stars; and earned the title CRANDIC 2019 Best Chef from Little Village, according to the Iowa Restaurant Association.
He credits his longevity in the field to the people he works with and serves — not the work, which “sucks,” he readily concedes.
“People are shocked to hear me say that, but it sucks. It’s the people I work with, the people that come in,” that keep him there, he said.
With 18 years in the industry since he first started bussing tables, he’s part of a select few who amass that level of experience without leaving. In an industry with a notoriously high turnover rate, Charles has not yet been sucked out by the force of a metaphorical revolving door that most workers enter and exit through in short order.
After dropping out of college, Charles worked in the industry for a bit before deciding to go to culinary school. During a stint in Chicago, where his career started to get serious, he helped open one restaurant.
Charles and his wife, Phoebe, then lived in Denver for nearly five years, where he opened more restaurants and served as co-executive chef in a growing restaurant group. The couple came back in 2017 to be near family and start their new venture in a place where they saw opportunity.
Although he’s a “lifer” in the industry, he said being a chef might not be his lifelong occupation. Soon, the couple would like to expand their holding into a group of restaurants. One casual concept is in the works for Iowa City.
While comfort food means enrichment to Charles, home means being with family and friends. And at Rodina, the chef can’t spell Midwest comfort food without the spirit imbued with people who make meat and potatoes more than calories on a plate.
“In order for people to be able to come in and have what they believe is an elevated meal not because of the actual food that hits the table, but because of the actual curated experience — that’s a cool thing,” Charles said. “The city needs it.”
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