Charlie Torgerson, Culinary Director for the Famous Dave restaurant corporation, remembers hanging out in his grandfather’s butcher shop in Morris, Minnesota. His Uncle George was also a “meat man.” Torgerson’s first job, at age 15, was pulling chicken off the bone at a Chinese restaurant in Crystal.
A friend saw a public television program about the Culinary Institute of America and had a brochure sent to Torgerson. He went off to New York in December of 1983. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Torgerson said.
After graduation, Torgerson worked in pastries at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station and at a restaurant in Greenwich Village. Then, in 1986, he had his first taste of real barbecue during a visit to Boston. “I didn’t put down my rolling pin right away,” he said, but he did start experimenting on sauces and seasonings in his back yard.
Deciding to join his Uncle George in Alaska, Torgerson moved from New York in a Volkswagen Vanagon via barbecue joints throughout the southeast and into Texas, where he ordered a smoker to be shipped to Fairbanks. Ultimately, Alaska proved “too desolate and dark,” so he sold the restaurant to his partner and moved back to Minnesota.
He saw an article about “America’s next rib king,” Dave Anderson, and was hired as a kitchen manager. “When I met Dave, I thought I knew everything. He really did know everything,” Torgerson said. Within six months, Torgerson became the kitchen operations instructor. He opened the next 35 restaurants, built systems and tools and created training agendas.
By 2000, Torgerson was “sick of traveling.” When Famous Dave’s started franchising in 2001, he became a partner in the restaurant in Duluth and bought the Famous Dave’s operation at the Minnesota State Fair. In 2009, the company opened a test kitchen and brought Torgerson in to run it.
Torgerson’s job includes vendor selection, costing things out, creating training and working with marketing, but he still spends more time in the kitchen than at the computer. He samples food all day, and often barbecues for friends on weekends. “I don’t remember the last time I went to Famous Dave’s and ate a whole plate of food,” he said.
What does the test kitchen do?
I don’t think people understand Famous Dave’s. People think the food comes out of a central commissary, but there are smokers in every building. We have to go through countless hours, multiple times to get the process down and put it on a piece of paper, step by step by step, with pictures of every step. That’s the attention to detail that Dave has taught us over the years.
With a successful State Fair location, do you still need a day job?
People think you must get rich, but you don’t. It’s better than a restaurant, but it’s only 12 days. We’re serving high-cost protein items, and the Fair doesn’t let us do this for free. We built a bigger building in 2005. It’s more fun to work down there now. I take 12 days off. I get to see my daughter, my wife, my nephews. Once in a while there’s even an ex-wife working there.
What’s the next step in your career?
I’ll do this forever. It’s a great job with good people to work with. I love Dave — he’s a friend. You learn a lot of stuff. □