Interview with Charles Bililies of Souvla San Francisco

What was your first memory of cooking and what did you cook?

My first memory, no joke, was helping my grandfather set up the spit in our garage to roast a whole lamb for Greek Easter. I was probably 4 or 5. I still remember the smell….

What is a knife you cannot live without?

When I was cooking full-time professionally in restaurants, I was a big fan of the big, sharp carbon-bladed Asian cleaver. Nowadays, I’m not as picky…

What is one ingredient you cannot cook without?

No-brainer – Kosher salt.

What was one of the biggest mistakes you made your first year in the culinary industry?

Thinking I was some know-it-all, culinary hotshot. I was put in my place real quick.

When did you know you wanted to become a chef or restaurant proprietor?

I come from a few generations of entrepreneur / small business owners, so there was probably some genetic pre-disposition. The idea for Souvla only came about many years after my start in the restaurant business, partially in response to all my time spent in fine dining establishments.

What was it like working with Thomas Keller as his first culinary assistant? What did that role teach you?

It was a true honor to be a part of his organization, and the fact that I was able to create and define a role that still exists a decade later is pretty incredible. One of the big takeaways is that over time I learned to anticipate his needs and questions, and thus, learned to think like him. It’s where much of my attention to detail is derived from.

Who has been the most influential mentor/chef in your career?

Thomas was certainly a major influence. Michael Mina too. Much of my business knowledge comes from my time working under him. We run Souvla as a business, first and foremost, which is a fairly simple, but often overlooked principle.

How did you get involved in the Greek Winemaking process? Share with us how Greek Wines are unique to what you would find in California?

I had the good fortune of befriending Greek wine importer Ted Diamantis, when I traveled to Greece in 2011 while finalizing the Souvla concept. I knew I wanted Souvla to have a focus on Greek wines, but it was on that trip where, through Ted, I connected with legendary producers George Skouras and Lazaros Alexakis of Domaine Skouras and Alexakis Winery, respectively. Five years later, we’ve just launched a line of Souvla wines with them! Greek wines are not only delicious and food friendly, but represent tremendous value compared to similar wines domestically. Trust me, they’re the next big thing…

What is your favorite after work drink?

I almost always keep some assyrtiko from Santorini cold in the fridge. I drink what I preach!

What is your favorite local spot?

You’d be surprised, but I’m a big Hillstone guy. It’s my secret, go-to local spot, and the one in San Francisco flies pretty under the radar, which I love.

Tell us something that would surprise people about you?

Aside from the fact that I love Hillstone? Despite the fact that I walk to our restaurants, I’m actually a big car guy – I’ve been very into cars since I can remember. I’ve owned a bunch of cars over the years, including a ’73 Stingray and an Italian-built Volvo.

Photo courtesy of Kassie Borreson

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