2017 Colorado Rising Star Chefs Sam Charles and Marcus Eng of The Way Back

2017 Colorado Rising Star Chefs Sam Charles and Marcus Eng of The Way Back
March 2017

Though he grew up in Salt Lake City, Sam Charles’ first food memories are of meals at his grandfather’s home off the coast of Oregon. Dinner consisted of a daily catch and produce from the family garden. Such experiences led Charles to culinary school in Iowa. Not the right fit at the time, he dropped out and started bartending, which ultimately led him to Chicago. In Chi-town, he cut his teeth at The Bristol (with Rising Stars alum Chris Pandel), and was later part of the opening team at Trenchermen. Charles left Chicago to be closer to his aging grandfather, who had moved to Colorado. Arriving in Denver, he joined the opening team of Steve Redzikowski’s Acorn, where he met his future chef-partner, Marcus Eng.

Eng’s culinary career began as a short order cook in high school, and ended (or so he thought) when he enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder. In need of beer money, he was drawn back to the kitchen. From dish pit to the line at Jeff Osaka’s Twelve, Eng honed his skills and eventually traveled cross country, picking up stages along the way.

Charles and Eng found a mentor in Redzikowski, and a business partner in each other. In 2016, restaurateur dream team Chad Michael George, Jared Schwartz, and Kade Gianinetti tapped the chef-duo to open The Way Back. There, Charles and Eng focus on classic technique and forward-thinking regional cuisine.

Interview with Colorado Rising Stars Samuel Charles and Marcus Eng of The Way Back

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start?
Charles: I went to Culinary School at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa, but I dropped out. I didn’t like the teachers and I was not a good student. When I dropped out, I started bartending and then I moved to Chicago. The city really cut my teeth. I started at The Bristol and continued there while Chris Pandel opened his second restaurant. I saw Chris move out and Tony Quartaro move in. Then ended up part of the opening team at Trenchermen. After that, I took off to Denver, because I wanted to be closer to my grandfather who was in Boulder. After arriving, I joined the opening team at Acorn, where Marcus and I met.
Marcus Eng: I started in college as a dishwasher and was a short order cook throughout my high school years. I went off to UC Boulder and majored in history, and then I started cooking again for beer money. After, I worked at better restaurants and moved to Denver and worked at Twelve, where I started getting involved in the menu. It was a massive responsibility, but really exciting. That’s when I knew I wanted to stay in the industry.

SK: How was the process of opening The Way Back?
We opened in March, with 58 seats inside and 30 to 35 outside, and we were doing 130 to 170 covers a night. Originally, the outdoor space had a bar called the Bark Bar, which had a dog-friendly patio, but it was closed because of the neighbors’ complaints.

SK: Who are your mentors?
: I jumped around a lot, so I would mention quite a few people. Chris Mandel, Mike and Pat Sheerin from Trenchermen. I would also add Amos Watts at Old Major as well as Steve Redzikowski
ME: I also moved from kitchen to kitchen because I didn’t find a mentor. I stayed for about a year in each restaurant, but I do try to stage whenever I travel. Amos Watts would definitely be one.

SK: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
SC: We’ve been in Denver for almost four years. Our food represents Colorado’s agricultural community. That is what we push for. It is about the labor and the source of the product, and that is our greatest contribution. Also, we’re set on the idea that mitigating waste is indispensable, which is why we have very little waste each day. We compost and work with small farms to pick things up, and we go foraging for ourselves. We want the freshest ingredients from local farms.

SK: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
ME: For us, the permits from the city were very difficult to deal with. Since we were the first restaurant in Denver to use natural gas rather than propane, we had to take baby steps and slowly progress.

SK: What's your five year plan?
SC: Right now the business is growing and our umbrella company has a lot of land in Carbondale, near Aspen. We’re considering opening a farm-to-table place out there since eventually we might get tired of the city. Another plan we have refers to locally sourcing our ingredients. The plan is to lead by example, using sustainable practices such as foraging. This is critical to us, and we think that sustainability is a mandatory part of a chef’s duties, so we want to make sure we teach this philosophy to the next generation. This applies to our practices inside the kitchen, too. We will never cook meats in bags, we only sous vide eggs. Even if it would be easy to put things in bags and leave them overnight, we’re not keen on the idea of generating so much waste.  
ME: We would also love to start working with schools and hospitals to get the ideas we mentioned into the local community. We’re concerned about community health as well. Kids nowadays eat very nutrient deficient meals. We think the whole system is too reliant on frozen foods, processed meals, and corporations feeding everyone. For us, this has big implications regarding food security. If there’s a natural disaster and people don’t know what to do or how to get produce, how are they going to eat? Our dietary needs should not be met by corporations’ idea of food.