“Don’t forget about your pizza.”
I don’t know what was more offensive — that my mom would bring up the world’s best pizza now, disorienting my palate right before Thanksgiving dinner, or that she would suggest that I could possibly forget about the parbaked Reuben Pizza living rent free in her basement freezer since August.
Sure, it hadn’t occurred to me recently that the perfect pizza — its seamless symphony of corned beef, swiss, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, sesame and caraway seeds — was waiting for me in a state of suspended animation, just a few minutes from my house and a few hundred degrees from gastronomic singularity. I hadn’t thought about my Reuben Pizza recently in the sense that, like breathing or bargains, I don’t have to think about it.
Now my heart feels like it’s been pulled out of the oven, wrapped in cellophane, boxed in corrugated cardboard and buried in the freezer.
Chef Charles passed away on Sunday, November 28, at his home in Kewadin, Michigan. His name was Charles Eugene Egeler, but that's at least two names too many. Even “Chef Charles” more readily recalls the Elk Rapids pizzeria and his signature pie:
Chef Charles' Pesto, Chef Charles' Four Blend Cheese, Feta Cheese, Artichoke Hearts, Fresh Sliced Garlic, Calamata Olives, Sesame Crust; Baked and Topped with Toasted Pinenuts
I just called him “Chef” and — for all the people we’ve said goodbye to in the last year and for the handful of times I would see him each summer — his death has hit me the hardest.
Chef Charles’ life could have looked a lot different. He could have continued his respected, itinerant culinary career, building on successes at the Briarwood Hilton in Ann Arbor, JD Hatchery in Atlanta, Top of the Rockies in Denver, The Rhinoceros in Detroit and the Reflections Restaurant at Traverse City’s Waterfront Inn. He could have lived in the kitchen; he could have stayed in the closet.
Instead, Chef Charles chose love.
He chose love of community. He and his brother opened Chef Charles Pizza with Pizzazz in 1995, parlaying his Culinary Institute of Arts training and years of experience (including apprenticing in a Jewish bakery and being mentored by a former White House chef) into the former Pizza Port on River Street:
“That first summer, I got very creative playing with the menu,” said Egeler. He incorporated his own pesto recipe and starting making a Roma tomato-based sauce as well, using only fresh herbs like basil (which he grows himself) and parsley. He also began making his own rustic-style dough with high-gluten flour and a medium cracked wheat, “because it imparts that kind of nutty flavor and gives it a nice chew.”
The mid-90s may have been a savvy time to go up market with pizza but not to hang a shingle in downtown Elk Rapids. Even when the Grand Traverse Mall still reigned supreme, Chef Charles pizza, fresh salads and batard bread sandwiches became destination dining for locals and tourists alike. Along the way, Chef supported every cause in town, from Harbor Days to youth sports (Go Elks!), and taught countless young employees how to handle the heat of both the pizza oven and of a hungry clientele.
And he chose love of Oscar. I never met Oscar, but I feel like I know him. I know he is Nicaraguan. I know he is an attorney. I know that the end of summer Up North was always more sweet than bitter for Chef because it meant being reunited with his partner — husband since 2019 — in Nicaragua. I know that Oscar’s dad was a Central American sales rep for Nabisco in the 1950s because Chef was particularly excited for him to try BOBs by Phoebe.
I know that being separated from Oscar during the pandemic was exceptionally hard for Chef and that he had big plans for them when Oscar was to travel to Michigan last month. I don’t know if Oscar was with him when he passed away at home. Their anniversary was November 9.
The joy of Chef Charles — person, place and thing — spans the entirety of my relationship with A.J. and the lives of our kids. The promise of pizza was integral to luring me off the Leelanau Peninsula when we first met. Back when we could fit ourselves and our stuff in a Mini Cooper, we drove up during the weeks around St. Patrick’s Day when Reuben Pizza would appear on the menu and remain until the corned beef ran out. When “having baby” was our excuse for not making the trek, Chef parbaked one for me in exchange for receiving the Judah Pic of the Week.
When the quantity of cousins at Torch Lake reaches the double digits (a roost of Rosenzweigs), Chef Charles is about the only thing that everyone can agree on. And Chef knew us well enough to manage elaborate toppings — pie as a function of pi — and allergy issues. If we reached an impasse, then the Seven Cheese could overcome any filibuster:
Tomato Sauce, Pizzabuona, Provolone, Mild Cheddar, Monterey Jack, White Cheddar, Asiago & Feta
Perhaps the greatest testimonial came when we were dining at The Chef circa 2012: Still relatively new to solid foods, Phoebe became so ravenous after her first taste that she bit into my mother-in-law’s finger.
Even when Chef was out of view, you could hear his voice coming from the kitchen. Even when that voice was correcting an employee struggling to keep up, it was warm and encouraging. Even when the place was packed in peak season, he would clap the flour off his hands, poke his head out, say How are you? and really want to know how you were.
I feel like Bobby Baccalieri, the sensitive Soprano’s mobster. Bobby keeps his wife’s baked ziti in his freezer long after her untimely death. I am optimistic that Chef Charles will reopen next year and that his generous mentorship will yield sustained quality of the fare. But there will never be another pizza made by the master himself, by the Chef, by my friend.