2022: Chef Charlie Torgerson
The Minnesota Pork Board recognizes Chef Charlie Torgerson as this year’s Pork Promoter of the Year Award recipient.
Esteemed Minnesota Chef, Charlie Torgerson, was ahead of his time in 1991 when he opened the first Charlie T’s Smokehouse in Fairbanks, Alaska, serving barbecue styles that originated in the southern states of the United States. Since then, his mouthwatering, meaty masterpieces have debuted across the United States. His love for sharing his expertise with other chefs and consumers earned him this year’s Pork Promoter of the Year award.
Learning the Ropes
Many renowned chefs will tell you they knew they wanted to be a chef at a very young age and could always be found creating dishes in the kitchen. This doesn’t hold true for Chef Charlie Torgerson. Instead, as a young boy his go-to sandwich was Miracle-Whip spread on a single slice of white bread.
Though his early years didn’t show much promise for becoming a barbecue aficionado, the roles he held from his teenage years on, paired with his journey across America to learn the in’s and out’s of all things barbecue, set him up well for the role he now holds today.
In high school, Torgerson began his culinary journey in a deli shop while simultaneously trying his hand at a lumber company for extra cash. Fast-forward a few years later, as he was sitting in an engineering class at Bemidji State College asking himself, “What am I doing?”, he decided to apply to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) – one of only two culinary schools in the country at the time.
After gaining more restaurant experience, and despite his mother’s doubt due to little exposure to the culinary arts, Torgerson got accepted into CIA, packed his bags, and headed to New York. A close friend took him under her wing and showed him around the city, introducing him to a restaurant called Red Bones in Somerville, MA, where he first fell in love with barbecue and pit smokers.
Torgerson recalled, “I remember thinking how killer the meat was. I wasn’t in Texas, or North Carolina, or Virginia. I was in Boston, and this was real deal barbecue.”
Ironically, his first few jobs following school were as a pastry chef – contrary to where his career has landed him today – but he soon packed his belongings again and headed north to Alaska, with barbecue still on his mind.
“My uncle owned a prime rib joint in Alaska, so I bought a new vehicle, packed my stuff up and drove to Fairbanks, Alaska,” noted Torgerson. “My plan was to only stay for the summer, but I ended up there for 4 years working with my uncle who was instrumental in helping me get to know the business side of the restaurant world.”
The East Coast called him back, where he once again utilized his pastry chef skills, but refined his barbecue abilities in his backyard on the weekends with a small Weber Grill – which he still has to this day. He began smoking with chicken wings and brisket, having his friends as taste-testers. Torgerson recalled their delight in the meat, as nearly all meat was baked in an oven at the time. Seeing their reactions led him to his next big move – opening his own barbecue joint.
Southern Barbecue Tour
Joining forces with his future business partner and two friends along for the ride, they toured the Southern states passing through the Carolinas, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Georgia, stopping at barbecue joints every chance they could.
One particular spot Torgerson still coins as the best pulled pork sandwich he’s ever had, was at Anderson’s Barbecue.
“We were driving down the road and saw a small sign outside of a garage where an old man was sitting,” recalled Torgerson. “We pulled up and the man got up, walked into the garage, opened a window and asked, “What can I get you?””
Torgerson and crew sought out hidden gem barbecue joints along their route, stopping to learn everything they could from pit masters who had been smoking for decades.
“I would work for free for people, just so they would teach me and show me their tricks to making the best barbecue,” he laughed.
“Everyone was willing to tell me their secrets once I mentioned I was going to open my restaurant in Alaska, far away from them.”
Their final stop before reaching their destination in Alaska was Mesquite, Texas, where Torgerson custom-ordered his first Oyler Pit 750, which took two months to ship via barge up to Fairbanks. Upon arrival, the fire department didn’t even know what the smoker was.
Charlie T’s Origination
In 1991, Torgerson opened his first restaurant, Charlie T’s Smokehouse, where he created and smoked the food, and his business partner ran the bar. Their tagline, “Northern-most Southern Barbecue”, was fitting, as people in Fairbanks had never tasted anything like the kind of barbecue Torgerson was smoking. While here, he perfected his unique style of smoked and spiced rubbed meats. Each dish was very pork-driven with ribs and homemade sausages using his grandpa’s recipes.
Following his decade-long journey in Alaska, Torgerson moved back closer to family in Minnesota, where he held positions in several different restaurants before settling at Famous Dave’s where his skills were quickly recognized, and he spent over 19 years as the Executive Chef and Senior Director of Culinary.
Great Minnesota Get Together
From owning two of his own Famous Dave’s franchises to opening and training the teams for 35 different restaurant locations, Torgerson played a vital role in the restaurant chain’s success. He also took over the popular Famous Dave’s stand at the Minnesota State Fair in 2001, which has since transformed into RC’s BBQ, now hosting a permanent building on the fairgrounds with a lively patio for fairgoers to dine, drink and be merry.
Torgerson’s presence at the fair doesn’t stop there. For several years, he could be found at the Minnesota Pork Booth doing demonstrations and showing consumers different ways to cook delicious pork dishes. He stated,
“I love to show people there’s more to pork than just a shoulder, bacon and ribs.”
His love for creating new dishes is easily distinguishable in the brand new pork dishes he showcases at the fair each year. In past years, items such as Pig Ear French Fries, Naughty Biscuit, and Pig Lickers (Chocolate-covered bacon) made their way onto RC BBQ’s menu, with the Pig Lickers even catching national attention in the Associated Press and raved about on Good Morning America. If you ask him, even though chocolate-covered bacon isn’t so novel today, he will confidently tell you he and his business partner were the first developers of the tasty treat.
Minnesota’s Meat Guy
Torgerson is known by many as “The Meat Guy”. When asked where this term originated, he referenced the parties he used to host in his driveway while continuing to perfect old smoking recipes and simultaneously creating new delicacies. His next-door neighbor’s two-year old daughter strode over one day, pointed to him and said, “The Meat Guy”; the name stuck, even making it onto his current consulting companies’ logo.
Charlie T’s Foods, a BBQ restaurant-flipping company develops products and revamps operations to help restaurants transform and become prosperous. Torgerson describes his work as a consultant to be his most rewarding endeavor, as he gets to help people bring their passion to life.
In 2020, when nearly every business in the United States shut down for a period of time, Torgerson’s consulting business slowed and the 2020 Minnesota State Fair was canceled. This outcome led to him and two friends opening a Charlie T’s Smokehouse BBQ trailer in Hamel, Minnesota.
“We had considered opening a brick-and-mortar place for years,” described Torgerson. “This was a less risky option, and probably never would have happened if the pandemic didn’t hit.”
The Minnesota Pork Board also utilized Torgerson’s expertise in 2020 through several “how-to” videos. The videos were designed as a resource for chefs and restaurants to look to for inspiration on ways to increase pork on their menus or add value to what they already offer. Topics covered range from pork loin fabrication to complimentary pork condiments to pork value cuts. Each video is housed on the Minnesota Pork Board YouTube channel and is always available to interested chefs and restaurants.
Torgerson’s culinary skills have also been showed off in live pork cooking demos broadcasted on Twin Cities Live during Minnesota Pork Week, in consumer cooking classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill, and the University of Minnesota Pork Foodservice Workshop, among other events. His enthusiasm for training and motivating people to try new cuts and cook pork in different ways is inspiring.
“I love teaching people and seeing their reactions once they try the food, whether I prepared it for them or they tried my technique and recipe,” Torgerson said.
Domestic Market Development Manager for the National Pork Board and fellow chef, Jim Murray acknowledged, “Charlie continues to push his creative limits and yet still finds time to educate as many others as possible. It is one thing to possess knowledge, but an entirely different skill to pass it along to others.”
His latest project with the Minnesota Pork Board, Midwest Pork Summit, convened in September 2021, with thirteen chefs from across the Midwest gathering in Minnesota for a three-day farm-to-fork learning experience. Torgerson helped oversee the event, developing the Hispanic theme, assisting in finding demonstration chefs, and assuring the facility was properly equipped.
Describing the overall event, Torgerson noted, “It was a ton of fun. The chefs were fantastic and engaged and the theme worked so well with the National Pork Board’s efforts right now.”
Not only has Torgerson been a valued partner in Minnesota, but in 2008, he was enlisted into the National Pork Board Celebrated Chefs program – selected for his culinary excellence, creativity and originality in menuing pork dishes.
Through countless events and consultations from state to national levels, Torgerson shares his love of the world’s favorite protein to get a delicious product in consumer’s hands. The Minnesota Pork Board is greatly appreciative of his willingness and enthusiasm to share his knowledge with consumers and chefs alike to teach them innovative and delicious ways to cook pork.