Chef Michelle Weaver of Charleston Place. | Photo by Ruta Smith (CP file photo)

Michelle Weaver wants you to know she’s not getting kicked upstairs at Charleston Grill.

Even before her news broke of a status change from being executive chef at the iconic restaurant to culinary ambassador, friends were hearing rumors.

“I was getting calls from friends, all saying, ‘Are they forcing you to retire?’ I’m just expanding my role,” Weaver said in an interview in the remodeled restaurant, which has been lightened and features large abstract paintings by local artist Raven Roxanne.

And she says that while she will miss cooking every day, “After a while, your body tells you, you can’t stand at a table 12 hours a day.”

In her new role, Weaver will oversee culinary recruitment, epicurean direction and training in all of the restaurants in Charleston Place. As ambassador, she will be able to get out more in the community again, something she’s had little time for since the Covid pandemic and staff shortages. 

Weaver says exciting changes are planned, including quarterly pop-ups with guest chefs, the first of which appear Feb. 24 and 25, when Gramercy Tavern’s Michael Anthony cooks to benefit Feed the Need. Next year, even more renovations are planned, including a demonstration kitchen where cooking lessons will be offered. 

An exciting transition

It’s not Weaver’s first transition, and she reflected on her 25 years as a chef — 14 of them as executive chef — at the restaurant.

In 1997, Weaver was slated to come from Nashville to work with friend and mentor Bob Waggoner, who had just been hired as executive chef.

“He called me and asked if I could come early because there was something called Spoleto going on and the place was packed every night,” Weaver recalled. “I packed up and pulled up outside of the restaurant with a U-Haul towing my little red Cavalier.”

She would work with him until she took over the kitchen when he left in 2009.

More changes came with the arrival and, years later, departure of Mickey Bakst, the restaurant’s general manager and, at the time, unofficial city mayor for his charm and ability to remember names and faces. The two became so synonymous with the restaurant that artist David Boatright painted them into his Queen Street mural that offered his take of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party with local culinary luminaries. In the mural, Bakst’s arm is around Weaver as he speaks, and Weaver’s hands are on her face and over her ears.

“I love that I look like I’m saying, ‘Mickey, what have you gotten us into now?’ He was known for volunteering us for things and forgetting to tell me until the last minute!” Weaver said, laughing.

Weaver said the restaurant’s many transitions reflect the food evolution of the city itself, moving from classic Lowcountry to French and a bit of Southern when Waggoner was in charge to the more global flavors using local ingredients that she has brought.

The restaurant’s reputation has allowed Weaver to cook for countless celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, Mel Gibson, Maya Angelou and, of course, Bill Murray. She said she accommodated their dining requests, but added she would have done that for anyone, not just celebrities. Weaver said she always respected a celebrity’s privacy, with one notable exception: when her mother’s celebrity crush, Kris Kristofferson, came to town, Weaver did request a photo.

Still involved with Charleston Place’s food

While Weaver’s new role may not put her in the kitchen every day, she said her imprint will be on all of the food as she coaches on when local ingredients are in season and should be added to the menu, brainstorms new dishes and helps train the staff making that food. The ambassador role speaks to her strengths, she said, because training was always something she took seriously, priding herself on an organized kitchen like “a well-oiled machine moving in perfect cadence,” even during the age of celebrity chefs known for their volatility.

She says she’s grateful that so many people have held their important celebrations at the restaurant.

“When someone has given us the responsibility to help them commemorate a special occasion, I feel so honored that they trusted us enough to be a part of their day,” Weaver said. “Our job is to make people smile. What’s better than that?”

Weaver said her favorite memory of all is reflecting on the many young people she’s trained through the years.

With tears in her eyes, Weaver said, “I’m proud of all the young people, front and back, who have graduated from the Charleston Grill School of Life. Watching all the people who have worked here, seeing them come back to visit and say this was their favorite job, that they learned how to be an adult, how to be gracious and compassionate, how to succeed. I call them my babies. It gets me every time! It’s my legacy.” 

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.