MOTT HAVEN — It took a roughly 13-year battle with a methamphetamine addiction and trips to places ranging from Spain to the Big Apple Circus, but chef and Texas native Joshua Bedford says he has finally found a place where he feels comfortable: Charlie's Bar and Kitchen in the South Bronx.
"It's the first time I felt like I've had a home since I left Texas so many years ago," he said.
Bedford, 30, works as the executive chef at Charlie's, an upscale eatery that serves up oysters, burgers and peanut butter waffles.
He arrived at the restaurant about a year and a half ago, and bar manager Dan Fitzgibbons credits him with helping to transform the place into a legitimate eatery.
"He's made it more like a restaurant instead of a bar with snacks," he said.
Charlie's is part of a burgeoning restaurant scene in Mott Haven, and it has won fans even among those who work for what would normally be considered its competitors.
Joseph Diaz, manager at the nearby Mott Haven Bar and Grill, said he appreciated that Charlie's gave people more options for where to eat in the South Bronx and praised Bedford's enthusiasm.
"He’s very passionate about his food and what he does," he said. "That’s one thing I do love about him."
Bedford said he graduated from the Cordon Bleu in Dallas about five years ago and described developing a passion for food as helping save him from a meth problem that began when he was just 13 years old.
"I was homeless at the time. I ran away from home like an idiot, and that’s the drug everybody was doing," he said. "I wanted to be part of the big group. I wanted to be part of the crowd."
Although Bedford tried to avoid the drug by simply moving to places where he didn't think he would be able to find it, he found that devoting his attention to food was a much more effective way of keeping himself clean.
"When you’re on that stuff, you can’t eat, and that’s what my job is," he said. "Food has saved my life, and in turn, it’s driven my goals. That’s why I care about it the that way I do."
Bedford said he has been clean for roughly three years and has not had any relapses since arriving in New York about two years ago after spending two months volunteering with cooks in Spain.
His first job in New York City's world renowned food industry was preparing meals for staff members at the Big Apple Circus.
The job was just a way to get a paycheck and do a favor for a friend, as well as a good way to get introduced to the city's insanity, Bedford said.
"It put me in the lap of the crazy that is New York, which is awesome, by the way," he said. "I think it’s incredible: the artists, the freaks, the people who are just a little bit different. And that’s what New York is all about."
Bedford left the traveling circus after about a month when they left New York and then moved over to Oceana, a Michelin Star restaurant in Midtown known for American seafood.
However, he found that the cooking environment there felt too much like an assembly line and did not allow him to pay as much attention to each dish as he would have liked.
"I didn't have time to make notice of every plate that went out," he said. "And it just felt like a huge machine."
So after about four months in Midtown, Bedford headed north to take a job at Charlie's in Mott Haven, which he described as a place that just felt right.
The smaller scale and atmosphere of Charlie's means that people are more likely to pay attention to the special touches Bedford puts into preparing the food, such as making the burger buns by hand or using fresh tomatoes instead of ketchup in cocktail sauce, he said.
"The fact that I do that kind of stuff, people here still notice it," said Bedford.
Bedford gets his ingredients locally at the Hunts Point Market and South Bronx Farmers Market, a choice that farmers market director Lily Kesselman described as extremely generous.
She eats at Charlie's with her family about every two weeks and said they enjoyed menu items ranging from the salads to the oysters.
Bedford describes Mott Haven in glowing terms and said he appreciates how amenable the area is to whatever he wants to try adding to Charlie's menu.
"I can do crazy things like gizzards, for example, and people will eat them up," he said. "It’s cool to watch the neighborhood grow. I feel like I got here at the right time."