February / March 2014
Article and photos
Imagine being the mother of a daughter in her early twenties and one day receiving a collect phone call from –of all places – Alaska. Your daughter informs you that she’s taking a job as a cook for eight men at a construction camp in the middle of nowhere. Thirty-five years ago, chef and Natchez native Regina Charboneau made such a call to her own mother.
“This was before email and cell phones. There was really nothing she could do about it,” she says.
Charboneau grew up in a family that loved to entertain and always felt a draw towards cooking. After high school, she attended a few different colleges across the South, but never really found her niche. That is, until one summer when she and a group of friends decided to take a trip to Alaska.
The Tobeluk Consent Decree of 1976, also known as the Molly Hootch Act, had gone into effect a few years earlier. The act required the State of Alaska to build high schools in Alaskan native villages, meaning construction jobs in the area were plentiful at the time. Regina took a job as a waitress in a café in Anchorage. However, she didn’t work there long before a customer came in and offered her a job cooking at one of the construction camps.
“It was a great time to be in Alaska,” Charboneau recalls. “Anchorage was only 50 years old at the time. There was so much going on. I really wasn’t qualified to do the job, but there was so much need for help in those days, that they really didn’t care.”
Despite the understandable concern of Charboneau’s mother, that trip would change Charboneau’s life forever. The work was hard, but she learned a lot about cooking. Working in the bush of Alaska meant there weren’t any supermarkets nearby. Fresh food was dropped every 2-3 weeks and had to last until the next drop. Fresh salmon and caribou were usually among the supplies. Charboneau says she became more of a game cook while living in Alaska than she ever did growing up in Mississippi.
“That experience gave me my travel lust,” she explains. “I was in my early 20’s. I felt like the whole world was open and I could do anything.”
While in Alaska, Regina also met her husband Doug. She jokes, “His girlfriend was sweet enough to introduce us.”
Eventually, Charboneau managed to save enough money to put herself through cooking school. She attended Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France, one of the first accredited professional cooking schools in France to offer instruction in both French and English. Afterwards, she returned to Alaska and accepted the position of executive chef at the Tower Club in Anchorage.
In the mid-1980’s Charboneau and her husband decided they were ready to move back to the mainland. The couple was torn between moving to New York or San Francisco, but during a visit to The City by the Bay one clear February night, they knew they had found their new home.
“It was a beautiful night and I told Doug, ‘This is the place,’” she says. “The food scene was just getting going and the timing was perfect.”
Her career in San Francisco began as a cook at the Golden Gate Grille. The restaurant was a popular hangout for singers and had great reviews, but it wasn’t what Charboneau wanted to do. Once again, fate intervened when she was introduced to a group of people opening a restaurant in San Francisco’s Regis Hotel. The opportunity was a huge leap for the young chef.
“People ask me, ‘Weren’t you scared?’ I didn’t know any better. I just dove in feet first.”
Regina’s at the Regis opened in 1985. Because of its proximity to San Francisco’s theatre district, it quickly became a favorite among theatre goers, actors, musicians, and celebrities. Charboneau would go on to open a total of four restaurants in San Francisco, including the famous Burger and Blues, which won the WC Handy award in 1999 as the “Best Blues Club in America.”
Despite her wanderlust, the call to return home to Natchez finally won her over when Charboneau’s father passed away. In 2000, she and her husband returned to Natchez with their two sons, Jean-Luc and Martin. The couple purchased Twin Oaks, a beautiful 1830’s-era home in the heart of Natchez.
Even though life moves slower in the South, that hasn’t stopped Charboneau. She serves as the culinary director for the American Queen Steamboat Company, where she oversees menu and recipe development; runs a six-bedroom guest house on the Twin Oaks property; and frequently gives tours of her home during the Natchez pilgrimage.
In early 2013, Charboneau and her husband purchased The King’s Tavern, a restaurant housed in the oldest building in Natchez. After several months of renovations, The King’s Tavern reopened in September 2013. The restaurant specializes in hand crafted, wood fired flat breads made in a wood-fired pizza oven on site. A rum distillery is scheduled is open in the spring of 2014.
Looking back, Charboneau is the first to admit that her life has been nothing short of amazing.
“I can honestly say I have loved my life,” she admits. “I have met so many people along the way. People that I cherish and still have life-long friendships with.”