by Christian Shepherd
photography by Jaren Cyrus
The man known to fair enthusiasts everywhere as Chicken Charlie, the mastermind behind dishes like the deep-fried Oreo, deep-fried Kool-Aid and the Krispy Krème chicken sandwich is animated. He thrusts out his hand with his newest concoction: a ramen burrito. It is a recipe he invented especially for this year’s LA County Fair, which held as its theme the historic Route 66. In keeping with the theme’s spirit, the ramen dish will cost $6.66. This is who Charlie Boghosian really is: a purveyor of indulgence. His reputation for the culinary bizarre precedes him.
Charlie has created a small empire in the Southern California Fair industry, serving up outrageous dishes that customers never tire of. But Charlie the man is much more than just Charlie the brand; he is deeply humble, wildly creative, and simultaneously sentimental and innovative in his gastronomical approach.
Every year, when he is not actively leading at his multiple food sites, Charlie plans for the future in his modest portable office at the Los Angeles County Fair. The office is covered in restaurant schematics and peppered with the remnants of testing ingredients. Outside of his office, he is an outwardly jolly extrovert who, despite being the boss of a fair food empire, dresses in casual loose fitting shirts and basketball shorts when he can get away with it.
Charlie first came to America on his own in 1980. During this time, he lived with his Armenian heritage grandfather in Boston where he learned the English language and became familiar with American customs. His grandparents were part of the 1915 March of Damascus, the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout his childhood, Charlie had always looked forward to the day he could migrate to the United States. “In Syria, people speak of America like heaven. When you say Heaven and America, it is like they are equal. Us kids in the streets of Syria would say, ‘We can’t wait to go to America so we can pick gold up off the streets.’ I was one of the ones that used to say that,” Charlie smiles. “[My dad] wasn’t too happy with the level of poverty in Syria. I think my dad and his dad had a love for America; they always had a dream to come and live here. When he had kids, he tried really hard to get his kids to grow up here.”
Charlie’s father was able to accomplish that dream three years later when the rest of his family joined him in the states. When they arrived, Charlie, who was only 14 years old, played a vital role in ensuring his parents were able to support themselves.
“When my family came, I already learned how to speak English. I helped mom and dad survive in this country because I was the anchor with the English. Anywhere they needed to go—doctors, stores, federal offices, everything—I was the one to take care of that, even though I was only 14 years old.”
Charlie remembers hearing his parents agonize over being able to support themselves in a new country. Charlie’s father was a photographer—according to Charlie, an amazing one—but when he came to America he had trouble finding work since he could not speak the language and was unfamiliar with American technology.
In an attempt to ease his parents’ burden, Charlie told his parents that on his way home from school that day, he had come across a half-empty grocery store with a man inside who did not look happy. He suggested to his parents that they should buy the San Diego store since it was a source of income that did not require communication with customers. “In a situation like that, produce or grocery store, you don’t need English. All you need to do is go downtown to the produce market, buy produce, bring it back, price it out right, put it on the table and sell it. Same thing with the groceries, same thing with the cold products. You hire someone at the cash register who can speak English while you’re in the back of the house doing it all, but you have someone front of the house speaking English, selling the product.”
His father had only $8,000 left from their emigration from Syria. The gentleman who owned the store wanted $15,000. In order to make up the difference, his father borrowed money from his brother who lived in the states. He then borrowed even more money in order to properly stock the store to make a profit. For 20 years, the store supported Charlie’s family. “We did really good; we never knew we were poor. All of us kids worked in it. We never really knew we were missing anything. When I say we grew up poor, I mean we didn’t have Cadillacs; we didn’t live in Beverly Hills. We had a house, and we had a car, and we had a job. It was amazing. As a 14-year-old kid, I was working in that store after school. On Saturday and Sundays, I would put in all the hours I could there.”
The store was going strong for about a year when the young Charlie decided he wanted to try his hand at a different type of employment. The San Diego County Del Mar Fair would end up being his first dive into fair culture. “One day, I saw an add on our TV screen for the fair coming to town; at the time, it was the Del Mar Fair. So I said, ‘Hey, dad, can I go get a job at the fair?’ I called that my vacation away from the produce store. We were kind of poor and needed the money, so my dad said, ‘Yes.’ I went to the fair, walked in, and the very first person I saw, I asked them for a job. He said, ‘Yes.’ He gave me a job, and it happened to be the charbroiled corn stand.”
“The commercial I saw had balloons, carnival rides, games; I wasn’t thinking about food. I was thinking I would come and ride the rides and play the games as a kid, but the first person I saw owned a food booth. I didn’t know that. I thought he owned the whole fair. Next thing I know, I’m shucking corn and thinking, ‘Where’s the balloons?’”
The man who owned the charbroiled corn stand was Robert Jackson, and he would teach Charlie everything he knew about the fair business during his summer school vacations. “I guess I did a good job because the next summer, he called me and couldn’t wait for me to come back. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t wait to come back; I had so much fun the first summer working there. The next summer, I went and worked with him, and my duties grew a little as I and he grew a little tighter. Within two to three years, I was helping him run his business. Five, six years later, I started doing more fairs with him. I would go and live with his family in their RV . . . I had a blast doing it.”
Charlie continued to work with Robert throughout his school years. After graduating from high school, he earned an associate’s degree in pre-law and then transferred in 1995 to San Diego State University to complete a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He wanted to help society, and for him, law enforcement was the best way to achieve that goal. “I loved law-enforcement. All I ever wanted to be was a cop. Growing up downtown in that grocery store in San Diego, being a young man, I wanted to do good. Law enforcement, to me, was helping people. You help in emergencies, you help in many, many situations. You put yourself out there. I fell in love with that, and it’s all I thought about.”
One year after he graduated, as he was preparing to make his way into law enforcement, Charlie was presented with an opportunity that has defined his life. On the very last day of the Del Mar Fair, a women named Pat, who owned a broasted chicken trailer, walked up to him and said, “Charlie, buy my trailer.”
“I just finished college, I am about to become a cop or work in law enforcement, and she is asking me to buy this food stand. That was tough. That was really, really hard. I had the moment of truth: Do I do something that I dreamt of, or do I do something I have done for the last 12 summers and really, truly enjoyed?”
“My dad used to tell me that a government job is a good job because they really take care of you. My mom was worried about me. Ultimately, when the time came, I made the right decision. At that moment, I didn’t know it was the right decision to buy that lady’s trailer, I borrowed money, bought the trailer, changed the name from Broasted Chicken to Chicken Charlie’s, and changed my heart about going into law enforcement, and started cooking at county fairs as an owner.”
Charlie took an interest in cooking early on in his life. He would help his mother cook in the kitchen and watch her as she fried eggplants and other vegetables in hot oil, turning them from something he was less than enthused about, into one of his favorite dishes. His mother and their Armenian/Syrian heritage were his culinary inspiration when he began to think of ways to grow his business.
“She had so many varieties of dishes she could make that we could eat for two months and never repeat the same dish twice. I was one of the luckiest guys growing up. Even now, I have a list of her food that I learn how to cook and grew up with. She was a Mediterranean style cook, stovetop cook, and she loved the ingredients of parsley, olive oil, lemon—she used them in almost everything,” Charlie reminisces. His eyes light up as he recalls the food from his childhood. He leans in and continues: “There is a dish called “Shakria”—and I am going to get real Syrian here—my wife calls it warm yogurt—but basically you take filet mignon and cube it, put it in a pan and sear it with olive oil and onion—a lot of onions. Once you get a good sear on there, you top it with water and let it simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour. Once the meat is cooked to the point where it can be pulled apart with a fork, you add your whole plain yogurt on it. A little bit of allspice, cinnamon, olive oil—when that dish is done, we serve that over rice.” Rice, as typical in most Mediterranean style cuisine, was a staple in Charlie’s family.
“There is another dish that she makes that is my favorite. She’ll cut a little line to make a pocket in the eggplant and then fry it. When it comes out, she lets it dry and stuffs it with sautéed ground beef, onions and pine nuts. Each of the eggplants is layered in a pan, topped off with a little bit of tomato sauce and baked 20 minutes in the oven to marry together. I’ve had it both with and without cheese, but regardless of the cheese, we pick that up and put it over rice.”
His mother, a traditional Mediterranean cook, was confused when Charlie began using her recipes in a deep fryer. “One of the things I started doing when I bought my business was take some of her ideas and some of the ways she did things and started playing with batters. My mom wasn’t really that big on batters; she was a stove top cook, so I took a lot of the stuff she did and dipped it in batter and fried it. When I would tell her, she would think I was crazy. I would always come home and say, ‘Hey, mom, remember that dish you made for us? I dipped it in batter and fried it.’”
His approach to food, the ordainment he presents and the indulgence he prompts have become an expectation of fairgoers. Charlie has played a significant role in that transformation, and he is aware of the impact he has had on fair food culture, shifting it from complacency to innovation. “Years ago, you would sell what you sell, and you do what you do. I think I changed that, as the leader in the fair industry, to, ‘What’s new this year?’ People always wanted their favorites. My all-time favorite was the cinnamon rolls; my brother loved the corn dogs.
Everyone had a favorite, but nowadays—I’m not saying people don’t have their favorites—the biggest question is, ‘What’s new?’ I think that started two decades ago when I invented deep-fried Oreos. I never thought in my wildest dreams that little cookie would change my life and the industry the way it did.”
“A reporter once asked me at the end of my season, ‘Hey, Charlie, you invented deep-fried Oreos, what are you going to do next year?’ Well, when I invented deep-fried Oreos, I wasn’t really thinking about next year; I wasn’t thinking about anything else. I had a menu that I thought, while delicious, was boring. It was fried chicken and fries, and I wanted something to spice it up. I wanted to get the customer to talk about me. That part of it is the funnest for me, the inventing part. What items do we lose, what items do we keep? Sometimes, those are tough decisions.”
Chicken Charlie’s has become a massive operation. Charlie employs nearly 300 people and requires five months of preparation for five months of operation each fair season. With the hundreds of hours of preparation time, restaurant entrepreneurship and constant negotiation with suppliers, Charlie simply cannot handle it all on his own. This is why he brought his family onto the operation in a group he calls the “Chicken Mafia.”
“The “Chicken Mafia” consists of myself, my wife, my brother and his wife. We are the two couples who run Chicken Charlie’s. Included are our team employees, which brings our number to 10 employees who work with us all year long. They are an amazing team that helps us finalize many decisions. I call them my “Chicken Mafia” because we vote on everything. It’s all done in a democratic way.”
Charlie is already working on the recipes for the next fair season. To keep track of all the ideas, he keeps a list on his phone with ingredients that he wants to put together. Here is his most recent note, something to look forward to next season if it makes it through the Chicken Mafia: tortilla, buffalo chicken, mac and cheese, bacon, scallion and a touch of ranch sauce. ■