“I was throwing what appeared to be turds into a trash can,” he said. “Oh, and there was an elephant. And a bad monkey.” Charlie Sullivan was not recounting a dream he had the night before. We were at Latda Asian Food Market on Brookshire Boulevard in northwest Charlotte, hidden in the back of a makeshift café that appeared to have once been a storeroom, when a little girl walked up to Charlie with her iPad to ask for help tending to the animals in her zoo.
We had come for the food, and to be sure, the simple, concise list of Laotian dishes outlined on plastic menus made us both giddy with hunger, but it was this virtual zoo game that really brought us all together. The little girl could tell that I was clearly interested in what was going on, too, so with Charlie’s work complete, she hopped over to me to save her penguins from drowning.
“I can’t save them,” I said. “They’re drowning because all of the ice has melted. Because of global warming.”
A beat of silence, a hint of dismay; even the photographer thought I had gone too far. But for me that moment would come to encapsulate our conversation that day — how when innocence meets reality, there is, for better or for worse, a transformation. Maybe that means the little girl will go on to be a scientist.
In Charlie’s case, I would come to learn that it meant navigating two global catastrophes to transform himself from a copy machine salesman into a chef making some of the most exciting Thai food in Charlotte.
Not another banker bro
“I’ll be the first to tell you, I’m not a chef,” Charlie insists.
I tell him I think he’s selling himself short.
I first met Charlie last year, shortly after moving to Charlotte, when I happened upon his Instagram account, @spicywhiteboyclt. I was upset I hadn’t thought to take that name for myself, but I wrote at the time that finding his account was “like finding the one four-leaf clover in a vast, beautiful, albeit devastatingly boring, meadow.”
And you know exactly what I mean by that.
Close your eyes, think of any Thai restaurant in Charlotte, and I bet you will be able to tell me exactly what is on the menu. Instead of pad Thai, though, and a standard offering of curries in three colors, Charlie was serving up thoroughly researched dishes that were seasonal and geographically specific down to the precise neighborhood in the region of Thailand from which the dish originated.
In mid-Autumn, he cooked up a pork and pumpkin curry that I thought showed “a holy deference to genuine Thai flavors,” and those flavors “swirled together to conjure up a sweet, savory, and spicy potion that worked the kind of black magic only the best and most wholesome comfort food can.” I was an instant fan.
But long before he would get to this point of casting spells on local palates, Charlie was selling copy machines.
Originally from Anderson, South Carolina, Charlie graduated from Clemson University in 2008 with a degree in industrial management. Then about 45 minutes later, the economy crashed. “Can you imagine?” he exclaims.
“And my sales area was, like, in the most rural part of South Carolina. I’d go to manufacturers, and they’d be like, ‘Sure, buddy.’ No one’s going to buy a copier because they don’t even know if they’re gonna be open in three months.”
Even if the economy hadn’t been falling in shambles around him, a career in sales was never going to be a good fit. At 22, freshly shaven and wearing a clean, crisp suit, Charlie said it was like he was cosplaying as his dad. “It just wasn’t going to work.”
As he bounced around from place to place, doing random call center work to make ends meet and waiting to see if the economy would ever awake from its coma, he got a call from a friend working for a financial institution here in Charlotte.
“They were like, ‘We’re finally fixing our hiring freeze! Come up here! Get out of South Carolina!’” Charlie didn’t think twice.
Once in Charlotte, he would quickly learn what many who have come before him (including me) have known for years, particularly in the years since the Great Recession: that working in finance is not all it was once cracked up to be. We traded war stories while waiting for our food.
He mentioned a company he once worked for, to which I said, “They’re pretty ruthless.”
“Yeah, exactly,” he said. “I mean, it’s not a bad place to work if you’re into finance, but I’m not into finance, so I was just kind of … there.”
But still, it was good, steady work that afforded him the opportunity to be more thoughtful about what he really wanted out of life. It also afforded him the privilege to travel to Thailand for the first time, and that’s when everything changed.
Two weeks in Thailand
“Aww, that rhinoceros! I bet he was happy before the poachers cut off his horn,” I said to the little girl, pointing to her iPad, as our food arrived.
A heaving, glistening mound of Lao sausages quickly took our minds off the rhino. Each bite was a counterargument of how simple ingredients treated with respect can turn into something more meaningful and satisfying than a twee, tweezered bite of food on a $300 tasting menu. Eating a piece was like biting into a water balloon, with fatty juices bursting out, redolent of lemongrass. It took us back to Southeast Asia.
The most shocking thing I learned that day over lunch was that Charlie has spent all of two weeks in Thailand. It’s not enough to say he fell in love with Thailand during that short time. A more accurate way to capture the depths of how much this trip changed him would be to say that his entire philosophy of life was altered.
“The biggest realization I had was that everybody seemed happy,” he said. “It’s a welcoming country, yes, but more so compared to me — with my job and my things — they all seemed happier than me.”
The lesson he learned from that?
“Be happy in what you’re doing. I wasn’t happy in what I was doing.”
As Charlie recounted his two-week trip that took him from Bangkok to southern beaches and all the way back north toward Chiang Mai, more food arrived. Simply written as “pork larb” on the menu, those two words belied the profound depth of flavors, textures and heat hidden within, so much so that, upon first glance, it would have been easy to mistake this baby dragon for a sleeping kitten.
“This is delicious. This is awesome,” he said. “This is just like the northern Thai flavors I love.”
Which is why I had suggested Latda Asian Market in the first place. One of the things I love most about Charlie’s food is that he understands and embraces the geographic subtleties of the country’s cuisine. He had told me before that he loved Northern Thai food the most, so having lunch at a place that serves food from Laos — the country that shares Thailand’s northern border — seemed like a safe bet. He once devastated me with a Southern Thai dry curry with flavors heavily influenced by that region’s proximity to Malaysia; each bite tasted sweetly and bitterly of homesickness.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “You were only in Thailand for two weeks. It’s one thing to recreate a generically Thai dish, but all of those little geographical influences in the food you’re making — how do you research those when you’re so far removed from it?”
“I rely on people with more knowledge than me,” he said.
Back in the States, he set about creating a plan to make himself happy. Part of that involved getting out of debt, so he started working in a coffee shop to earn extra cash. Another part of that involved learning how to cook. “I told you, I’m not a chef!”
The food in Thailand he loved the most wasn’t the kind of Thai food that was readily available in Charlotte, so he had to learn how to make it.
“Luckily for me,” he said, “there was this whole community of people, mostly on the West Coast, that were already kind of knee deep in trying to recreate these flavors back here in America, so I turned to them for starters.”
Hitting the books and cooking Thai recipes he found from all over worked as a set of guiding principles that structured his development. “Once you do that and wrap your head around those rules, you have the ability to play around a little bit.”
His academic approach to learning about Thai food had inspired him and his girlfriend (now fiancée) to work toward opening a restaurant. But not a typical restaurant, more the casual but private dining pub-type where people could drink beer, eat different versions of Thai street foods, and be happy.
“I wanted to awaken people to the fact that there’s more to Thai food than just curry and peanut sauce,” he said. “I want everybody to love it as much as I love it.”
COVID-19 had other plans, however, and his burgeoning career change became just a hobby.
“Suddenly I had to figure out how to do in a pandemic what I was already setting out to do,” he said. “Maybe we do delivery? But I’m just an unknown guy with an Instagram account that has a very catchy name.”
Charlie becomes Spicy White Boy
That name, it turns out, was a gift. One late night pre-pandemic, Charlie walked into a Thai restaurant on South Boulevard where Harris Teeter is now. The staff were in the process of closing down for the night, but they let him stay anyway. The owner came over to chat with him, and when Charlie told her about his travels through Thailand and his love of Chiang Mai, she beamed and said, “I’m from Chiang Mai!”
They instantly bonded. She brought out a steak salad for him that was as hot as the surface of the sun, which he finished with no problem, impressing the owner to no end. They never exchanged names, but when Charlie returned a couple of weeks later, the owner was there, saw him, and screamed, “Spicy white boy! You’ve come back!”
And he’s not going anywhere.
Though COVID hit pause on his pub plans, he and his fiancée did gracefully pivot to a weekly small-batch delivery service that regularly sells out. The success of that has led to pop-ups around town, which will grow in frequency come November after a month-long break to get married.
With all his success cooking Thai food, though, and a name like “Spicy White Boy CLT,” Charlie is very aware that he’s opened himself up to claims of appropriation.
“My goal from the beginning has never, ever been to say that I can make Thai food better,” he says. “Like that woman a few weeks back who said she finally made Chinese congee taste better by putting blueberries in it? Stuff like that makes me so sick.”
He’s thoughtful and careful to describe his approach to cooking Thai food, insisting that he’s not appropriating anything because none of those dishes are his. The little girl returns with her iPad, pointing to an animal and going, “Woof,” and I tell her, “Sweetie, I don’t think that’s a dog. That’s a fox. What does the fox say?”
Charlie pauses, lost in thought, and smiles.
“I’ll be the first to tell you, I’m not a chef. I’m just a guy who likes to have food, and I just want to share with people these dishes that I fell in love with, these dishes that aren’t mine, that someone else created. And I just hope that everybody sees that and wants to join me on this journey to drink some beer and eat some delicious Thai food.”