As a native of the stormy Florida Panhandle, Chef CJ Bagwell knows the South. Not the caricature depicted on television and film, but a land of sun-bleached buildings, wasp-bitten summers, dirt bike wipeouts, and the smell of stagnant seawater during annual Hurricane cleanups. He was born into the world of pan-fried chicken, collard greens, pecan pie, and peach tea.
His childhood was shaped by a mother who raced flat-track motorcycles and a dad that worked in construction. At a young age, CJ resolved to never “have to use a shovel to make a living,” expressing more interest in cooking dinner for the family. This prompted his mom to bring home a case of Omaha steaks for him to play with in the kitchen.
After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, CJ spent time learning at Piccolo Cafe, Putnam’s Gastropub, and Parker & Quinn. Moving further north to Portland, Maine, he racked up experience working at the Hilton Double Tree and local favorite, Gather.
As a devoted family man, it wasn’t long before CJ found himself back in the South, now matured in his character and technique. He leads Southern Chop with the same sentiment from childhood – cooking for family. CJ brings an authentic regional dialect to every decision, respecting tradition with the freshest local ingredients, but always finds a way to incorporate his time spent in New York and Maine.
“I always try to hammer down the dish the way it was supposed to be. Then I’ll usually play with the sauces or the ingredients in the sauce. For instance, if it’s soy, I’ll add maple syrup to it for a sweeter finish. Or, I’ll add lime and togarashi to it and make it a spicy-salty sauce. Whatever I’m doing I always try to respect the dish’s roots and just have fun with it.”
Quiet by nature, you’d never know Chef CJ did four years in Joint Fire Support during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He wears his military service under his sleeves, his tattoos revealing an education in duty, humility, and excellence to the last detail. This demeanor sits at the cultural core of Chop’s kitchen, keeping things lighthearted and on time.
Southern Chop is proud to have Chef CJ as part of our family.