Conscious Cooking: FnB’s chef Charleen Badman delivers visually bewitching, soul-soothing dishes

FnB’s chef Charleen Badman delivers visually bewitching, soul-soothing dishes

By Tom Reardon, March 2019 Issue. All photos by Jill Richards Photography.

Tucked away in an easily overlooked corner of Old Town Scottsdale is a desert gem. A unique dining diamond amidst the cowboy culture and trendy spots that pepper the area.

FnB is a treasure trove of elevated comfort food served in a warm and welcoming environment. An integral part of its lure rests on the well-honed skillset of chef and partner, Charleen Badman.

Badman and her restaurant partner, Pavle Milic, have been in business since December of 2009, but have known each other for decades. The two came up in the restaurant business together and crossed paths often during their careers.

FnB co-owner Pavle Milic

They came up with the name, FnB, which stands for Food & Beverage, after brainstorming ideas for their restaurant and realizing that FnB covered each of their passions. Badman is an award-winning chef and has worked in kitchens for 30 years, and Milic is a champion for Arizona wineries. In fact, FnB boasts an all-Arizona wine list, which was the first of its kind anywhere.

The décor in FnB is immediately appealing and, depending on your eye; you will first notice either the beautiful stained glass that announces the kitchen wonderfully or the west wall of the main dining room, which features an intense display of plates brought from Badman’s former New York City restaurant, Inside; each featuring human-hand-related imagery.

It’s dark, but your eyes quickly adjust with touches like the huge windows that pull in natural light. With a high ceiling in the main dining room, FnB appears more spacious than it is, but its moderate size does not equal a crowded vibe.

The food, though, and the story behind it is what sets FnB apart from its local peers.

Badman is slightly intimidating at first, to be honest. She is an incredibly accomplished chef, for one thing, having won numerous awards and accolades, and she’s also incredibly knowledgeable about business, food, gardening, and supporting the locals. Once you talk to her, however, it’s hard not to want to hug her, as she possesses a huge heart and cares deeply about making people happy. Luckily for all of us, she capable of feeding quite a few people daily and it doesn’t seem like she plans to stop anytime soon.

The 47-year-old chef is an Arizona native who grew up in Tucson and got into the restaurant business while still in high school. She was part of a program, Food Education and Service Training (FEAST) that allowed students to learn an industry while getting valuable work experience as well. Through FEAST, Badman got her first job working in a kitchen.

After realizing she enjoyed the work and determining that she really wanted to buy a car, she made a move to what she considered to be the best restaurant in Tucson at the time, Café Terra Cotta. It was this opportunity that sparked the beginning of Badman’s illustrious career.

“When the Café Terra Cotta job came up, and it was a woman chef that was going to be running it, I jumped at that opportunity. I ended up working for her for six years. She and her husband opened another restaurant up here in Scottsdale where the Borgata was, in the early ‘90s and I moved up here. I was 20, almost 21, at the time. I was the sous chef for that when the restaurant opened. I actually asked him if I could be the chef, which now I look back at that and think, ‘Wow, you were very ballsy,’ and I’m surprised they didn’t laugh at me, but they said ‘You can be the sous chef. Just don’t tell anybody how old you are,’” remembers Badman.

That was the first of several opportunities that Badman had to work under female chefs and restaurateurs. After working for the Nordins and having the chance to learn the ins and outs of opening a new restaurant in Scottsdale, Badman met Chrysa Robertson from Rancho Pinot notoriety and spent as much time in her off hours from Café Terra Cotta learning as much as she could from Robertson. Eventually, Robertson offered Badman a job, and their initial exchange was very formative in her ultimately opening a restaurant of her own.

“She (Robertson) asked if I wanted to go to work there and I still remember the conversation that we had. She encouraged me to think about the kind of restaurant I wanted to have and what exactly I wanted to do.

At that point, I knew I wanted to have a restaurant. I started out getting a job in this business because I wanted a car. You better want a lot more than that if you want to be in the business. And I really like cooking food and what it brings to people and the joy of hospitality. I wanted to keep doing that, so I decided that I was going to have a smaller restaurant,” says Badman.

Badman worked for Robertson until New Year’s Eve, 1995, and then she moved to New York City in January of 1996 to work with another female chef, Anne Rosenzweig.

Badman had heard that Rosenzweig, who had made a name for herself in Manhattan in the ‘80s as the owner and head chef at Arcadia, was opening a new restaurant and the prospect of learning from yet another inspirational female chef was too exciting for the Arizona chef-in-training to pass up. Badman moved without having secured a position in Rosenzweig’s new restaurant, Lobster Club. She had only sent a resumé.

“I heard that she was a tough person and I wanted to work for somebody who could teach me even more about cooking obviously, but also the business, and how to make it here. And so, I literally hopped on the plane with one bag and a one-way ticket to New York,” says Badman.

At first, there wasn’t an opening, but Rosenzweig offered Badman the chance to come in and test things out one day. At the end of the night, Rosenzweig told her staff to hire Badman which led to the pair working together for the next six years and later partnering on Inside, which opened in Manhattan in 2001. When the lease Badman and Rosenzweig held on Inside came up in 2007, the landlord raised their rent from $10,000 per month to $14,000, and Badman decided it was time to come back to Phoenix.

After going back to cooking at Rancho Pinot in 2007 when she returned to the desert, Badman and Milic, who had stayed in touch and even worked together for a time in New York City, decided to open FnB in November of 2009.

Badman made the calculated choice to keep the menu small and focus on seasonal food grown by local farmers. Initially, she was dealing with two or three farmers, to her recollection, but now FnB works with over a dozen local farmers, as well as local purveyors of fish.

The quality of Badman’s food at FnB, thanks to both her skill as a chef and the freshness of the carefully chosen ingredients, is top notch. Badman decided to go to a vegetable-centric diet for herself about eight years ago, so FnB’s menu also leans that way, but there is plenty of protein to choose from for every taste. The Creekstone Farms rib-eye (which is one of her few non-Arizona items), for example, on her current menu is a fantastic choice for steak fans. Served on a bed of perfectly grilled potatoes, this tender and juicy cut of beef is joined by a dried tomato chermoula and baby kale.

As seasons change, so does her menu, and at a recent stop, the star of the show was Badman’s collard greens offering, which comes with a delicious polenta. The addition of pickled jalapenos creates a tasty mix of sweetness, spice, and crunch. The pasta with broccoli, parmesan, and shaved prosciutto was also nothing short of amazing. Our server, Will, was knowledgeable, gracious, and thoroughly explained every menu item we asked about during our time at FnB.

Having been a restaurant owner now for over 18 years, Badman has learned the importance of keeping a happy team of employees who understand the importance of working hard and striving to set the bar higher and higher consistently. Many of her current employees have worked at FnB for upwards of six or seven years, if not more.

One former employee, Byron Carrick, had this to say about Badman as a boss: “(It was) intimidating at first. She was always a hero to me, so to work directly for her had starstruck moments. But she is the most real and honest person you could ever meet. She likes her kitchen to run her way, like a finely-oiled machine. She is amazing to watch, and her general vibe is always positive and nurturing.”

Much in the way she learned from her mentors, Badman now does her best to impart as much knowledge to her staff as possible, as well as children in the community.

For the past several years, Badman has led the Blue Watermelon Project, which is an effort to help children learn the value of both growing their food, but also gaining an appreciation for the diverse world of food we have here in Arizona to choose from as they decide what and how they eat. The grassroots group includes chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, and community food advocates.

“We’re under the umbrella of Slow Food Phoenix. It’ll be two years in April when we came together. I go to one of the schools once a month, and we do a tasting of the vegetable or the fruit of that month. So that’s been fun to get them interested in at least giving something a try,” says Badman. (Visit slowfoodphoenix.org for more information about Blue Watermelon and how to get your local school involved.)

Badman has also done a program called Chef in The Garden with local schools, particularly Echo Canyon School in Scottsdale for the last decade. When she talks about this work, you can see Badman’s heart shining through her chef’s attire.

It is refreshing to have someone like Badman, who not only excels in her field but understands the value in giving back to her community. By teaching children about healthy food options and helping them understand our regional eco-system, she is helping strengthen their future.