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Charlie Wilson: 'Real Food' Restaurateur

By Christina Baez

Charlie Wilson's quest to find her passion took her across the world from England to Zimbabwe and Australia to the French Alps. She lived aboard a ship, on a deserted island and among celebrities like Mick Jagger and Pierce Brosnan.

After years of searching the world, it was stomach problems that finally led to what she sought.

"All of my life I guess I've always been looking for what's driving me, what's my passion, what's it going to be," Wilson said.

Pain interrupted her search in the early 2000s. While she was living in the French Alps and owned an Irish pub called The Jekyll, she began suffering from digestive problems, bloating and fatigue.

Wilson saw many doctors, but none could pinpoint the problem until she visited a natural health practitioner who put her on a 30-day program that consisted of a vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free diet.

"Those 30 days completely changed my mindset about food and health," she said. "At this turning point I made necessary changes to my life and began a journey of exploration. I wanted to learn everything I could about food, health and nutrition so I could help others help themselves through food and lifestyle choices."

Born in Canterbury in southeast England, Wilson grew up eating home-cooked meals in a fairly health-conscious family. But when she turned 18 and set out to discover the world, her only food requirements were that it be cheap, filling and tasty.

After two years of traveling the globe Wilson landed in Mexico and met some people at a hostel who were heading to Key West. Though she had never heard of the island, she spent the last of her money on a one-way ticket.

"The first time I lived in Key West, I was always eating burgers, fries, pizza and drinking beer," she said. "I didn't really think about my health and what I was eating."

Departing the island city to sail the world, Wilson ended up stranded on a deserted island, working on a high-end yacht frequented by celebrities, owning a London-based catering company, attending culinary school and waitressing between other adventures.

Wilson eventually sold her bar in the French Alps and moved to New York. There she attended the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts and worked at Pure Food and Wine, New York's premier raw food restaurant.

During two-plus years in New York Wilson had a steady income, was surrounded by like-minded friends and felt very fortunate. Yet she was plagued by the feeling that she needed to do something more with her life.

One day a friend in Key West called and told her about a space opening for a restaurant — and that was another turning point. Wilson's Help Yourself restaurant opened Oct. 21, 2008.

"It was never just about opening a little café," Wilson explained. "I had a much bigger vision than that — to grow it into a brand or a place that would be instrumental in helping change the way America thinks about food — but I needed a place to start."

Today, Wilson operates Help Yourself while enjoying and promoting an active, healthy lifestyle. Her diet mostly is vegan, but she sometimes indulges in fish and eggs. She describes herself as someone who eats "real food."

"At Help Yourself I want to promote real food — food from nature that hasn't been processed, packaged, refined or sprayed with pesticides," she said. "I want to show people the difference that real food can make as opposed to a diet of refined, processed and packaged food."

The restaurant has run and documented "30 Days to Help Yourself" programs to prove the effectiveness of incorporating real food into one's diet. Help Yourself also runs seasonal seven-day detoxification programs and monthly three-day detox programs to promote body cleansing and increase nutrient absorption.

In addition, Wilson organized her own organic food distribution company to bring organic food to the Florida Keys, and hosts weekly farmers markets that make fresh produce available to people who want to "help themselves" at home. She hopes to enlarge the restaurant space to provide more retail produce daily.

Wilson is taking her mission viral with the recently launched website, CharlieWilsonsKitchen.com. The site features recipes, cooking videos, tips and other resources to educate visitors about food and living a healthy lifestyle.

"All the food we put out at Help Yourself will help you help yourself, and I've never seen this as just a restaurant — it's a community center, it's a lifestyle and it's a movement," Wilson said. "We're taking control and learning to live the best lives we can, starting with the food we eat."

Wilson operates Help Yourself while enjoying and promoting an active, healthy lifestyle.

Wilson operates Help Yourself while enjoying and promoting an active, healthy lifestyle.

Wilson's fresh foods market brings organic food to the Florida Keys, and hosts weekly farmers markets that make fresh produce available to people who want to "help themselves" at home

Wilson's fresh foods market brings organic food to the Florida Keys, and hosts weekly farmers markets that make fresh produce available to people who want to "help themselves" at home

Help Yourself promotes real food — food from nature that hasn't been processed, packaged, refined or sprayed with pesticides.

Help Yourself promotes real food — food from nature that hasn't been processed, packaged, refined or sprayed with pesticides.

Fresh foods at home.

Fresh foods at home.

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