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Hail To The Chef

Whether he's in the kitchen or with a cigar, Charlie Palmer is always creating recipes and ideas for his restaurant empire.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Tyson vs. King, Jan/Feb 04

(continued from page 3)

With the official opening of Kitchen 82 just two nights away, Charlie Palmer is busy cooking for about 60 friends, who have been invited to the New York City restaurant to take part in a dress rehearsal. The master chef and upscale-dining entrepreneur is standing over the stove, supervising his staff as they put the finishing touches on plates of grilled hanger steak with red smashed potatoes; sweet-and-sour onions; pan-seared salmon with black trumpets, fennel and spinach; and roasted chicken with porcini mushroom risotto and arugula.

Before long, though, Palmer is walking around the airy and informal dining room, soliciting opinions about the food and service. Clad in a blue pin-striped shirt, black jeans and a white cooking apron, he bends over tables of happy guests -- designers, architects, journalists, lawyers -- who are sitting under giant white lamp shades that are suspended from the ceiling.

His manner is relaxed and easygoing, but his concern and his attention to detail are apparent. He needs to make sure everything is just right. And if it isn't, he needs to find out immediately what has to be done to make it perfect. It's an attitude and a way of life that are responsible for the 44-year-old Palmer's enormous success over the past 16 years, during which he has opened 11 restaurants and catering halls.

The 70-seat Kitchen 82, at Columbus Avenue and 82nd Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side, is an offspring of Kitchen 22, Palmer's highly prosperous eatery near Gramercy Park where a simple concept -- three courses, $25, no gimmicks, no reservations -- has proved just right for these difficult economic times. The wait for a table at either restaurant can be 45 minutes or longer.

Kitchen 82, which opened last spring, had a start-up cost of $300,000 and is the ninth Palmer incarnation; the first was Aureole, his temple to haute American cuisine that Palmer opened when he was only 28. Located in a brownstone town house on East 61st Street between Madison and Park avenues that was once home to Orson Welles, Aureole was conceived to be to American dining what the legendary Lutèce was to French cuisine. It achieved that goal almost immediately, winning the plaudits of critics and attracting hordes of the rich and famous.

Between Aureole and Kitchen 82 came Metrazur, Palmer's luxury restaurant under the starry ceiling of Grand Central Terminal, two catering venues in New York and Los Angeles called Astra and Astra West, Aureole Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay, Kitchen 22, the Charlie Palmer Steak at the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas, and Dry Creek Kitchen, his restaurant at the Hotel Healdsburg in Sonoma County, California.

Last year, Palmer reached an agreement to take over the Stirling Club, a restaurant and catering facility at Turnberry Place in Las Vegas. He also opened a $6 million, 280-seat Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant across from the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The latter establishment features a 10,000-bottle wine cellar of exclusively American wines from all 50 states, and lounges tailored for lovers of cigars -- a group that includes Palmer as a loyal member.

Palmer couldn't have envisioned his culinary success growing up as a lower—middle class kid from a small town in the snow-filled reaches of upstate New York; a kid whose teenage passion was tackling foes on the gridiron, not concocting complex sauces over a hot stove.

Palmer looks like a linebacker -- and that's what he was during his high school days in Smyrna, New York, a town located about two miles from Colgate University. But it was an after-school job as a dishwasher at the Colgate Inn and a dare from his next-door neighbor, a home-economics teacher, that set Palmer on the road to kitchen fame.

"When I was growing up I had no intention of becoming a chef," Palmer says from his office at Aureole on the morning of the dress rehearsal. "For me, everything was about sports. And we didn't exactly live in the realm of chefs and high-end food."

Palmer's father was a jack-of-all-trades: an electrician, a plumber, even a farmer. "He did refrigeration work, a little bit of farming, a lot of different things," says the chef, who himself has built his two-decade-long reputation by using America's best artisanal farm products and its  freshest, most seasonal food.

He is the fifth of six children, with four older brothers and a younger sister. "Two of my brothers are electrical engineers, and one is in the lumber business," he says. "I decided I wasn't going to follow them. I couldn't picture myself behind a desk all day. When I started working at the Colgate Inn, it was just a job. But it became more than that. I did some work preparing vegetables, things like peeling carrots and onions. But then one day a cook didn't show up and I got shoved into doing some of his work. Eventually, since nobody wanted to work the brunch shift, they said to me -- I was 16 years old -- that they were going to train me to become one of the brunch guys."

Around the same time, his neighbor dared him to sign up for her high school home economics class. "And I agreed," Palmer says. "But I wouldn't do it alone, so I got six of my buddies to take it along with me. Six football players in a home economics class -- just cooking, no sewing."

Then, gradually, came the revelation. "It got to the point where I thought maybe it wasn't a bad idea to get into the cooking thing," he says. "I went to visit the Culinary Institute of America and it was a real eye-opener. I began to see that there was a world of possibilities out there. I started studying the Larousse Gastronomique, and learning about the evolution of food over the centuries became a real interest for me. The other thing I liked about restaurant work was that there's a real immediacy to it. In a lot of businesses, you don't see the results of what you do or get a reaction to it for a long time. But one of the great things about this business is that you can see immediately on people's faces the results of what you've done."

After attending the Culinary Institute, Palmer spent several years cooking at French restaurants in New York, including La Côte Basque, and in France. He decided early on what his goal would be. "I knew that if I was going to be in this business for the long term, I wanted to own the business," he says. "A lot of businesses are tough, but this is one of the toughest, and I realized that if you're going to make the kind of commitment you need to be successful, you should own the business."

He left New York City for Westchester County, taking over Waccabuc, a restaurant at a private country club. "They gave me a free hand to do whatever I wanted, and it was an opportunity to experiment in an isolated situation, without being concerned about critics or public reaction."

Then, in 1983, came Palmer's crucial career move when he was chosen as the chef at the River Cafe, a popular restaurant in Brooklyn Heights with fantastic views of the New York harbor and the city's skyscrapers. "I thought it could really benefit me," he says -- and it did. "I thought it would be the perfect place for me to grow and be on a very visible stage. I was there for four years and it was an incredible opportunity." His new take on American cuisine first garnered two stars from the tough critics of The New York Times, and when a new Times critic visited a couple of years later, the two stars became three. Diners flocked to Brooklyn.

"Most of the good food being served in New York at the time was classical French or Italian," he says. "And I felt, and I still feel, that since I am as American as they come -- tenth-generation American -- to me the idea of the United States being the greatest country in the world but not having the greatest ingredients, or being able to prepare the greatest food, was crazy. That has changed tremendously."

After three years at the River Cafe, Palmer began looking for a town house, where he could "do the American Lutèce, to do for American food what André Soltner of Lutèce did for French." In 1988, he and his financial partners bought a place on East 61st Street, and the rest is culinary history. (Aureole remains top-of-the-line. The 2003 Zagat guide says that under its new executive chef, Dante Boccuzzi, Aureole is "blissful," "the epitome of class" and "runs rings around the trendies.")

These days Palmer's typical workday begins at 10 a.m. in his office on the second floor above Aureole's dining room, where he is greeted by e-mails from New York, Las Vegas and California. The e-mails describe what business was like the previous evening at all of his restaurants. The 90-seat Aureole takes in about $7 million a year; the new Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington, which opened last May, is expected to bring in about $8 million yearly.

He is likely to spend much of the day hopping in cabs to and from his Manhattan establishments, discussing menu changes or employee problems. Sometimes he visits places where he'll be catering an event, such as a party that took place last year at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Back at his office, he might get construction updates by telephone on whatever venture he is planning next.

Once or twice a month, Palmer is in Las Vegas or California, running his frontier outposts. Last April, he was also shuttling down to Washington at least once a week to prepare for the steak house opening.

But Palmer still spends a good deal of time in his kitchens, as he did that pre-opening night at Kitchen 82 or the previous day planning spring menus at Aureole. "I work on new dishes whenever I'm in the kitchen," he says. "I love to be in the kitchen, because I'm away from the telephone and I can for a least a little while separate myself from the business side of things. And after all, when it boils down to it, the quality of the food and the dining experience is what it's all about. We should never lose track of the fact that it's the basic art of eating that counts."

In planning new menus, he says, the primary starting point is "the ingredients of the moment. It's about what's fresh, what's happening now. We think about a menu that makes sense with different textures and progressions, like from cold to hot."

The best seasonal ingredients, by necessity, are the plats du jour at Kitchens 22 and 82. "That menu has to stay seasonal," he says. "We can't afford to buy anything not in season and keep the price at $25." The other trick for those restaurants, he says, is to have a limited menu -- five choices for the appetizer, five for the main course and five for the dessert. "It's all about labor -- not having a huge kitchen crew," he says.

Palmer employs a staff of more than 1,000 at his restaurants coast to coast. Is he concerned about stretching himself and the quality he represents too thin?

"I wasn't sure I wanted to take on Turnberry," he says of the Las Vegas venture, "and maybe at this point we've reached our limit for a while, which is not to say we'll never do anything else. But what drives a lot of what I do is the fact that we have all these talented young people coming out of our kitchens, and they were all going to work for Drew Nieporent or someone else, because the opportunity to grow wasn't there for them. I was supplying everyone else with chefs. So I decided to find ways to keep them." Among the top chefs Palmer has trained over the years are Gerry Hayden, former executive chef at Aureole, Diane Forley of Verbena in New York City, and Michael Mina of Aqua in San Francisco.

Not far from Aureole, on the Upper East Side, Palmer lives with his wife, Lisa, and their four young sons, Courtland, 9, Randall, 8, and twins Eric and Reed, 5. They also have a house in Southampton, New York, on the South Shore of Long Island. It is here on vacation, late at night after his workday is over, when Palmer most likes to light up a cigar.

"I love to smoke them," he says. "Over the years, my tastes have gone back and forth, but most recently I've been smoking Griffin's. They're a refreshing, light, clean, easy smoke.

"I used to smoke many more maduros, the gutsy, heavy-duty kind of cigar and Macanudos were, and still are, a favorite. But I tend to find myself going to a lighter smoke, especially late at night. I tend to smoke most at 11 p.m. or midnight or one in the morning, after we're done with work, after a bite to eat, with a nice glass of wine. I love red wine, especially with a cigar. I find the tannins and the fruit make a great combination with a nice light smoke."

He smokes eight to ten cigars a month, relishing, what he calls, the relaxing qualities of a good smoke. "The times I've relaxed with a good cigar are among the times I remember most. There's a big terrace in the back of our Southampton house, and after a full day with my four sons and the barbecue and entertaining friends, I like to hang out on the deck with a glass of red wine and a cigar. With four young boys, you don't really have much time to relax. The periods of relaxation are getting smaller and smaller."

But then there's always the possibility of a retreat to the kitchen. "Sometimes I can just sit and think about one type of food, say, gnocchi, or salmon, or steak, and jot down 10 or 15 ideas about how to prepare it." And sometimes, Palmer says, those ideas come easier with a glass of wine on the table and a cigar in his hand.

Mervyn Rothstein, an editor at The New York Times, is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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