2011 Big Smoke Sunday Seminars: Charlie Palmer Cooks Breakfast

Waking up in Las Vegas can be painful, especially during the weekend. The evening’s clarion call of gaming tables, free flowing cocktails and that unmatchable all-night Vegas party spirit can make for bleary eyes come the final morning of Big Smoke weekend. Yet some 500 hardy souls showed up bright and early on Sunday morning for the last round of seminars. Breakfast with a star chef was their reward.

Moderator Gordon Mott, executive editor of Cigar Aficionado, polled the crowd, asking how many had been out late. Many hands went into the sky. “Now how many people woke up with a tree on their house?” he asked, raising the only hand in the room. He won sympathy from the audience as he described the scene from back East, where a freak snowstorm had uprooted trees and sent one wayward branch through the roof of his own home, javelin-style.

But people play hurt in Vegas, and Mott shrugged off the disaster by introducing Charlie Palmer, the guest chef for the morning. Palmer, the owner of Aureole, Charlie Palmer Steak, and many other restaurants, has cooked breakfast for this crowd for so many years both he and Mott couldn’t remember the precise number. Both figured it had to be in the double digits.

The star chef greeted the audience, which was working on cups of hot coffee and herbal mini breakfast cocktails that were a cross between a Bloody Mary and gazpacho. He began setting up his cooking station at the front of the room, and explained that today he would show everyone how to make homemade sausage.

Charlie Palmer breakfast was brioche stuffed with kielbasa 
sausage and a ramekin of rich, coddled egg with spinach.
Palmer made fresh sausage on stage, and served it up in artistic style.

Palmer emphasized the importance of using good ingredients in any form of cooking to optimize results. A better type of butter, using true Parmigiano Reggiano, opting for sea salt, little choices such as these, he explained, go a long way in the final outcome of a dish. And though better ingredients typically cost more, he said, their superior flavor requires using less of them, making the increase in expense somewhat minimal in the long term.

Watching someone cook fine food can be cruel if you’re not supping along, and the waitstaff of the Venetian soon brought out a warm, succulent breakfast for everyone in the room. There was brioche stuffed with kielbasa sausage and a ramekin of rich, coddled egg with spinach. Pastries and croissants were in full supply as well—no one was leaving here hungry.

Palmer explained the role of fat in sausage making as he brought out the supplies for making kielbasa. He had ground pork picnic, from the animal’s shoulder; ground fat, needed to help the sausage along; a large variety of spices to flavor the meat and salted casings to stuff the mixture into. (The salt keeps the casings preserved.) He also had a very fancy sausage making machine, but suggested that anyone could make this at home with far cheaper, more simple equipment.

Charlie Palmer breakfast crowd shot.
As the audience listened, Palmer stressed his recipes were guidelines, not scripture.

After seasoning the meat with a variety of spices, Palmer stressed that his recipes were guidelines, not scripture. He encouraged experimentation, but brought a bit of a gasp from the audience when he suggested one could put too much garlic into sausage. He suggested toasting the garlic briefly before putting it into the sausage mixture for those who do not appreciate the taste of raw garlic—the slight cooking would temper the bite of the garlic.

He began to make the sausage, stuffing the meat mixture into the casings. “Don’t push too hard, don’t go too fast,” he advised, as each step could break the casing. In case of such a problem, he suggested putting the meat back into the machine and trying again. “Casings are cheap,” he added.

Once he had an impressive string of links, he heated up his pan, and provided more advice—gentle heat, not a raging inferno to cook the sausage. He also made delicate pricks in the casing before putting the sausage into the pan—this would allow the sausage to render out some of its fat, and to keep the casings from bursting open during the cooking process.

The rich aroma of fennel seed and cooking pork began to fill the room of sated diners as Palmer cooked. He fielded questions from the room as he worked, then sliced the perfectly cooked sausage at an angle, plating it. Sausage made easily, made fresh, Charlie Palmer style.

While breakfast was a non-smoking affair, each diner was given a La Flor Dominicana Double Ligero Churchill Especial, a cigar rated 91 points by Cigar Aficionado, to smoke at another time. Palmer raffled off some of his cookbooks and wine as the breakfast ended, and the sated diners made their way out of the room, ready to roll their own cigars.

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