Take Five with Chef Charlie Palmer, From Pigskin Passion to Pig Parts

Chef Charlie Palmer. (Photo courtesy of Dan Waldbridge)

When you hear the name, Charlie Palmer, there’s probably one quintessential image that comes to mind immediately: the sexy, cat suit-garbed “wine angels,” hanging from wires, and scaling the enormous tower of wine bottles at his Aureole restaurant in the city of neon, Las Vegas.

It’s a flashy, glamorous picture, to be sure. It’s also a far different one than Palmer’s very humble upbringing. The son of a farmer-plumber-electrician who could fix anything, he grew up in the small town of Smyrna, New York.

It’s a place where high school football is a huge deal. But for the young Palmer, who was a burly 6-foot-tall by the age of 14, the love for cooking eventually won out over his passion for playing the sport.

His love for pigskin, though, definitely remains.

March 20-21, the mega chef-restaurateur will host his fourth annual Pigs & Pinot weekend. A celebration of the swine and the grape, it will feature guest chefs Michael Mina of the eponymous San Francisco restaurant; Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena; Philippe Rispoli of France; and Graham Brown of New Zealand.

Palmer prepping pork belly.

Festivities include a cooking class, wine seminars, the “Taste of Pigs & Pinot” (where you can sample a variety of pork dishes and Pinots), and a gala five-course dinner with paired limited-production Pinot Noirs. A renowned judging panel will bestow the “Pinot Cup” award on the best wine.

Tickets to the separate events range from $75 to $300.  For more information, go to http://www.pigsandpinot.com/. Proceeds benefit Share Our Strength, a national anti-hunger organization, and the Healdsburg School, a private K-8 school.

Recently, I had a chance to hang out with the 49-year-old chef at his restaurant, Dry Creek Kitchen in the Hotel Healdsburg.

Although he still shuttles to New York every two weeks, this native New Yorker and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, has called Sonoma County home for the past few years. He visited here 15 years ago for the first time, and it was love at first sight.

Q: You have 11 restaurants nationwide now. Is it a scary time to be a restaurateur?

A: I’m a huge optimist, so I’m not scared. I think we’re in an unprecedented time. I think a lot of people are being unrealistic about how long it will last.

We’ve felt it in New York for sure, because we’re so close to Wall Street. Not so much here, though. Knock on wood.

Dry Creek Kitchen Chef de Cuisine Les Goodman plates pork belly two ways.

Q: Are you still working on new projects, despite the dire economy?

Aureole in New York will be moving in May to a new Bryant Park high-rise that’s platinum-rated for energy efficiency. The new location will have a bar-lounge area, which we’ve never had before, plus a wine mezzanine.

We’re working on a 400-room, non-gaming hotel in Las Vegas that’s not on the Strip. It’s a 10-year project.

We’re also building a new small, 36-room hotel a block and a half from the Healdsburg Square, which will open in spring 2010. It’ll be less expensive than the Hotel Healdsburg, and be called H2Hotel.

I’m also working on a pork book that’s not light-hearted. It’s actually bizarre. There are some pretty extreme photos, plus recipes. It’s an art book. At one point, the photographer was doing a photo shoot with two Scandinavian twins in a slaughterhouse in Denmark.  It’s blood, animal parts, and beautiful Scandinavian girls.

The working title is “The Blood and the Beauty.” We’re self-publishing it. It’ll be very thought-provoking.

Q: How long have you lived in Sonoma County?

A: I live four miles from the restaurant, and I’ve been here five years now.

When my wife and I married, we had a 10-year plan. We said we’d move somewhere, not because we don’t love New York. We do, and it’s the center of the universe. We looked at a lot of places. But I always had a great love for wine country. We looked at Colorado and Montana, but those places had nothing to do with food. I’ve always dreamt of having a vineyard and making wine. Now, I have 2 ½ acres planted with six different clones. I’m a huge Pinot and Burgundy fan. We make two Pinots. The ’06 was our first vintage.

Q: You got interested in cooking because of a home-economics class you took in high school?

A: I took the class on a dare from my neighbor who was the teacher. I made four of my guy friends take it with me. I wasn’t going to do it alone. There was no sewing. It was just cooking, eating everything, and being surrounded by girls.

My first job was washing pots at the Colgate Inn owned by Colgate University in Hamilton, NY. Somebody quit, so I started doing the vegetable prep, then I became the brunch guy.

I have brothers who are electrical engineers and plumbers. They all looked at me like I was crazy, saying ‘You’re going to cook?!’ But I liked the immediacy. You do something and you see the results right away. Plus, I love to eat, and I love discovering new tastes.

Q: Before that, you wanted to be a pro-football player?

A: Yes, I was a linebacker in high school.

Q: So what team do you root for today?

A: The New York Giants. I’m a hardcore fan. I have season tickets. I’m one of the fortunate few.

Q: Are sports and cooking a lot alike?

A: They are. There’s team-work in the kitchen. In a lot of ways, it’s about an individual like it is on a baseball team. But it’s also about teamwork and organization.

Foie gras tortellini.

Q: How would you describe your style of cooking?

A: Progressive American cuisine. There isn’t a better time to be cooking in this country. Diners care about the ingredients. They care about what they’re eating.

Compare that to when I started cooking — white asparagus came out of a can;  Dover sole arrived hard as a rock because it was frozen.

Q: Dry Creek Kitchen received one Michelin star in the first Michelin Guide to the Bay Area, but lost that ranking in subsequent years. Your South Coast Plaza restaurant, Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s, recently got a blistering review in the Los Angeles Times. Are those sore points for you?

A: The Michelin guide is a little confusing. I flat out asked why they took the star away. They wouldn’t say. The Costa Mesa review was more of a personal attack on me. I didn’t understand it. But we never stop working to make things better.

Q: Would you ever want to star in a cooking show?

A: I’ve been approached about TV. But it takes so much time. I want to spend my time in my restaurants, and with my kids (four boys), and occasionally with my wife. (laughs) She still likes spending time with me; can you believe it?

Ahi sashimi with olive oil potato, and blood orange gastrique.

Q: I’m going to throw out a couple topics, and I want you to choose either Manhattan or Sonoma for each one. First up: Weather?

A: Sonoma. I went back to New York just before Christmas. It was snowing. But I knew I’d be leaving. I love the cold weather in New York when I’m not there.

Q: Friendly people?

A: Even. There’s a stigma about New Yorkers and it’s not true. Sure, there are some not-nice people there, but there are some here, too.

Q: Intense people?

A: New York. They’re very intense. Some are too intense.

Q: Good restaurants?

A: New York. I have traveled to a lot of different parts of the world, and there is not a better restaurant city anywhere. I love Barcelona. I love Paris. But for variety, different levels, ethnic food, and creativity, New York is just amazing.

Q: Produce selection?

A:  Sonoma. In New York, you create the dishes, then source the ingredients. Here, it’s the opposite. You see what’s coming in, and then you create the dish.

Q: Pizza?

A: New York. Although, I love this little place in San Francisco — Pizzetta 211. It’s really good. It’s a contender. But really great pizza? You have to go to New York.

Q: People are going to think you live a pretty charmed life in Sonoma County.

A: I don’t think people would think it so charmed if they had to follow me around for awhile. It’s pretty stressful. But I do feel very fortunate.

Print This Post


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *