Charlie Palmer has been a believer in teamwork ever since he was a linebacker for his high school football team in Smyrna New York, a rural farming town located halfway between Binghamton and Utica. Palmer, who looks more like a gridiron star than a star chef with his Larry Csonka mustache and 6 foot 4 frame, seems to have taken several lessons right out of the playbook of his sports background in building an impressive hospitality empire that includes restaurants, hotels, farms, and various food products. While many chefs claim that their restaurant’s “team” holds the key to their success, and with good reason, to Palmer it’s the most critical element when you consider that his team consists of employees working in high-end restaurants and hotels in New York, Las Vegas, D.C., California, and soon, in Dallas.
“I’ve always felt that team sports, like football, had a lot of similarities to a kitchen. When a kitchen works and functions well, it’s all about a group of people communicating and working together, especially timing-wise, and a lot of sports have that same kind of inclination. If the timing is not right in the kitchen, it can be a disaster, and if the timing in football is not right, you’ll see a disaster on the field.”
After a dare from a teacher, Palmer took some cooking classes in high school, and that experience, along with a few restaurant jobs between junior and senior high school, made him realize that he was actually a much better cook than a football player. Even then, at that age, he began to sense his future, and had a clear vision of where he wanted to go and what he wanted to accomplish in life. But getting to where he needed to go next – culinary school - was not the easiest choice for him for a variety of reasons.
“I was in a difficult situation when I was a senior in high school. My dad died and I became responsible for my mom and my little sister. My brothers were all grown, and had moved out and married, so I had to make some decisions that I thought were right for me and my mom and my little sister.”
Although he took part in some of the usual extracurricular college dorm activities during his time at the Culinary Institute of America, his modest upbringing was a constant reminder of how much money he and his family had spent for him to be there, and this drove him to excel. He remembers the CIA as an amazing place in the late 1970’s, even before the transformation and growth the school experienced in the 1980’s and 1990’s. “I loved being at the CIA because it opened up a whole new realm for me, and I looked at cooking totally different there. A lot of the instructors at that point were chefs who were semi-retired and had been in the business for 30 years, so you could see the whole professional aspect of it and how worldly it could be.”
After CIA, the next defining moment of Palmer’s career was when he booked a ticket to Lyon, France, toting not much more than a sheet of paper with a list of restaurants where he’d like to work. He knocked on a number of doors until one was finally opened for him – by Georges Blanc.
“In that day and age you could do that, it was almost like a novelty. They looked at you like you were nuts, but then they would say ‘ok, you can work for free.’” Blanc sensed Palmer’s commitment to cooking and saw his passion for food, and after he discovered that Palmer was living in an inexpensive inn and was earning little or no money, he allowed the young chef to stay in a dormitory of small rooms that he owned. After some time Palmer followed one of Blanc’s sous chefs to Alain Chapel’s restaurant. There he had the opportunity to work with one of France’s greatest chefs just a few years before Chapel’s death in 1990.
“I was introduced to things I had never seen before. I remember at Chapel there was a dish with cock’s kidneys and I had never seen that before, and that just kind of opens your mind to things; like bone marrow - I remember there was this dish with bone marrow, and that was something that we didn’t do at the CIA.”
After absorbing everything that he could in France, Palmer came back to New York where he would eventually make a name for himself at Brooklyn’s well-known American eatery, River Café. But before that opportunity he spent several years at a private Westchester country club in North Salem called Waccabuc, a small and elite club with a membership of about 200. It was a place whose owners wanted a restaurant that was a step above what the typical country club had at the time. This gave Palmer the ability to be creative in a no-frills, stress-free environment, with nary a critic in sight. “It was a chance for me to do whatever I wanted to do and create a style for myself and use all the things that I had learned. You’ve got to take the influence from whoever you work for whether it’s me or Jean-Georges or Daniel, and then at some point take all the best ideas you’ve seen and create your own style of cuisine.” And that’s just what he did, and he did it so well that eventually he caught the attention of Buzzy O’Keeffe, the owner of River Café, whose departing chef Larry Forgione had left him with some rather large shoes to fill.
“It was a tough thing because Larry had been gone about 6 months when I came on board and there was a lot of animosity and confusion there, because it was a ship without a captain. Although I really valued and thought very highly of what Larry had done, I had totally different ideas. It’s always hard when you go into a place and say ‘I’m going to change everything.’” Palmer began working at the River Café in 1983 and immediately set out to do something that he continues to do in his restaurants 20 years later - surrounding himself with the very best people he could find. He put together a talented crew of young cooks, a group that would eventually include Gerry Hayden, now the owner of North Fork Table and Inn on Long Island, and Michael Mina, who now owns restaurants in California, Las Vegas, and Atlantic City. “My dad always told me, ‘Don’t ever let anyone tell you something is not possible, or that you can’t do this, or you’re not capable,’ and I’ve always felt that way. I never had the sense that the River Café was too much for me. One thing I learned early on is that you’re going to make mistakes, but as long as you don’t make them twice, as long as you’re able to recover quickly from those mistakes, it’s ok.”
With three New York Times stars under his belt, Palmer left the River Café in 1986 to begin preparations to follow through with the dream that had begun in high school. In 1988 he opened his own place on the Upper East Side. An aureole is a halo of light seen around the outermost regions of the sun’s atmosphere, and in retrospect this seems an appropriate name for Palmer’s premiere restaurant, one which would launch his stratospheric rise in an increasingly competitive restaurant industry. Palmer’s cooking at Aureole soon earned him three New York Times stars and provided a launching pad for other establishments that included Metrazur in Grand Central, the no-reservation Kitchen 22 in the Flatiron district, and Astra, a midtown café and catering business. But by far his boldest move was the opening of Aureole at Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas.
“When I first went out to Vegas everybody was telling me that’s the stupidest thing, but I really felt I could see what was going to happen in Vegas. I could see where the city was going, and I really believed in it. I could see there was a possibility there that just didn’t exist anywhere else in the world - now maybe in Dubai - but how many places can you have the opportunity to be on the forefront of the whole food movement. You can’t do that in San Francisco or New York or Chicago, or other great restaurant cities because it already exists there. You can’t be at the forefront of a movement. Whereas in Las Vegas at that time there was nothing, and all the potential was there.”
Palmer realized that the people who would be eating in his new upscale Vegas restaurant were the same customers who lived in New York, or who would fly into New York from California or Chicago or other places and dine at Daniel or Bouley or Jean Georges, seeking pleasure and the ultimate dining experience. He spared no expense in making the Las Vegas Aureole larger, and arguably even bolder than its New York counterpart. He brought in architect Adam Tihany to design the 400-seat location, and the renowned designer graced the huge space with a 42-foot-high wine tower of steel and laminated glass, a structure that held 10,000 bottles of wine.
Palmer’s string of successes emboldened him to seek out new locations. He opened a restaurant and hotel in Sonoma county, then another restaurant – this time a steakhouse – in Vegas, and just recently his first D.C. venture, CP Steak. Palmer chose his locations well, but he is the first to admit that his choices for new venture locations were not always perfect ones, such as his Aquaterra restaurant in 1998, which lasted only a year.
“When I make mistakes, I put them up in lights. We did a restaurant on the island of Palm Beach Florida, and from the beginning it felt like I was forcing myself to do it. The one thing I really learned there was that I’m never going to do anything restaurant-wise in a place I don’t want to be. The reality is I have to be there and I have to want to go there, and this was just not a place I wanted to be. When I think back it was the stupidest thing I ever did because we did a restaurant where people live maybe 2 months a year, in a place that people considered their private island. Everybody on the island has a private chef and entertains at their home. When I think about it, it was just like ‘what the hell was I thinking!”
And now, on to Dallas. Given the benefit of hindsight, I’m willing to wager that J.R. Ewing might not have been so cranky in his famous 1980’s era show if he had some better restaurants to go to. But not unlike the show, that’s all in the past now thanks to a downtown renaissance in Dallas, a city that already has over 10,000 restaurants - four times more per capita than New York. Dallas easily meets Palmer’s number one criteria for opening a restaurant in a new area, for he truly likes to visit and stay in that area (“the people in Dallas are just so damn nice”) and he is impressed with the economic expansion he’s seeing there. In some ways, it reminds him of what he saw in Las Vegas nearly 10 years ago.
“I like Dallas a lot as a city. We’ve looked at a lot of different opportunities there for years, but I never found what I thought was the right opportunity for us. Downtown Dallas has been like a lot of urban cities - nothing there for a long time - and what’s happening there now is really exciting. I think the restaurant scene in Dallas is going to be really exciting in the next 5 or 10 years, and we get to be a part of it in a great location.”
The new Dallas restaurant will open in June 2007 and will be located in the brand new Joule Hotel. Customers will be offered steakhouse-style customization options within a simplified menu of local products along with a few of Palmer’s standards. “The reason the steakhouse is so popular - and we own a couple of steakhouses - is not because people are dying to eat red meat,” explains Palmer, “It’s because they love the idea that they can eat what they want. That’s the philosophy of this restaurant, the décor, the wine program and everything - I have a really true vision of what it is and I know it’s going to be successful.” The chef in Dallas will be Scott Romano, who has been with Palmer for over 8 years, and they have been working together on the new menu for six months. Long-term relationships seem to be common within Palmer’s organization, and he backs up his teamwork mantra with loyalty and promotions within a corporation that is now poised to expand at a pace equal or perhaps beyond their 2003 expansion of three restaurants in one year. Aureole chef Dante Bozzuco has given Palmer 10 years, and Bryan Voltaggio, the chef in CP Steak in D.C., moved up within the organization and has been with CPG for eight years. Palmer prefers to think of his chefs as collaborators, and is proud not only of how long his best chefs have stayed with him, but also of his close working relationship with them.
While most of Palmer’s chefs are grounded within a particular restaurant, his corporate chef Tony Aiazzi, a 9-year veteran, gets to move around a bit more. “He basically does what I do,” says Palmer. “He goes from restaurant to restaurant, produces menus, develops dishes, and heads up our cookbooks - I’m very big on responsibility and accountability.” Aiazzi is also responsible for Palmer’s relationship with Seabourne, a cruise line whose fine dining menu is created by Palmer’s group. Aiazzi, whose roommate at CIA helped him get his foot in the door at Aureole, gets to go on the cruise ship quite often, an experience he describes as “like being stuck in a nice hotel room for 5 days.” Doesn’t sound all that bad, does it?
Palmer’s group has always been known to drive the leading edge in technology, from their pre-dotcom era flash-enhanced charliepalmer.com web site, to their electronic E-wine books. Palmer makes sure that every one of his chefs has and uses a digital camera, and CPG developed an extranet web site called the Truffle Pigs where he and his chefs, sous chefs, and pastry chefs can share recipes and ideas. “The most important thing about it is that it’s totally closed,” says Palmer, “and that is the whole intent, so that we can talk freely. We don’t have to worry about someone on the site saying these ‘guys are crazy, they shouldn’t do that.’ We can post opinions and photos, and it’s only for us.”
The whole concept of restaurants being slow to utilize new technologies to improve their service or their products is sometimes attributed to the high cost of these new technologies, but not always. Often it’s more of a mindset where new ideas, new equipment, or new dishes are overlooked in favor of doing things that are similar or comfortable, the way things have always worked in the past.
“I think the mistake that people make is they have a restaurant that’s doing really well and you have popular dishes that you just take for granted that you don’t have to change anything; that whole analogy of ‘why change it if it’s not broken.’ My philosophy is, ‘if you don’t change it, you’re going to take the big fall.’ I don’t know if change is the right word, I like to say progress. We need to constantly get better at what we do, and we need to be constantly searching for ways to make our clients happier and more fulfilled. The day we stop doing that or thinking like that is the day we’re going to get in trouble.”
Palmer’s latest version of their E-wine book will be built as an Internet application for the tablet PC - with the valuable help of Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard - and allows their customers to go online, peruse the restaurant’s wine list, and select a wine. They can then come into the restaurant and the wine will be already ordered and waiting for them. Says Palmer: “I’m not a computer geek but I know what I want. I don’t know how much time people will want to spend on a tablet PC, but they’ll be able to click and get profiles, find who made the wine, his heritage, where he was born, which I think some people are really interested in.”
Somehow, during the same period of time when he was opening one new restaurant and began planning two others, Mr. Palmer found the time, with the help of corporate chef Aiazzi and the rest of his team, to create his third cookbook called the Practical Guide To The American Kitchen. Not unlike his fondness for combing America and finding new and exciting locations for his ventures, he decided to create a new kind of cookbook that would be virtually indestructible in a busy kitchen, resistant to water, dirt, grease, and humidity. The book’s construction is called Durabooks, by a company called Melcher Media, and it uses no wood pulp of any kind. Patented recently in 2004, it is totally synthetic, using plastic resins and inorganic fillers, and is a true “green” product in that the synthetic paper can be melted down and re-used to create other products. Not only does this innovative format provide new motivation for the tentative home chef to actually use the book, the dishes in Palmer’s book are presented in a straightforward way and designed, hopefully, to encourage readers to be a better cook. “We tend to do these cookbooks that have beautiful representations of what we do in the restaurant, kind of like documentation in a lot of ways. But the reality is that nobody is really going to cook from these books. Which is okay, because we sell a ton of books that are really souvenirs and that’s a great thing, too, but as a chef you would love it if people would actually cook from your book, that they would actually use it.”
If Charlie Palmer is successful, and not many casinos would ever bet against that, he will soon be part-owner of a project that is large even by his standards – a $400 million hotel-condo in downtown Las Vegas in a new city-owned 61 acre development called Union Park. The primary projects in this new park, the 2200+ seat Smith Center for the Performing Arts and The Lou Ruvo Alzheimer’s Institute, the latter designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, are already being developed. Still in negotiations with the City of Las Vegas, the long and expensive process of permits and applications is nearing completion, and the finished building will include condos and hotel rooms and two as yet unnamed restaurants.
While this project may seem like a big stretch for a chef, Palmer is already the owner of a hotel in Sonoma California called Hotel Healdsburg. “It’s the one thing people forget, that we have a hotel and restaurant in the wine country here that’s been very successful. It’s a small boutique property, but that was our first step into the hotel world, and the hotel business is not really all that different from what we’re in which is the hospitality business.”
While Palmer’s first step into the hotel business was a relatively small one, it was both instructional and motivational for someone who was told at a very young age not to listen to someone who told you that you aren’t capable of doing something. We talked about whether he instills those same values in his children – he has four boys – and if he would be happy if one or more of his kids were to follow his father’s footsteps.
“I would be very happy if somebody did, but they’re too young yet, they’ve got to dream for a while. They’ve grown up in a place where a lot of times I’m not home at night because I’m in the restaurants, and that’s different than their friends and they recognize that. At the same time, they love going to the restaurant with me and they like to be in the kitchen. The older boys, who are 11 and 12 years old, like going and working in the kitchen with me, and they’re good at it. But right now they’re just sports guys - they play football, basketball, and baseball.”
Near the end of our interview, already impressed with the amount of time and energy Mr. Palmer had expended on us, I asked him what his own personal opinion was of the industry he had grown up in and helped to create. He spoke of how important it was to be a good father and a mentor to his chefs and to his people, and how much friendship means to him, especially with other chef/owners such as Daniel Boulud, who is not only a friend to Palmer but also, to a small degree, competes for similar neighborhood business.
“Daniel and I are good friends and we’re obviously in direct competition with each other, but it never enters into the way we think about each other. His generosity in the past with me and things that he has done to help me has always been great, and vice versa. From time to time I think about where food has come since I’ve been involved in it, and I think it’s just amazing how much better restaurants are, how much better ingredients are, and how great it is that people are more educated about food and wine. It’s really changed in America, and I’m very proud of the fact that I think some of the best restaurant cities in the world are in our country. I certainly could not say that when I started out. Obviously the great food was in different parts of the world, whereas now I think you can honestly say that a lot of great restaurant cities are right here in our country. For me that’s important because I really think we live in the greatest country in the world.”