Into The Wild With Charlie Palmer

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Charlie Palmer may or may not have killed this pig with his bare hands.

Charlie Palmer is a big man. When he steps up to greet me in the dining room at Aureole on 42nd Street in Manhattan, I'm reminded of meeting boxers, muscular baseball sluggers — certainly not a chef. He shakes my hand firmly and leads me to a table in the more formal part of Aureole, which is the second iteration of this restaurant which started out decades ago in an Upper East Side townhouse.

It was there that Palmer launched his career as a businessman/chef, and he's gone on to open restaurants in Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas, and hotels with restaurants in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, California, and last year, San Francisco, with The Mystic.

Though he's from upstate New York, he seems suited to the West. An avid outdoorsman and hunter who takes his wife and four boys into the wild whenever he can, Palmer last month released a cookbook in collaboration with the venerable gun and ammunition company Remington Arms, Camp Cooking. At Aureole, seated across from me, the affable Palmer reminisces about the restaurant's beginnings and talks about how his passion for outdoor cooking informed the new book. Imposing as he is, I also broach the subject of gun control with him, and Palmer obliges, only becoming cagey when I ask about what's next on his busy agenda.

What brings you to New York right now?

I'm here in New York basically every two weeks. We have a corporate office here and a lot of projects going on here. Ultimately, this is my home and we live a bit of a different lifestyle – we have a home here, a home in wine country and we're going to become more bicoastal. My second son will be going to NYU this fall so we'll have a kid in New York and three in California.

Obviously, Aureole has had quite the journey over the last few decades—

My original restaurant was on 61st and Madison. I was really fortunate when I was 27 and got a couple of people who wanted to partner with me and ultimately chose one. I said I wanted to do a restaurant on the Upper East Side and had a very specific idea — I wanted to do kind of the American Lutèce, because my background was all in French restaurants — La Côte Basque and Lutèce. I wanted to be in that specific area because I wanted to compete with the big guys. If you look back, a lot of those restaurants were in brownstones. I literally said to my partner, "Buy me a brownstone between 59th and 72nd, between 5th and Lexington." That was the directive and he found us three. We ultimately chose that one.

Did you leave that space for any specific reason?

Yeah, I just felt it. We celebrated our 20th anniversary and I own the building, so I certainly didn't have to go anywhere. For Aureole to be successful for the next 20 years, I felt like I had to do something, not just upgrade or shift, but do something drastic. A lot of people thought I was crazy. Why would you move from a building that you own and that's paid for and do all this? I think ultimately it was exactly the right thing.


Things change and over years, it takes thought and you have to be a risk taker. This restaurant is totally different from the brownstone. I tore the brownstone apart five times but it's still 18 feet wide with no bar. It was a very specific kind of restaurant, which was great and incredibly successful. This, on the other hand, is so multi-dimensional. We have an incredible bar. We have an intimate dining room with low ceilings, which is very much like the townhouse.

Yes, the formal dining room in back, the more casual spot and bar out front.

This is all intentional – the cozy, very comfortable, contained space, but only 55 seats. The bar room is more casual, but the reality is that diners have changed. The same person that may love this experience once a month or whenever they have guests coming from out of town — or it's a business dinner and they want to impress someone — for every one experience like that, there's 10 times that they want to grab something really good to eat, and time is the biggest thing for all these people, not really the money.

I thought this was an interesting concept because you can basically have a burger and beer in one room and steak and wine in another room, but it's the same restaurant.

Sure. It's pretty rare to have a restaurant that can do both those things really well. The goal in the barroom is for the food to be fantastic and where someone can come in and have a great salad, a nice piece of fish, a great glass of wine, and be in and out of here in an hour and 15 minutes. It's like me — I don't have time to have three-hour dinners.

And you've had Marcus Ware in the kitchen for years now, right?

Well, Marcus has been with me for seven years total. It's kind of a normal progression. Usually, it's a number of years before our people move up to have their own kitchen. I think Marcus is a perfect example of that — he worked under a number of different chefs and with me and is now really positioned to be successful.

How did you learn to manage like that? Was it studying the big guys as a young chef that taught you how to bring up your own team?

No, I think it was really hard for me, especially in the beginning. When I had Aureole in the townhouse, I made every decision about everything – the size of the ice cube! People would ask me why I was opening so many restaurants. First of all, I'm not a believer that someone can be in the same kitchen and do the same thing all their life. More importantly, I think you develop this talent and it became clear to me that we had this mini school producing these incredible cooks and chefs, and either I'd give them to Drew Nieporent to run one of his restaurants or I'd put them in business!

Let's talk about your new cookbook. It's a collaboration with the gun company Remington Arms, and has an unusual format and a soft, flexible cover. Why such a change-up?

The book came out of a larger relationship with Remington. That started a few years ago with some friends who took over the helm there. I've always been an avid hunter and fisherman. Remington is the oldest company in the country, so there's a lot of history. They are strictly guns and ammo, and for the company to grow, venturing into the outdoor lifestyle segment is really where they have to take it. A big part of that outdoor lifestyle thing is cooking, and that's where I come in.

Are there that many people who hunt and fish, then cook what they catch right away?

Forget about it! The demographic is huge. The statistics are mindboggling. Cooking outdoors and in a not outfitted kind of way is much different than cooking in a home kitchen or professional kitchen. From a hunting standpoint, there is really nothing out there to give people an idea of what to do with what they have.

There's not many recipes for braised elk ragout—

Exactly! And the ones that are out there quite honestly are not that good. They are more like, "Well, my aunt soaks it in Coca-Cola" [laughs]. There are a lot of heirloom recipes handed down over generations — some good, some bad. The whole idea of the book is a really straightforward approach with a lot of common sense packed into it. Things to think about when building a fire, what to look for, why you are doing it. Also, practical notes and things to think about.

What about the format, the cover?

The whole feel and texture of the book really came from the fact that I wanted a book where the more it's used, the better it feels. The binding is flexible, like a bible. The more you use it, the more flexible it's going to get. The more stains you get on it, the better it's going to look. It's the kind of book that I want people to take out and use. Don't leave it on the coffee table – it's not that kind of book. Take it into battle and go make it!

You write in the introduction about going hunting and camping with your family—

Yeah, yeah. My younger sons especially are really into hunting and shooting. For me, I grew up that way in a small community in upstate New York and have been doing it as a way of life since I was 13.

Do you think that outdoors lifestyle is lost on some people? Especially in New York City.

Oh, yeah. In the culinary world, we're getting back to looking at whole animal, with guys like Chris Cosentino. In general, you are seeing getting back to raising it and understanding the whole animal – not just the filet mignon, but the "what do you do with the rest of the beast?" That all fits in to what we are talking about here, too. One of the things I wanted to make sure we stressed in the book was the respect for nature. A lot of people think that hunting and fishing is not good for the environment or is bad for certain species, but in reality, there is no one who is more respectful of what we have in nature than someone who is a hunter.

Obviously gun control became a huge issue in this country while you were working on this. What do you think of the issue of gun control?

It's teaching, and the way you approach it is paramount, especially with my sons. You don't pick up the weapon unless you know what you're doing and the rules. In every case, with the violence, there is something wrong there — whether it's Connecticut or Colorado. If it wasn't a gun, what would it have been? They would have driven a car into a group of people and killed 20 people. I don't know. You don't know what's going through people's minds. It's obviously a concern and whatever needs to be done, needs to be done. On the other hand, I think that extremists are always going to be there, too.

When you're not in New York, you're usually in Sonoma, where you own the Hotel Healdsburg and Dry Creek Kitchen.

Yeah, we live in Healdsburg. We [also] have a vineyard. It was always my dream to grow grapes and make wine and, knock on wood, we've been very successful at that. Not as a money making venture so much, although it is financially viable, but more as something that I'm very proud of. As a chef, I've always had a huge interest in wine — probably more so than most chefs — and wanted to get into the heart of it. Everyone talks about terroir and this and that, but it's not actually until you grow vines and grow grapes that you really get to understand the importance of it and how wine is made and the complexity of it, especially Pinot Noir.

You're part of two pretty intense communities – the Sonoma wine scene and the New York restaurant scene. Does trying to manage these relationships get to be stressful sometimes?

Not really. There are a lot of relationships. For instance though, in Sonoma, we are fully dedicated to vineyards of Sonoma and only serve Sonoma-sourced wines. That's something I felt was really important for us, to make that commitment. I wanted to be part of the wine community and I wanted the winemakers and winery owners of Sonoma County to feel like it's their place, too. We support them and they certainly support us. That's important to me because it's truly a wine country restaurant and that's what I want it to be.

Tell me about the boutique hotel in San Francisco.

It's called The Mystic. We bought an existing hotel just about a year ago that we really felt was underutilized — it was called The Crescent and nobody really knew it was there. We took it and have given it an incredible amount of TLC and we've basically redone all the rooms — there are 82 now. It didn't have a restaurant. It had a great bar and we were very careful not to mess that up and it does phenomenally.

What else are you working on?

I just became an investor in a small distillery project because I think that the more care that is given to distilling spirits and the quality of the ingredients used is going to be reflected in the final product. Now, this is something that's going to go into barrel and that we won't see the results for probably two years, if not five years, but it just makes sense.

Can you say what it is yet?

No. It'll be around, though. The one guy used to work with us. There are these [people with] grand ideas sometimes, but financially they don't know what they are getting into, and then they invest in everything they own and like, sell their car! At the same time, I think, it'll be ultimately successful because I'll make sure it is [laughs]. I do think it's cool and it's going to be good and make a better product.

Are you done yet or do you have more things coming?

We've got lots of things [laughs]. It's time. Time is the big determining factor of how many things you can get in the works. I had this conversation the other day with someone — you can build $9 million restaurants, but at the end of the day, it's about the people that are running the restaurant and in the kitchen and the passion that they have for it.

You must have a lot of employees now.

We do. We have over 1,000 employees. I look at them as partners — they are the biggest expense that we have and take the biggest portion of our revenue, so they are very important to us. They are important to me, and I'm sure that I'm important to them. This is their life and their wellbeing and this is how they make a living. I think that's the biggest challenge and will always be – finding, engaging and teaching. That's why I'm so proud of being the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the CIA – to me, that's our future, especially from a culinary standpoint, in those classrooms, those kitchens and those pastry shops. No doubt about it, and we better take damn good care of them or we are not going to have the people we need to move this thing forward.

What do you think about some people saying that almost too many people are going to culinary school because they watch all these shows on TV and are not really as passionate about it as the people in your generation?

I think it's like every profession. In every college, there are people who are serious and inspired and want to be great and understand that they have to work hard to get there, but there are always the few that are phoning it in and dreaming and not being realistic.

Where are you off to after this trip to New York?

I have a quick stop in Vegas and then I have to be back in Dry Creek Kitchen for a dinner on Friday.

Do you like traveling?

No, I hate planes. But it's a necessary part of my life.

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