Jim Poris / May 2003
Food Arts presents the May 2003 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Charlie Palmer, the spirited New York City chef who has fashioned a thriving bicoastal culinary enterprise that includes fine dining restaurants, steak houses, bistros, a hotel, and catering facilities. Renowned for lusty Americanized stylings of French cuisine, replete with bells-and-whistles desserts sprouting barbs of pulled sugar and orbs or chocolate, at his flagship Aureole (NYC), Palmer is the very model of an American chef turned entrepreneur.
"I don't take no for an answer," Palmer says about his best business instinct. "If I truly believe in how the food should be or in a concept for a restaurant, no one can ever tell me it's not a good idea. Once I decide to go full steam ahead, I don't waiver."
Palmer heard from plenty of doubters in 1988, when he decided to leave behind his accolades at The River Cafe in Brooklyn and, at age 28, go for the haute brass ring in an East Side town house in Manhattan. "I wanted to play in the big arena, to be considered in the same league with Le Cirque [Now Le Cirque 2000], La Caravelle, and Le Chantilly," he says about the ambition behind Aureole. "To do that, I had to take them on in their neighborhood." And despite initial doubts on the part of critics that left Palmer "livid," the bulldog in him kept him "building relationships with diners and using word of mouth" to make Aureole one of the toughest reservations in town. Eventually, even the critics saw the light.
One of five sons of an upstate New York jack-of-all-trades, Palmer attributes his drive to a high-school wrestling coach whom he characterizes as "just brutal." Of his experience as a wrestler, he says, "To this day, that was the most difficult thing I've ever done." With that training, Palmer breezed through home ec ("Imagine, me and five other football players"), The Culinary Institute of America, early-1980s stints at La Côte Basque (NYC) and Waccabuc Country Club in Westchester (NY) County, and then The River Cafe.
As Aureole soared, so did his imagination, which, coupled with his will and instinct, has helped generate an unbroken string of successes. There was Chefs Cuisinières Club, a restaurant hangout for chefs, which became Alva and now is the low-price, upscale-food concept Kitchen 22 (NYC), which he plans to clone; Aureole Las Vegas, with its famed wine tower; Astra (NYC) and then Astra West (Los Angeles); two stylish catering facilities (see page 68); Metazur, a bistro in Grand Central Terminal (NYC); Charlie Palmer Steak (Las Vegas, and soon Washington D.C.); and Dry Creek Kitchen and Hotel Healdsburg, in the Sonoma County town where he's building a house into which he'll soon move with his wife and four sons. There were other ventures, as well—most notably his six year partnership with Jonathan White at Egg Farm Dairy in New York State that jump-started American artisanal cheese productions—and three cookbooks, including The Art of Aureole, due out later this year.