Pages Navigation Menu
Categories Navigation Menu

Q & A with Charlie Palmer

Thumbnail image for Charlie_Palmer.jpgYou can’t really talk about “Progressive American” food without mentioning Charlie Palmer.  Over the years, the chef has built an empire of successful restaurants that spans the country, including Sonoma, Washington D. C., Las Vegas and Dallas, Texas.  But it all started in 1988 when Palmer opened Aureole.  Inside this timeless, townhouse in Midtown, Palmer designed an elegant American menu that aggressively driven by ingredients long before it was par for the course.  Palmer got his start at The River Cafe in Brooklyn, where he learned the fundamental lessons to running a successful kitchen. 

On October 31st & November 1st, Aureole will celebrate its twentieth anniversary with a “20 Bites Menu.”  What’s for dinner?  The same, signature sea scallop sandwich offered in 1998  along with the tea-smoked squab from 1991.  Each of the nine-courses will be paired with a wine from the good old days. 

Come spring 2009, Aureole will move into the “greenest” skyscraper in
Manhattan – The Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park.   The 10,000
square-foot space will get a sleek, modern makeover from Adam D.
Tihany, who also designed Per Se and Daniel.  Expect one of the largest
wine cellars in the city.   


What did you want to be when you grew up?
Either a chef or a surgeon. Both work with knives.

What was your first job in food, and what did you learn?
was a pot washer in a restaurant — it sort of had to do with food
because of the burnt, crusted food on the inside of the pots. I learned
that you have to get good fast in this business, because even though a
pot washer is necessary, it’s not the kind of job you want for the rest
of your life.

You opened Aureole in 1988, a year after
a severe downturn in the American economy. What were the challenges of
running a fine-dining restaurant in that climate?
We were
very fortunate. People thought I was crazy for opening a restaurant
during that time, but really I’m not sure if the challenges would be
any different. We opened and from day one we were successful.  I
haven’t looked back since.  I also think that while we were and are an
expensive restaurant, we give extremely good quality and value, which
is very important nowadays.

You’ve been referred to as
the founder of “progressive American cuisine.”  What does that term
mean to you and what’s your perception of American cooking today?
It’s constantly evolving, and to call
something a cuisine takes hundreds of years. I think one of the great
things about American cooking, or at least my cooking because everyone
cooks differently, is that we pull ingredients from all parts of the
world while still grounded in French technique. It’s all combined to
become a very wonderful, creative thing.

How has Aureole evolved over the past twenty years?
evolved in a lot of ways. The wine list is smarter and more
encompassing — twenty years ago we wouldn’t be selling wine from New
Zealand like we do now. The service attitude has changed as well. I
think it’s very important to create comfort for the diner, and if you
can do that you’re already ahead of the game. I like it when the
mechanics of service are perfect but you never notice it; the needs of
diners are anticipated. The cooking has changed as well now that there
are a lot of new techniques out there — a lot more interesting.

Rumor has it Aureole will be moving
Also we’ll be moving to another location again in the Spring of next year
.  It’s a very modern and clean space, but timeless I think.

Tell us about Aureole’s 20th Anniversary menu.
was definitely an interesting process for me to look back and identify
one dish that represents all twenty years. It was a lot of fun though
because usually I don’t reminisce and always move forward, but this
menu really got me thinking about the people who used to work here, the
things that happened…it’s a lot of fun.  Basically it’s 20 tastes in a
nine-course meal, and we chose dishes that would pair well with each
other. We also pair each course with wines that were popular at the
time. The whole process is great because sometimes new dishes will come
out of it and you think of an updated version for something you made
long ago. There will be a lot of old familiar faces at this dinner.

What do you think is the key to owning and operating a restaurant as successful as Aureole?
take anything for granted — that’s when people get in trouble. Always
make yourself better, because you can never improve enough.

How do you manage to oversee several restaurants across America?
put a lot of trust in people because, I’m not going to kid myself — I
can’t be on top of everything all at once. Every restaurant is operated
under the same philosophies, the same values, and once you get good
people you’re in a good place. Accountability is very important as
well, and we have a tremendously talented group of people with us.

How did growing up on a farm influence your culinary style?… 

How did growing up on a farm influence your culinary style?
grew up on a dairy farming community and my dad was somewhat of a jack
of all trades. I always felt that the understanding of where things
come from is very important. You definitely have an advantage but you
also develop a level of respect — dairy farmers are some of the
hardest working people I know, and I know about raising animals and
growing plants.

What was your favorite dish on the original Aureole menu from 1988?
People would probably say the sea scallop sandwich, but if I could
choose any dish that is my favorite to eat it would be squab — pigeon.
When my kids were little, I used to take them to Central Park, and I
would look at all the pigeons and get visions of these golden, roasted
birds.  It’s one of the best tasting dishes out there.

What is your least favorite (and yes you must pick one)?
don’t know, maybe smoked salmon. I remember having it on the menu for a
long time because I thought that every restaurant needed to have it.
Finally, the lightbulb went off and I removed it from the menu.

Other than your own, what are your favorite restaurants in NYC?
have a lot of chef-friend restaurant favorites like Daniel and Jean
Georges — both excellent, excellent restaurants. Crispo’s, Yakitori
Taisho.  I love sushi, and my favorite place for it is Kuruma Zushi —
it’s all Japanese people there.

What culinary trends do you embrace?
not really a trends kind of guy. The things that are important are the
drive for the best ingredients possible, and I think it is our duty as
chefs to drive the market. We can always be better though, and that
mind set makes us better cooks. Ingredients are so important nowadays,
while twenty-five years ago, it was not uncommon to open up a can of
asparagus. Sounds crazy now but that’s how it was.

What culinary trends do you wish would just die already?
think that molecular cuisine could get out of hand. Technology in food
is great, but at the end of the day we have to ask ourselves: do we
really want to eat it?  Is what we made so damn good that people are
going to be returning for it night after night?

Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans…
only project I’m focusing on now is the transition from this wonderful,
beautiful space to a new and exciting place in a new neighborhood on
42nd and 6th Avenue. We could stay here, yes, but I knew I should do
something drastic to position Aureole for the next twenty years.

Address: 34 East 61st St. btwn. Madison and Park Aves.
Phone: (212) 319-1660

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl
**Don’t forget to subscribe for Restaurant Girl’s Weekly Newsletter**

Leave a Comment

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