Charlie Palmer

F&W Star Chef

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Restaurants: Aureole, Charlie Palmer Steak

A nationally recognized master of progressive American cuisine, Charlie Palmer has high-end restaurants, steak houses, wine shops and hotels to his name. The Culinary Institute of America graduate was the chef at Brooklyn, New York’s River Café by 1983, and earned three stars from the New York Times at the age of 23. Palmer’s success led to the 1988 opening of his first solo project, Aureole. In addition to the flagship Aureole Palmer’s holdings now include multiple locations of Charlie Palmer Steak; Briscola in Reno, Nevada; an Aureole offshoot at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas; and additional projects in Dallas, Sonoma and Costa Mesa, California. Also an accomplished hotelier, Palmer opened a chef-driven San Francisco inn in 2012 and will join the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas when construction begins on the Charlie Palmer Hotel. Among his five cookbooks is the seminal Great American Food.

Here, Palmer discusses his mentors, Pappy Van Winkle whiskey and a seized stash of Iberico ham.

Who is your food mentor?
A Belgian chef by the name of Leon Dhaenens who taught at the Culinary Institute. He was very classically trained and almost like a father to me. I did a fellowship with him when he was the chef at the Escoffier Room, which was one of the school’s restaurants. My other mentor would be Georges Blanc. I apprenticed with Georges twice and developed a great respect for him. He was not only a chef but also a restaurateur with great business sense—his entrepreneurship influenced me.

What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Jacques Pépin’s La Technique was revolutionary in a lot of ways. I have a copy that’s so used that it’s torn and spotted. It’s a very good book for someone who needs things explained really clearly.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
When I was in high school I would try recipes out of Larousse Gastronomique. I remember having some of my football buddies over. We got dressed up and had a dinner party. I made coulibiac of salmon. They had no idea what they were even eating.

What is one thing that everyone should learn how to cook?
Breakfast. There are a number of techniques involved in cooking eggs properly—not just frying them, but poaching, making French toast and working with pancake batter. It’s also a great place to start because you’re practicing with ingredients that aren’t very expensive.

What’s your secret-weapon ingredient?
Piment d’Espelette (red chile powder). In Sonoma we started growing the peppers and then drying them to make our own. There’s a little bit of spiciness to it, but it’s a balanced heat. I’ll add a little bit to something as simple as creamy scrambled eggs or a perfectly poached piece of white fish.

Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
Pamigiano-Reggiano. If you’re going to make a dish that involves Parmesan cheese, make sure you get the real thing. Yes, it’s more expensive, but you’ll wind up using less of it because it’s got so much more flavor. That goes for a lot of things: cheese, butter, sea salts, smoked bacon, good artisanal pastas made with high-quality semolina. These are simple things that can make your cooking so much better.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
San Francisco. There’s real diversity and value from ethnic food to places like Flour + Water, which isn’t extremely expensive. In fact the best porchetta sandwich I’ve ever eaten was at the Ferry Building market on Saturday morning. The place is called RoliRoti and the sandwich is $5.

What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
An Iberico ham that didn’t make it through customs. I’m still mad about that.

What is your go-to drink?
Pappy Van Winkle whiskey straight—the best one I can get my hands on. It’s rare though.

What is your favorite snack?
Pretzel sticks, and we have a couple of different contraptions to make popcorn. We fool around with different stuff, but when it comes down to it I like popcorn made with canola oil and sprinkled with sea salt—no butter.