Chef Charlie Palmer is known from coast to coast for founding and leading elite dining experiences. From Charlie Palmer at the Knick in Midtown Manhattan to Aureole in Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay at the Healdsburg Hotel in Sonoma, California, Palmer is synonymous with fresh and refined meat and fish in an ambiance of understated indulgence.
Its most recent dining destination is Wing and Barrel Ranch, a private California Wine Country club limited to 400 members. Offering a luxurious take on a wild and outdoor lifestyle, the well-heeled can enjoy a mix of hunting, fishing, shooting and hiking before savoring a menu of the founder’s field-to-table cuisine. Palmer. (Wing and Barrel was opened and operates under state regulations and restrictions.)
We took the 61-year-old James Beard Award-winning chef out of the kitchen to explore this new property and find out what brought him to the top of the culinary world.
PENTA: Wing and Barrel Ranch is a big start for you. What brought you to the wilderness?
Charlie Palmer: I am one of the founding members with a group of great people who love sports. Although this is a personal project, I involve my whole team. We have one of the most dynamic locations you can imagine — about 900 acres now. It’s just surreal.
More outdoor ownership allows me to be more involved in outdoor cooking. I have worked with Remington in the past on an outdoor and play cookbook. I have always had a passion for the outdoors, hunting and fishing. We will provide our members with a complete outdoor experience with food and wine pairings, the preparation of the catch of the day, the practice of sport and the cooking afterwards.
How involved are you in the day-to-day setup and operation of a restaurant?
Much of our success depends on our team of people, chefs and hotel entrepreneurs. My job is to get involved in operations. The team jokes that I haven’t been in the office for 18 months, but my office is in the kitchens and dining rooms, making sure what we all do is a real passion.
Besides cooking, what are you good at?
Hope this is the husband and father of our four sons, Courtland, Randall, Eric and Reed.
What would you have devoted your life to if the kitchen hadn’t worked?
I’m pretty good with a knife, so I always thought I would make a great surgeon. I have doctor friends who say I’m crazy.
Who is the first person you remember admiring that was not related to you?
When I was in Sherburne-Earlville High School in New York State, I had a home economics teacher named Sharon Crain. She helped me introduce myself to cooking, showed me the basics and made me want to become a chef. I will always be grateful to him.
What’s the most interesting city you’ve visited?
I was just in Lisbon, Portugal. I had not been there for 20 years. I was really infatuated with what is going on there from a culinary and cultural point of view. I know that I have really enjoyed a city when I realize that I really want to go back.
What’s the most interesting restaurant you’ve visited that isn’t in your collection?
I was in Copenhagen for the holidays with my whole family and we visited a restaurant called Amass. This comes from a previous relationship with Chef Matt Orlando, who worked with us in New York. It is located on a jetty in an old warehouse, a great location. You can feel the dedication that went into it, and it had everything I look for in a restaurant.
What work of art (be it a song, a painting, a photograph, a book) has changed the way you see the world?
There wouldn’t be one. I love the way I look at things when I visit an amazing museum, like the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was there recently and spent a few hours there. There is just this way that art opens your mind. I always relate these things to my experience as a chef and, from a culinary perspective, museums can inspire me and change the way I view the relationship between people and food. I think more people should go to museums, in general.
What should an amateur cook in the kitchen need to know?
He or she should be able to make an omelet. In the world of chefs, when we want to see how well someone knows their way around a kitchen, making an omelet is one way to test.
What do you like to eat that would shock your fans?
I don’t go to fast food. I am not a beer drinker. But, I will appreciate bacon, eggs and cheese. I can’t do too much without having to run extra miles in the morning. I’m more of a wine person than cocktails, but I like a good Negroni every now and then, if it’s done right.
What do you fear most about the future?
I tend to be a great optimist. Of course, what we are experiencing right now with the coronavirus is something that needs to be managed in the restaurant industry and in society in general. I saw New York go through 9/11, and obviously no one would want to see a city go through something like that. But, these events can make you stronger and make a community stronger.
What is the status of American restaurants in general these days?
The food and cuisine in this country has never been better in terms of ingredients, preparation and knowledge of the diners. The more people know about food and wine, what they eat, why they eat it, the better it is for people like us in this industry as we think about how to make delicious food.
What do you think is the key to sustained motivation in a long career?
It’s loving what you do. I have been adamant about this with my sons and our team. You have to find something that you do that you really love, love what you do. I feel very lucky to have discovered something very early on because I don’t feel like I’m going to work when I get up in the morning. I’m excited for what I’m going to do today.