CHEF CHARLIE PALMER - Finding My Own Voice In The Kitchen




By Chef Charlie Palmer


Although I’ve spent the last three decades of my life in kitchens, when it comes to cooking, I’ve never stopped learning. Being a chef requires equal parts discipline and creativity, and it was this mix that drew me into the kitchen as a boy, first as a dishwasher in New York state where my family lived, then in a high school Home Economics class, (taught by my next door neighbor) at a time when guys didn’t just grab a whisk without hearing a lot of jokes. But these invaluable early experiences ultimately led me to seek further education at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, where I received my formal training and where I have come full circle as Chairman of the Board of Trustees, meeting and mentoring future chefs. After my graduation from the CIA, I did what every young, classically trained chef does: I went to France. This was my first trip out of the U.S.A., and while working a stage (or unpaid) in the kitchen of the legendary Georges Blanc in Vonnas, Burgundy, I was sated with my first truffle truck and struck by the huge part which food plays in the French identity of other countries. I decided to help spark this same cultural experience in America and soon got my chance as Executive Chef of the River Café in Brooklyn, one of the first restaurants in the country to incorporate concepts like “free-range” and “local.” Running this significant kitchen helped me to find my own voice – by marrying classical techniques with indigenous ingredients into a style I called “Progressive American,” defined by rambunctious, intense flavors, unexpected combinations, and substantial portions.

In 1988, I set out on my own, with a short wish list in hand: I wanted to do a big-time restaurant – to compete with the great French restaurants of New York. So it had to be the Upper East Side, close to Fifth Avenue. And I wanted to showcase the emerging awareness for American ingredients. It all came together when I found a townhouse just off Madison Avenue that became home to my landmark, Aureole, a stage in which I had the freedom to showcase my signature Progressive American cooking. After receiving three stars from the New York Times (which was pretty heady stuff for a 28 year-old) I needed something else to accomplish. I was always attracted to the adventurous spirit of the West, and sensing that Vegas was about to undergo a revitalization, I made early investment in what was destined to become a vital, new American dining city. Once just a green valley stopover in the desert for Spanish traders heading West, Las Vegas is now the largest city founded in the 20th Century. With a history that encompasses mining, the construction of Hoover Dam, and the country’s first topless showgirls, Vegas remains a frontier town where the unexpected is still a daily occurrence. The dining scene is equally as exciting, and I felt like a trailblazer when I decided to open Aureole Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay. With a nod to the theatrics of the location, I built a showstopper that featured the largest wine tower in the world: 40 x 14 square feet of more than 60,000 stacked bottles, made accessible by an elaborate pulley system presided over by our now famous flying “Wine Angels,” clad in black spandex by Calvin Klein. —Charlie

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