Chef Talk: The Education of Charlie Palmer

The Aureole chef, restaurateur and sometime winemaker shares some lessons he's learned in his distinguished career, and hints at a special project behind the scenes
Chef Talk: The Education of Charlie Palmer
Outside the kitchen, Charlie Palmer produces wines with Iron Horse Vineyards and Mauritson Wines. (Charlie Palmer Group)
Apr 20, 2018

Even in a job where loving wine comes with the territory, acclaimed chef Charlie Palmer stands apart. Few others would contend that wine comes before food in the pairing equation, and fewer still plant and tend vineyards in their own backyards. From his Sonoma wine country abode, Palmer oversees a small empire of restaurants around the country, including Wine Spectator Grand Award winner Aureole in Las Vegas, as well as a New York location. But Palmer is hardly resting on his well-earned laurels. Just in the past few weeks, he has hosted his annual weekend-long food-and-wine charity extravaganza Pigs & Pinot; opened a new rooftop wine bar and restaurant, the 7,000-square-foot Sky & Vine atop the Archer Hotel in Napa; and celebrated his son Reed's graduation at the Culinary Institute of America, receiving an honorary doctorate himself at the same ceremony.

Palmer now runs four Restaurant Award–winning outposts of Charlie Palmer Steak (the fifth opened in November 2017 in the Archer) and Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, Calif., where he aims to maintain “the largest comprehensive collection of Sonoma bottlings in existence.” (Guests attending Wine Spectator's upcoming Grand Tour tasting extravaganzas in Washington, D.C., New York or Las Vegas can find a Palmer restaurant to dine at.) He has made Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wine with some of California's top wineries. With his finger firmly on the pulse of American wine and dining, Palmer spoke with assistant editor Samantha Falewée about the lessons he's learned in recent years, how he approaches cooking for wine today, and the unusual, still-under-wraps new wine he's working on.

WS: What have you learned about the restaurant industry and your restaurants, specifically, in recent years?
CP: We’ve realized that we want to be the restaurants that really welcome collectors. For instance, in New York City there are so many wine aficionados and collectors, but there aren't a lot of restaurants like Aureole or Charlie Palmer Steak that really welcome collectors to bring in their wines to drink. A lot of my good friends are big collectors who own millions of dollars worth of wine, but they don’t want to drink it at home. They eat out all the time, and they want to go out and enjoy their wine. A lot of times, collectors want to eat simple food with their wines. They don't want complicated, overly seasoned dishes that fool with the makeup of the wines.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past 10 years as a chef and a restaurateur, it’s that when we’re doing wine dinners or we’re trying to create a dish for a certain wine, it’s wine first. The old-school way was, “Here’s the menu, pair some wines with it.” That’s not really the way it should work, especially with people who are really into wines and own collections of first-growth Bordeaux. You want to create a dinner or dish that really elevates those wines.

This morning, now that I know what the wines are going to be from Duckhorn [at a wine dinner], for instance, we can start working on the menu and craft the dishes that we think are going to work well with them. The first for the Duckhorn dinner is going to be served with a Pinot Noir. Normally, I would do a fish course or a crudo or cold course, but because it’s got to be Pinot Noir, I think we’re going to do a room temperature–type salmon dish with a warm vinaigrette, something like that, that really is going to work well with the Pinot.

WS: What wine projects are you working on now?
CP: We just celebrated our 10th vintage of Charlie Clay [Pinot Noir] with Clay Mauritson of Mauritson Wines. This year, we made a Lime Stone Chardonnay, which is a great, well-balanced, food-savvy Chardonnay, lightly oaked, with just about 10 percent new oak. We made about 60 cases of it. In past years, we’ve bottled a Zin, which we actually sourced from Clay’s grandmother’s vineyard, and we’ve done Sauvignon Blanc three or four different times.

Lime Stone is actually a retail shop that my wife, Lisa, and I have in Healdsburg, but it was always meant to be kind of a second label for one-off projects. I spend a lot of my time in wine country, so I’ve learned a hell of a lot about winemaking. We grow Pinot Noir on my property, four different clones.

We also continue to make our sparkling wine with Iron Horse. Over the years it’s changed a little bit, but one thing that’s always been the focus is to create a sparkling wine that goes really well with a lot of different foods, everything like the obvious oysters and seafood … but also big enough and creamy enough to be served with something like a roast chicken. We usually do a cuvée about every 18 months on average.

WS: What's on the horizon for you?
CP: I tell you what, this is an inside scoop: I have gotten into drinking more—or, more than usual—Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And I’m actually talking to a very famous winemaker in Sonoma about making a version of it in California. It’s gotten a lot of interest; we’ve been studying the blend and thinking about what makes Châteauneuf-du-Pape special, although obviously part of what makes it special is where it’s from. It would be interesting to do something in a similar vein, but in California. It’ll be in Sonoma, and that’s kind of the challenge [in terms] of finding the varietals. We’re only missing a couple components [chuckles]. I think it’ll be fun. I’ll keep you posted.

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