Industry Insiders: Charlie Palmer, Haute American

Charlie Palmer, celeb chef extraordinaire, is about to move his Upper East Side flagship Aureole to fancy new digs on Bryant Park. Here’s Charlie on being a Giuliani guy, trading blue collar for haute cuisine, and getting shaken down by shifty garbage men.

Point of Origin: I started cooking when I was in junior high school in upstate New York. I grew up in a little town called Smyrna, near Colgate University. I was a football player, I was a jock … hunting and fishing, and stuff like that. … I thought, “God, this cooking thing appeals to me a lot more than what my brothers were doing or what my dad was doing. Maybe this is something I could really get into.” That’s when I realized that I really loved doing this. From that point on it kind of took off. I went to Culinary Institute of America and then right to New York City, with the intention of working in New York for three years or so in 1979.

I was working for the most part in the classic French restaurants. I worked at La Cote Basque when I first came to New York, and then in the summer I worked at Lutece for a while — it was all kind of those restaurants. That was kind of the standard for me. That’s what my training was at the Culinary Institute: it was classical French basics. But then I became the chef at the River Café, which was kind of a new thing, and really kind of explored the fact that I’m an American guy — I’m not French.

Current Biz: Aureole came about because I said I wanted to do my own restaurant; I had a number of different business opportunities with different partners, and I said I want to compete in this realm, and, for me, [the Upper East Side] had to be the location. It had to be at a level that I felt was competing with the Cote Basques, and the Le Cirques … that kind of restaurant. I didn’t want to be downtown; I wanted it to be a head-to-head kind of thing. That’s why my business partner originally found [the Aureole building]. I said it had to be a brownstone because I wanted it to be kind of the American Lutece; it had to be between 59th and 72nd, and it had to be between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue. Those were the parameters. And he actually found three different locations. Obviously, we ended up with this one, which I felt was the best.

I really wanted to build my own restaurant. But at the time, it was Black Monday in the 80s [laughs]. I can’t tell you how many people looked at me like, “What are you, crazy?! You’re opening up a [haute] restaurant in maybe the worst economy we’ve seen in how many years!” And I’m like, “What am I to do? I’m pregnant here! It’s almost three-fourths dilated! Whatever, it’s not like I’m not gonna open!” And, knock on wood, we were successful from day one. We got our share of good reviews and we got our share of payback sometimes with the critics. I was a very boisterous kind of guy back then. Now I’m a little more reserved. I was kind of a renegade in a lot of ways. You had nothing to lose. You’re 27, 28 years old, you had no family, no…you know? Nothin’ to lose.

How did you end up in Vegas? Originally, I was approached by the people at The Venetian. And then, after talking to them for a while I said, “This is not for me.” It wasn’t the right partnership. But I had met this guy, Bill Richardson, who was like the number two guy at Mandalay Bay. Bill’s probably like the most un-Vegas kind of guy, and he’s a Vegas native, lived there all his life. He gets it, he’s very calm, the kind of guy that you feel … I mean, I did that deal on a handshake. A million-dollar deal on a handshake. No paperwork, nothing. I mean, eventually we did contracts, but that’s how good I felt about him. And I still think the same thing. We’re business partners now in other ventures 10 years later.

Favorite Hangs: I love to go to France. I love Burgundy. I’ve always been a big fan of Burgundy and those wines in general. Pinot Noir is my gig. Inspirationally, France and Italy are [the places where] I get excited. I used to go a lot to Europe, but once you have family, you don’t go a lot. We usually still go to France once a year. I worked outside of Lyon, so, that’s kind of always been [an important place].

Recollections: Before Giuliani was elected, we would have people come out of our restaurant and I would literally have to have them escorted to The Pierre because they could possibly get mugged. And they got mugged! A couple from Texas walked out one night and got mugged on the corner of Madison and 61st Street. This day and age that’s unimaginable! I’m a Giuliani guy. 100% Giuliani. I like Bloomberg — I think Bloomberg’s great — but Giuliani’s my guy. I’m a businessman in New York. I had garbage guys that were shaking me down for years — Giuliani put ‘em all in jail! [laughs] I was like, OK, now you can conduct real business, business as it should be. Fair-trade kind of thing.

You’ve got a multi-million dollar restaurant empire. Do you still go in the kitchen? Oh yeah. My philosophy is: I’m an operations guy. I came to that conclusion about five years ago. I was getting so caught up in all the corporate administrative stuff that has to be done, but you know, it’s not my gig. I like the nitty gritty. Interacting with the customers, the guys in the kitchen, working with the guys at the front of the house, working with the sommeliers. I mean, wine is such a big part of what we do, and they always joke that I could [really mess with] someone if I really wanted to. I mean, I am a better taster than most of these guys [laughs]. Of course they won’t agree with it half the time, but …

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