Charlie Palmer has become one of America’s culinary giants. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, initially started working at New York’s legendary La Côte Basque, helped helm Brooklyn’s River Café and eventually built up the experience and gravitas to command his own kitchens and become a successful entrepreneur. He launched Aureole in 1988, expanded the concept to Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay hotel and casino in 1999, and now has more than a dozen restaurants and wine shops that range geographically from Healdsburg to New York. On February 6, Palmer was in San Francisco to promote Vegas Uncork’d, a 28-event, multiple venue “celebration of wine, food, and spirits” that’s taking place from May 9-12, 2013. He took a break from the party at Hakkasan to share several culinary insights.
What are the most important factors when considering whether or not to participate in a culinary event?
Usually who’s involved with it, and who’s going to be involved with it besides myself. We all have an idea that we want to be involved with people that we are not only friends with, but are of the same caliber. A lot of times, that’s the first question I’ll ask, “Who else is going to do it?” I’m sure a lot of people ask the same question. In some ways, it’s probably self-involving. We get each other involved because we say, “Well, Charlie’s going.” I’m never sure if they’re telling the truth.
What’s your favorite culinary event in America, other than Uncork’d, of course?
Why that one?
It’s an event that I do up in Healdsburg. It’s very small, but it’s one of the most amazing food and wine events going. It’s very hot, sells out in two minutes on the internet.
What’s the first dish that you ever remember cooking?
When I was in junior high school, when I first started working in restaurants and started to get interested in cooking, for some of my football buddies, I did a kulebiak of salmon, it’s a very classic thing, Russian, obviously. It’s a classical dish of salmon that’s stuffed and wrapped in pastry and the whole thing is baked. I thought I was hot shit. I made kulebiak of salmon. My buddies thought it tasted good, but had no idea what I made for them.
Did you consider other careers?
I was supposed to be an engineer. That was after my pro football career.
Did you play football in college?
Not in college. Or very briefly in college. High school.
What do you remember about your very first night in a professional restaurant kitchen?
Probably the intensity, because I was in a French restaurant in New York where half the people spoke no English. Not only were you confused, but you didn’t understand what people were saying half of the time. It was a pretty intense time. I came straight from school to New York City and worked in Manhattan for years and years and years.
What was the restaurant?
La Côte Basque.
What’s the most recent dish that you developed, and what was your inspiration?
I did a dish the other day. We were working on an almost traditional Ballantine of rabbit, so a whole deboned rabbit stuffed with all the parts of the rabbit – liver, kidneys, obviously the loins – cooked sous vide, wrapped in Serrano ham and crisped in a pan. I wanted to call it rabbit porchetta. It’s a really good dish.
Where did that go on the menu?
That was in Costa Mesa, in Southern California.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your kitchens?
The #1 thing is passion. Obviously, we want culinary skill, and I want people with some experience. I’m very close with the CIA, and I’m a big fan of CIA graduates. But I think the #1 thing I look for is passion, and people that really want to be in this business because it’s a hard business to be in. If they’re not passionate about what they’re doing, they’re not going to be successful.
Is there anything you don’t enjoy eating?
I’m not a big cilantro fan. I can tolerate it now. I had a dish not too long ago, I ate cod sperm in the sack. Disgusting. For all the great foods in the world, you don’t need to eat shit like that.
What was the last meal you cooked at home?
I made a jambalaya Sunday with my boys.
For the Super Bowl?
Yeah. We were talking about New Orleans. Two of my kids really love to cook, and we do an Exploration Dinner. So we pick something or a different place and say, “Okay, we’re going to make a dish.” We made jambalaya. We make a classic beef Bourguignon, so not only are they tasting something different. They’re eating something they’re not eating every day, but they’re also learning about a traditional recipe from a different land. We do a couscous. We’ve done that a couple times. For me it’s good too because you forget about this stuff when you’re cooking on a daily basis in restaurants. To make a great beef Bourguignon, that’s a real skill. For me it’s good too.
How old are they?
The twins are 15.
Could be. We’ll see.
Let’s consider the possibility that Rice-A-Roni is not in fact the San Francisco treat. What is it instead?
I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never experienced it. Rice-A-Roni? Why Roni? I don’t get it. And that’s the San Francisco treat?
If that’s not the San Francisco treat, what is?
When I think of San Francisco, I think of the classics. I think of things like cioppino, a good San Francisco cioppino, and all the fish. It’s not one thing. What else do I think of? Anything that Nancy Oakes cooks, I think of San Francisco.