Welcome to Kitchen Time Machine, an interview series in which author and Toqueland blogger Andrew Friedman sits down with some of New York's most iconic chefs and restaurateurs. Right now: Part one of Andrew's interview with Charlie Palmer.
Since making a name for himself as chef of Buzzy O'Keeffe's The River Café, beginning in 1983, followed by opening his own landmark restaurant Aureole, in its original home on East 61st Street, in 1988, Charlie Palmer has been one of the preeminent American chefs of his generation. (He figures prominently in my upcoming book on the chefs of the 1970s and 1980s.) These days he is based in Northern California, and presides over a hospitality firm, the Charlie Palmer Group, that owns and/or operates restaurants in New York City, California, Nevada, and Washington, DC, and boutique hotels in San Francisco, Sonoma, and St. Helena. Most recent developments include the opening of Charlie Palmer Steak on 54th Street in New York City in September, and recently revealed plans to open a new 110-seat restaurant, Harvest Table, at his Harvest Inn Hotel in St. Helena, California. Charlie and I got together a while back to discuss his next New York City project — his role as curator (their word) of food and beverage venues at The Knickerbocker — across 42nd Street from Aureole's current home in the Bank of America Tower, his upcoming cookbook, and other subjects past and present. Reflecting his current focus, the conversation was as much about food as it was about business and hospitality.
Andrew Friedman: The first thing I'd like to talk about is The Knickerbocker. As much as you're able to talk about it, what's the process that leads to something like that?
Charlie Palmer: I would say The Knickerbocker came about because of a relationship. Mahmood [Khimji] and Vann [Avedessian] are the guys from Highgate, a hotel operator and partner with different financial backers. A lot of people don't know Highgate, but they control more hotel rooms in New York City than any other hotel company right now, by far.
I've talked to them about stuff over the years from the hotel side. We were actually talking about a hotel partnership, because my focus has been on boutique hotel properties with restaurants or putting restaurants in there. And Mahmood especially was almost going to do a deal with me.
So when the Knickerbocker came about, re‑doing it, we started talking about it, and originally really talking about it in a, "What do you think should be in this hotel?" way. I was very interested because The Knickerbocker has this history but it's been dormant or out of play since, I don't know, I think it closed as a hotel in 1930‑something. But it has been this iconic building sitting there which no one really knows about still. Nobody knows anything about it. The Knickerbocker was supposedly the place where the martini was invented. There's this tremendous history there.
So this is something that's personally in your wheelhouse?
New York City specifically or just history in general?
In general, New York City. If you look at our places: We had Metrazur in Grand Central Terminal. That was really attractive to me because it's Grand Central Terminal and the whole history behind it. The hotel that we bought in San Francisco [The Mystic] is a historical building that survived the earthquake.
When you stay in a hotel you just want a great piece of fish, or you want a great steak on a plate.
So that's how the Knickerbocker came about. And as we got involved in the project and looking at the possibilities, I was really intrigued by it. And the fact that it's literally across the street from Aureole to me makes it a no brainer, because the hotel food‑wise will have a different feel to it. The restaurant is not going to be an Aureole‑level restaurant. It's going to be a very high‑design, interesting space to do what I think a hotel really needs as far as food and beverage.
Straightforward, really high‑quality ingredients, market‑driven but not fussy food. When you stay in a hotel you just want a great piece of fish, or you want a great steak on a plate.
You believe that's true even in New York?
I think so, yeah. I mean, I really think from a user standpoint hotels have gone from the iconic dining room that's going to draw certain clientele to stay there maybe because of this great restaurant. But I think if you really look at it, that's playing to the locals; it's not playing to hotel guests so much.
As I see it, The Knickerbocker, we have the best of all worlds because The Knickerbocker guest will have the option to eat in a great bar-lounge area. But if they want a great dining experience, we'll bring them across the street, literally walk them across the street to Aureole.
Literally escort them. We're going to have escorts that will literally take the guest from the front door of the hotel which is across the street, to the Aureole dining room and say — you know, if they want a tasting menu with wine pairings, they want a big-deal dinner. I think it's a great thing to offer hotel guests because there are some people looking for that.
Is there any kind of perk or embellishment that hotel guests will get at Aureole?
Priority reservations. We'll do something special for them when they sit down, like a glass of Champagne, that kind of thing. The hotel also has a cafe on the ground floor which will be a really busy area because the traffic is amazing there. So we're going to do that.
And then there's a rooftop bar that is going to be second to none. It's really amazing. Very grown‑up.
It's always a struggle for hotel restaurants to draw New Yorkers, right?
It depends. I mean, a good example is Jean-Georges. That's a hotel restaurant. People don't think of it that way, but you know, it is in a hotel.
It seems like from the way you're talking about it that you're not even really trying to play that game. It seems like you're really looking to cater to your guest.
I think there's great lunch opportunity not just for hotel guests, but for the neighborhood. [Note: After the interview, Palmer's team let us know that the restaurant will also offer a "power breakfast."] So I think if we look at it that way, we'll draw local clientele, neighborhood clientele, because we have those relationships. At lunch, we turn down a lot of reservations at lunch [at Aureole] because it's fed from the Bank of America Tower that we're in with Merrill Lynch and HBO is down the street, and Met Life is across the street.
The dining room won't be open for dinner. At nighttime we're just going to do what I call an elaborate bar-lounge menu.
What's your learning curve been like? You're involved in a couple of hotels. This is another project.
I have now three boutique hotels of my own.
Obviously there's things that I would imagine translate: you're a cook, you're a chef, you're a restaurateur. There's things about hospitality that probably apply. From being a restaurateur to being a hotelier, what was the learning curve? What were the hardest things for you to understand as you've taken this on in your life?
I stay in a million hotels. I know what's good and what's bad. I know what's really like, wow, this is great, and what's not comfortable.
Everybody always asks me, "Well, how did you get into hotels?" When you think about it, it's really kind of a natural next step because it's hospitality, whether you're picking the best pillow, or ... first of all, I stay in a million hotels. I know what's good and what's bad. I know what's really like, wow, this is great, and what's not comfortable. But I think the biggest challenge is to get everybody on the property to think of it as one property, as one mission, one goal: The kitchen, front of the house, back of the house. To get people to think, "This is our guest, whether they're having a cup of coffee in the lobby, whether they need a shirt that's pressed in twenty minutes because they've got a meeting, whether they want something different in their room, whether they've got luggage coming off the street." We've got to think, yeah, maybe that's not your job because you're the coffee guy here, but if that guy's struggling with a suitcase, you'd better get over there and help him. Because that's what makes a great environment.
And that would be the same in a restaurant to some degree.
It's exactly like that: Because you're a captain you're not supposed to not pour water? That whole mentality. That's the hardest thing to get through people's brains.
I have to say at the Mystic Hotel in San Francisco which we've had a little over two years, I think we're really starting to get there. But we had these, what I call culture meetings. You've got to create the culture. You've got to brainwash people to think that way.
Do you feel like there's a hospitality gene, that people either get that or don't, intuitively?
I truly think it can be taught. I mean, we have these philosophical discussions with some of our GMs. Some people say, "No, it has to be in their blood." I don't believe that. I believe that it can be taught. And some people it's easier to teach it to, obviously.
I hear you're working on another book project?
Yeah, it was actually proposed by an editor, Karen Murgolo at Grand Central. I had a book that was published a long time ago. It was called Casual Cooking, which I thought was a really great book, really a home cookbook. And Judy Choate did it with me at the time. We were talking about re‑doing that book because it's been out of print. I really liked the book but I was always really disappointed in the production of the book because it was — I'm trying to think who it was done with. I've blocked her out of my mind because I hate her.
That's off the record, I assume?
No. If I could remember her name I'd mention it because I really do.
I'm sure you've experienced [something like this]. We were working on recipes and it was really intense. And I really wrote almost every one of these recipes, and then Judy cleaned them up and edited and things like that and little anecdotes.
Anyway, so the stuff was being turned in and I was supposed to have approval over —
I wasn't paying attention, honestly, to the contract. I trust people. Next thing I know, the frigging book's arrived. It was the strangest thing.
You mean you never saw proofs?
I never saw a proof of the book. I never saw a paper sample. I never saw anything. And I swear to God, a book arrived in our office.
Well, paper sample I'm not used to seeing, but proofs —
It's a big deal, right?
CP: I'm telling you, this book arrived in my office, old office, we had this little cubbyhole office on 61st Street, and I was flabbergasted. I always remember it was in a manila envelope, puffy thing. I open it up and I didn't know what it was. I thought she was sending me a book, like, "Oh, you should see this book that we just did."
I opened this thing up, I saw my picture on the front with this hazy, stupid thing with my kids. I opened it up, the spine of the book cracked. It was just a piece of shit. And I took the book, I threw it in the fricking garbage can. I could not believe that she did this. I mean, you know, hey, if she did it on her own and it was a great piece of literature, if it was really nicely done, I would have been, "Wow!" But it was just a piece of crap. We still sold them all, but ... I was so disappointed.
Anyway, so ever since that time I wanted to do this book the right way because I really thought, first of all, there was a lot of work in it. Karen liked the idea. Of course now it's grown into a bigger, better book.
Is it that same concept?
It's home cooking. [Note: Charlie Palmer's American Fare: Everyday Recipes from My Kitchen to Yours is due out in April.] It's really a home book. Because I still think there's a lot of pretenders out there, including me, that write these books pretending that somebody's going to actually cook from them. I don't want a book that's documenting what we do in the restaurants. I'm trying to really make this authentic, that these are things that we really cook at home, with my guys, with Eric and Reed, my twins, we cook a lot together. You know, we do things like make the perfect roast chicken and some of the book's going to be about the home cooked meals that become memories for them.
Part of it'll be about how we cook and where we live geographically. Because when you live in Sonoma, which we have for ten years now, eight months out of the year you don't cook inside the kitchen; you cook in a wood-burning oven out back, or a grill. You cook outside. And we do a little camp cooking too, stuff on open fires and in cast iron, and things like that.
Stay tuned for part two of Andrew's chat with Charlie tomorrow, and check out more of Friedman's interviews on Toqueland.