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 two of Andrew's interview with Charlie Palmer.
Andrew Friedman: Aureole celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.
Charlie Palmer: Yeah.
You're obviously in a different location from the original. It's a huge span of time. I'm sure you could talk about this question for an hour, but when you look at the original Aureole when it opened in 1988, and you look at where you are now and the food now, what are the first things that strike you in terms of the differences represented between then and now?
Well, then I had a very focused vision of what I wanted in this townhouse setting and the food was just all over the place.
How do you mean that?
We had no boundaries. Anybody that came up with an idea in my kitchen, we would do it.
We had no boundaries. Anybody that came up with an idea in my kitchen, we would do it. We'd just come up with these ideas and we'd do stuff. A lot of it was great, amazing. Some of it, I think back, "what the hell were we thinking" kind of thing. But it was like going 100 miles an hour, not thinking about it too much ... and somewhere along the line, and it certainly didn't happen overnight, I realized that taking a breath, really thinking about things and really analyzing and researching is the way to have longevity. If you're going to do something, be smart about what you do. My dad used to always tell me, "Be smart about what you do." That's kind of a general statement but that's a big deal.
It's not necessarily obvious, right?
You can avoid doing a lot of stupid shit if you just take a breath and think, "Am I smart doing this? Or am I just, shooting from the hip?" I think back then I wasn't thinking about anything.
I like to think we're very smart about what we do. I'm really concerned about how I'm conducting business, how we operate kitchens. It's about how we do things, because I don't do everything myself anymore; that's the other hard thing to get.
Along those lines, what's the relationship between you and your chefs de cuisine?
When I first had Aureole, that was my whole world. I made every decision about everything that went on in that place.
And probably touched and tasted everything in some fashion.
Every food, every — what spoon we used, everything about it. Nobody made a decision about anything without coming to me and saying, "What do you think?" Which was great at that time. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that you can only do that for so long and you can only do that in so many situations, then you have to start trusting people. Then you have to start relying on people, and you have to start believing that maybe somebody is smarter than you are about things or has a better sense of it than you do.
So, how do you work with your chefs de cuisine at different places?
It really varies. It varies amongst the chefs. Take Marcus [Gleadow-Ware], for example. Marcus has been my chef at Aureole in New York for nine years. I mean, when you're in constant contact with somebody, whether it's on the phone or in the kitchen for nine years, they know you pretty well and you know them very well. You really know what they're capable of, you know where the pitfalls may be, and vice versa.
So you let the rope out a little more with someone like that.
Like Lucas [Knox], a young chef at the Mystic, he doesn't do anything on the menu without me approving it. I'm not saying I'm standing beside him, but if you want to change the menu, shoot me the ideas, let's talk about it, let's run dishes as specials. All those kind of things. Let's be a little careful about what we're doing. Now the more I trust him, the more he knows me — and he's been with me for four years because he was sous chef in Las Vegas — that'll change.
Do you miss living in New York? Are you used to not being here?
I'm here every other week. Everybody always asks me that. I feel like I live here still. I do live here. I mean, I live on 10th Street.
Do you keep a place here?
So you're not in a hotel when you're here.
No, no. And you know, quite honestly, I mean, not half the time, but I'm here every other week, usually.
What's your travel schedule like, generally speaking?
Pretty intense. I don't know if there's a normal time, but when the kids are in school, I try to travel during the week and be home on weekends because my feeling is that — and this has been with the older boys, too. [Charlie has two sons in college and twin sons who are high school juniors.] Some things go on my schedule first. The twins' football schedule is on my schedule before anything else. Important days, like I need to be at school for a presentation, that goes on the schedule first. But then my feeling is that their lives are busy during the week. They're going to school, extracurricular stuff, sports, so they're busy during the week just like I am, so the best time I can spend with them is on weekends. So if I come to New York, a lot of times I'll fly to New York City Monday and return to California on Friday. That kind of thing.
How did the original Aureole come about?
Aureole came about because at one point, I said to Buzzy O'Keeffe — we're good friends — I said, either you have to make me a partner — which is what I would have probably preferred at that time, at The River Café — or I need to do my own business and that went on for awhile. Finally, I realized that wasn't going to happen.
So I started exploring doing my own restaurant. And it was interesting because I had two different people that I thought immediately were going to be partners with me, one was Steven Greenberg, good customer. He used to always invite me to stuff, take me under your wing kind of guy. And then the other two were Steve Tzolis and Nicola [Kotsoni].
I met them originally -- I don't think I even met them at the restaurant but they started coming to the restaurant.
So they would have already had Il Cantinori when you were talking?
Yeah. And it started out as kind of a friendship. They were guests at the restaurant, obviously, but we became more than that. I used to talk to them a lot and I told them my idea. And they said, "We want to do something with you." So I really had to choose between the two. And I had a very clear vision of what I wanted at that point because I had spent a little bit of time at Lutèce. I wanted to do the American Lutèce, that was my thing. And to me that meant I wanted a restaurant in a townhouse.
I'm struck that this is not long after the downtown explosion that happened: Union Square, Gotham, Montrachet. You didn't feel compelled to go South, young man?
I certainly thought about it. And that was the Greenberg pitch. He was, like, this is where it's happening. Tribeca. But, I don't know. I was hesitant. And Steve Tzolis, to his credit, came to me and he said, "Look, I've got three townhouses. Three, options." And we started looking at them ... we're building the place and then we have black Monday. Everybody is looking and at me like how stupid is this guy? He's opening a high-end restaurant in the worst economy in 25 years?
And I'm like, what I am I going to do? I'm in the middle of this thing.
How rattled did you get about it?
Honestly, I didn't care.
I was twenty-seven. I had no debts. I had no family. I always knew how to live poor. I mean what's the worst thing that's going to happen? It doesn't work?
Look, I was twenty-seven. I had no debts. I had no family. I always knew how to live poor. I mean what's the worst thing that's going to happen? It doesn't work? You're in a different time in your life. I was totally in a different time in my life. First of all, I was really living my father's words, that you can do anything you put your mind to. I don't know how many times he said that to me, if you put your mind to it, you can do anything.
And I really believed that. I still believe that. I tell my kids that all the time, but you've really got to believe. I said, "Look, we're just going to stay the course and we're going to open this restaurant, and we're going to be successful. That's exactly what happened. I'm not saying it was easy.
Are there one or two moments that you think of where you got a sense of what was starting to happen, where you started to understand just how sort of big and sea‑changing what was going on in the US was in the middle and late 1980s?
Yeah. I think probably the moment that always kind of sticks in my mind — and there were a couple of them — was I had traveled in France as well as in Belgium and Italy and, really felt that that's where the heart of what I thought great cooking was. Because when I came to New York I only worked in French restaurants. So for me the moment I realized what was happening in this country was pretty incredible was when we started to get chefs and food authorities from France and from parts of Europe coming to see what was happening here in this country. I think that's when I realized that what we were doing as a group, whether you were born here or born somewhere else and came to this country and began cooking, that we were incubating something that was going to be really big and maybe on a world stage.
I think before that I always felt that working in French restaurants here, that was kind of the — not second level, but it was kind of like we were following what was happening in France mostly.
For me, from an early age when I started cooking and after spending time in Europe and especially France, there was always this big question: Well, why can't we do stuff here? Why can't we have the best ingredients in this country? Why can't we cook at that level in this country? And obviously we can and we could. We just had to decide that that was going to happen.