Chef Charlie Palmer is known coast-to-coast for founding and leading elite dining experiences. From Charlie Palmer at the Knick in Midtown Manhattan to Aureole in Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay to Hotel Healdsburg in Sonoma, Calif., Palmer is synonymous with fine, freshly sourced meat and fish in an ambiance of low-key foodie indulgence.
His most recent dining destination is Wing and Barrel Ranch, a private club in California Wine Country limited to 400 members. Offering a luxury take on a rugged, outdoorsy lifestyle, the well-heeled can enjoy a mix of hunting, fishing, shooting, and hiking before taking in a menu of field-to-table cuisine from founder Palmer. (Wing and Barrel has been open and operating within the state’s regulations and restrictions.)
We pulled the 61-year-old James Beard Award-winning chef out of the kitchen to find out about this newest property and to discover what brought him to the top of the culinary world.
PENTA : Wing and Barrel Ranch feels like a big departure for you. What brought you to the wild outdoors?
Charlie Palmer: I’m one of the founding members with a bunch of great people who enjoy sporting. While it’s a personal project of mine, I involve my whole team. We have one of the most dynamic locations imaginable—about 900 acres now. It’s just been surreal.
A more outdoor-themed property allows me to get further involved with outdoor cooking. I’ve worked with Remington in the past on an outdoor and game cookbook. I’ve had a lifelong passion for being outdoors—hunting and fishing. We’ll provide a complete outdoor experience for our members with wine pairing, preparing that day’s catch, enjoying the sport and enjoying the cooking afterward.
How closely involved are you in the daily setup and operation of a restaurant?
A lot of our success depends on our team of people, of chefs and hospitality entrepreneurs. My job is to get involved in operations. The team jokes that I haven’t been in the office in 18 months, but my office is in the kitchens and the dining rooms, making sure what we’re all doing is a real passion.
Besides cooking, what do you excel at?
I hope it’s being a husband and a father to our four sons, Courtland , Randall , Eric , and Reed .
What would you have dedicated your life to if cooking didn't work out?
I’m pretty good with a knife, so I always thought I’d make a great surgeon. I have friends that are doctors who say I’m crazy.
Who was the first person you ever remember admiring who was not related to you?
When I was at Sherburne-Earlville High School in New York state, I had a home economics teacher named Sharon Crain . She helped introduce me to the kitchen, showed me the basics and helped to inspire me to be a chef. I’ll always be grateful to her.
What is the most interesting city you’ve visited?
I was just in Lisbon, Portugal. I hadn’t been there in 20 years. I was really infatuated with what’s going on there from a food and cultural standpoint. I know I’ve really enjoyed a city when I realize I really want to go back.
What is the most interesting restaurant you’ve visited that isn’t in your collection?
I was in Copenhagen for the holidays with my whole family, and we visited a restaurant called Amass. That came from a previous relationship with Chef Matt Orlando , who worked with us in New York. It’s located on a pier in an old warehouse—a great location. You can sense the dedication that went into it, and it had everything I look for in a restaurant.
What’s one piece of art—be it a song, painting, photograph, a book—that changed the way you view the world?
There wouldn’t be a single one. I love the way I look at things when I visit an amazing museum, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was there just recently and spent a few hours. There’s just this way art opens your mind. I’m always relating these things to my experience as a chef and—from a food standpoint—museums can cue inspiration and change how I see the relationship between people and food. I think more people should go to museums, in general.
What must an amateur cook know to do in the kitchen?
He or she should be able to make an omelet. In the world of chefs, when we want to see how well someone knows his or her way around a kitchen, making an omelet is one way we test.
What do you enjoy eating that would shock your fans?
I don’t go to fast food. I’m not a beer drinker. But, I’ll enjoy some bacon, egg, and cheese. I can’t do too much of that without having to get out there and run extra miles in the morning. I’m more of a wine person than cocktails, but I like a great Negroni once and a while—if it’s made well.
What do you fear most about the future?
I tend to be a big optimist. Of course, what we’re going through right now with the coronavirus is something that has to be managed in the restaurant business and in society overall. I saw New York go through 9/11, and no one would obviously want to see any city go through something like that. But, those events can make you stronger and make a community stronger.
What’s the status of American restaurants in general these days?
Food and cooking in this country has never been in a better place in terms of ingredients, preparation, and our knowledge of diners. The more informed people become about food and wine, what they’re eating, why they’re eating it, the better it is for people like us in this industry as we think about how to prepare delicious dishes.
What do you think is the key to sustained motivation in a long career?
That’s loving what you do. I’ve been adamant about that with my sons and our team. You have to find something you do that you really enjoy—to love what you do. I feel very fortunate that I discovered something early on because I don’t feel like I’m going to work when I get up in the morning. I get up excited about what I get to do today.