Merrill Maiano: What are your earliest food memories and when did you know that you wanted to cook? Was there a particular person or event that influenced your passion for food?
Charlie Palmer: I began cooking in high school as a job, not thinking it would become a career. That idea was instigated in part by Sharon Crane, our high school home economics teacher, and our neighbor.
MM: Tell me a little bit about the things that helped to create the groundwork for your interest in local and artisanal foods? What prompted you to stick with "American" food as opposed to French, or any other kind of cuisine?
CP: Growing up in what I consider a very American part of the country, and then being exposed to mostly French food, it just made complete sense for me to become part of a movement to create what I hope someday will become an actual "cuisine" based on American ideals.
MM: What do you value most about having had a formal culinary education?
CP: The exposure to old world chefs, and a solid basis to work from.
MM: How did you initially imagine yourself in the restaurant world? Did you always know that you would expand into so many culinary forums?
CP: I, like many other young culinarians, became intensely involved in food and dining at a young age. From there it was just a constant progression, what we do just makes sense.
MM: "American" food has long been looked down upon as a generic identity-less cuisine. In cooking "Progressive American" cuisine, you have done a great deal to promote the kinds of products and producers that are helping to give American food a sense of identity. How far has American food come since you started cooking? Do you think "Progressive American" has come of age?
CP: I think we've made great advances in many ways. Probably most importantly, we've made advancements in the quality of ingredients and the commitment of artisanal producers. I think Progressive American cooking has certainly become important and recognized at this point.
MM: What do you think it is that sets "good chefs" and "great chefs" apart?
CP: I think to be a great chef you need to understand and apply yourself in many different ways, and most importantly have a vision of, as we refer to it, "the big picture", which is basically a philosophy of food.
MM: What's your philosophy on food? On business? On restaurants?
CP: Our philosophy is basically very simple: to seek out the highest quality ingredients and to treat them or enhance them to show them in the best light. Although the creativity is a huge part of it, the main focus always needs to be on taste. Though we've been blessed with many incredible build-outs, creative restaurants, wine towers, etc., the simple fact is that our business is based on people. We're constantly thinking of ways to move our restaurants in fresh, interesting directions. As far as new concepts, we want to be on the cutting edge of where I think food and dining is, and should be, going.
MM: What are your favorite things to eat?
CP: My tastes change as much as the seasons change and I'm always interested in new taste sensations. But, I'm certainly always happy with a great burger.
MM: What are some of your favorite "can't live without it" ingredients, and when you fix yourself a little something to eat, what do you make?
CP: Artisan cheeses, great bread, good Pinot Noir or Burgundy.
MM: What is the biggest mistake you've ever made or worst experience in the business? What's the best experience you've had while in the restaurant business?
CP: Worst? Opening a restaurant in Palm Beach, Florida. It's extremely seasonal and not a community that embraces great food. Best since I've been in the restaurant business? The birth of my four boys.
MM: Any advice?
CP: We all know that the restaurant business is intense, time consuming, and relentless. All of that was reinforced after September 11th.