2014 Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Chef Joe Palma of Bourbon Steak

2014 Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Chef Joe Palma of Bourbon Steak
December 2014

Joe Palma has yielded to the pull and absorbed the lessons of some of the country’s most important restaurant cities. After attending college in Charleston, South Carolina, and working as a line cook, Palma decided to pursue a culinary career in earnest. He first moved north to Washington, D.C, where he cut his teeth working chefs the likes of Michel Richard at Citronelle and Yannick Cam at Le Paradou.

Palma’s talent soon caught the eye of Chef Eric Ripert, who took him under his wing at Le Bernardin in 2006. At Ripert’s New York City flagship, Palma spent two years as the restaurant’s sous chef, honing seafood and French techniques. He was then sent to take the over the reins at creative, Southern-inflected Westend Bistro in Washington, D.C., another Ripert outpost.

Longing for the real flavors of the South, Palma returned to Charleston, where he was tapped as executive chef of High Cotton, a restaurant specializing in Lowcountry cuisine. After two years mastering the coastal cuisine of Charleston, Palma made a homecoming to D.C. to assume the executive chef position at Bourbon Steak, where he continues a long tradition of excellence bolstered by his strengths in classic French cuisine.

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Interview with Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Chef Joe Palma of Bourbon Steak

Meha Desai: Why did you start cooking professionally?
Joe Palma:
Initially, I just liked the team-work aspect, the deadlines, the work environment, and that deep-seated passion. I graduated from college and worked in a bank for two months. Hated it. I decided I wanted to cook. I was a line cook while in college. I liked the work and stayed on for a year after that. I moved to D.C. and worked for Michel Richard and Yannick [Cam] for three years then moved to New York City and was sous chef at Le Bernardin under Eric [Ripert]. He asked me to come down here and run his restaurant at the Ritz Carlton. I did that for three years then had an opportunity to go back to Charleston. Did that for two years, then this opened up and so here we are!

MD: Who do you consider your mentor?
Definitely Eric. I worked for him for seven years. Yannick as well, it was a very influential working environment for two years.

MD: Are you involved in your local culinary community?
A good bit. I look forward to getting into it some more. I know a good amount of guys in town. I enjoy the camaraderie. It’s a nice tight knit, supportive community. As I’ve gotten the support, I hope to be able to give that support to everybody else. 

MD: What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do in your career?
Work for Yannick. He’s an old-school French chef in the best and worst of ways. But it was an incredible learning experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was just a lot of hard work.

MD: What are you most proud of?
The people that have worked with me and watching them grow and continue to succeed. Also, being a sous chef at Le Bernardin was kind of awesome.

MD: What's your five year plan?
There are a lot of different avenues I could pursue. This is the second celebrity-chef restaurant I’ve run in a hotel; it’s a niche, for sure. I’m excited to see this restaurant succeed. I think I’ll be here for a good chunk of the next five years.

MD: What is your philosophy on food?
Flavour first; really highlight one ingredient, then everything else should support it. There should be a whole in the sum of the parts. It leads to more focused flavors. 

MD: Describe your cuisine in one sentence.
Clean and focused. 

MD: Describe the extent of your F&B operation at the Four Seasons.
JP: Bourbon Steak is a department of the hotel, but otherwise acts as an independent entity, under contract with Mina Group. There are elements from our menu that are available as a separate offering on the room service menu, but there is a separate kitchen within the hotel that handles the majority of the in-room dining options. We don’t have any hand in banquet or catering operations outside of our private dining room that holds up to 35, which is booked by our private dining coordinator.

MD: What are your sales?
We do between six and 10 million per year at Bourbon Steak. It’s a big operation with food sales being the biggest financial driver, with significant income from the bar and patio as well, all of which are serviced from the same kitchen.

MD: Describe the relationship between the hotel and the dining rooms.
JP: The majority of our clientele come from outside the hotel. Obviously, we do retain a good percentage of guests that are in-house and the occupancy of the hotel will effect our cover counts, but not more than 10 to15 percent at most, if I had to ball park it. The relationship between the Mina Group, Four Seasons, and the ownership group of the property is fantastic. They do a great job of letting the restaurant run as an independent entity, but are not afraid to reinvest in any areas of the restaurant that may need it. All parties are in constant conversation regarding trending topics, an increasingly competitive marketplace, and the dialogue is very positive and reciprocal.