Home | Healdsburg, California
Age | 46
Age he opened his first restaurant | 27
Restaurants | 9, including Aureole in New York and Las Vegas
Annual revenues | $58 million
Why he loves cooking | "You see the result of your work almost immediately."
How he got started | Palmer spent his boyhood working on farms. At 15, he took his first kitchen job. "It beat the hell out of spreading s—t in the morning."
Charlie Palmer is in Paris on… what, exactly? It's not quite business; there are too many epic, wine-soaked lunches and afternoon naps to use that term legitimately. It's late November, early afternoon, and Palmer is tucked into a table for seven at a bustling brasserie in the 16th arrondissement, savoring a platter of veal head. "About 15 years ago, I was in Paris with a girlfriend," he says, sharing one of the many memories that bubble up over the course of the six-day trip. "We were eating in a place just like this, and I ordered the tête de veau. When it came out with the tongue and jowls and brain and everything, she didn't say a word. She just got up and walked away." He's laughing with his whole body now, his broad shoulders shaking, the corners of his mouth turned up in an impish grin. "Went shopping, I think."
France is the wellspring of Palmer's professional life. Back in his early twenties, before he opened Aureole in New York and went on to build his $58 million company of nine restaurants in five cities (plus a luxury hotel near his home in Healdsburg, California), he did brief stints at Georges Blanc and Alain Chapelle, both Michelin-starred restaurants outside Lyons. So it makes perfect sense that the 46-year-old chef from upstate New York has returned to France to refuel his creative engine and seek ideas for a few projects in the planning stages. Call it a business vacation.
Some ideas emerge by design. Palmer is working on an 8,000-square-foot gourmet shop/wine store scheduled to open in May 2008 on the ground floor of the Club Renaissance, a 61-story residential building in downtown Las Vegas. So, early on that first morning in Paris, he visits two famous food shops, Fauchon and Hédiard, for inspiration. At Fauchon, he is struck by the "sense of sleekness and the very clean display." At Hédiard, he loves the lighting.
He also sets up a slate of tastings with Burgundian wine producers. With nine cellars to stock, Palmer is thinking about eliminating some middle money and becoming his own importer. During a stop at Domaine Collet in Chablis, he's impressed by the high quality and low prices. Bottles that would fetch $40 to $50 on a wine list in New York sell for $10 to $15. "Unless I'm missing something here, I need to do this."
The whole point of a business vacation, though, is to put yourself in situations where inspiration can take hold, whether planned or spontaneous. On day three of the trip, Palmer is standing in a chilly, brick-lined cellar in the village of Nuits-Saint-Georges, barrel-tasting the lastest wines of Château de Chamirey. Back home in Healdsburg, he has created the Pigs & Pinot festival, an annual bacchanal in which some of Sonoma's top pinot noir producers pair their wines with pork in all of its glorious forms. In the cellar, he realizes, Why restrict it to Sonoma? Hell, why not invite producers from all over the world to participate?
Of course, a business vacation that doesn't actually lead to new business is just a vacation. So on the flight home, Palmer sketches a few ideas inspired by his visits to Fauchon and Hédiard—the angle of the display cases, the use of pin lighting—and passes them on to his architect. The first Pigs & Pinot was in January, too soon after the trip to expand it, but he plans to invite producers from Burgundy and Oregon to next year's event. As for the importing project, Palmer expects his first shipment of 700 cases in late April. Life tastes good when your business is pleasure.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.