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CHARLIE PALMER AND HIS WORLD

Who: Charlie Palmer, chef and cookbook author and hospitality

entrepreneur

Age: 49

Family: Four sons, ages 11 to 15; wife Lisa runs the Lime Stone gift

shop next to Hotel Healdsburg.

Hobbies: Winemaking, hunting and fishing

Education: Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y.

Cookbooks: ``Great American Food'' (1996), ``Charlie Palmer's Casual

Cooking'' (2001), ``The Art of Aureole'' (2002) and ``Charlie

Palmer's Guide to the New American Kitchen'' (2006). Next up: A pork

book.

Properties: Aureole, restaurant in New York (1988); Astra, an event

space in New York (1997); Aureole, restaurant in Las Vegas (1999);

Charlie Palmer Steak, restaurant in Las Vegas (1999); Metrazur,

restaurant in New York (2000); Hotel Healdsburg and Dry Creek

Kitchen, restaurant in Healdsburg (2001); Charlie Palmer Steak,

restaurant in Washington, D.C. (2003); Charlie Palmer Steak,

restaurant in Reno, Nev. (2007); Fin Fish, seafood restaurant in

Reno, Nev. (2007); Charlie Palmer at the Joule, steakhouse in Dallas

(2007); Next Vintage Wine Shop, in Dallas (2007); Charlie Palmer at

Bloomingdale's, restaurant in Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza (2007);

Next Vintage Wine Shop, in Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza (2008).

Next up: Hotels in Healdsburg and Las Vegas; Aureole in New York

moves from the Upper East Side to a new Midtown location this spring.

Charlie Palmer was born with a keen curiosity about how things work and an

eye for detail. Both have enhanced his reputation as a big-name chef at the

helm of a hospitality franchise that stretches from New York to Healdsburg.

When strolling through the 2-acre pinot noir vineyard at his Dry Creek

Valley home, for example, Palmer will call winemaker Clay Mauritson to let him

know a drip emitter is broken or missing.

``He just loves to be out there,'' Mauritson said of the bicoastal chef,

who is learning to make pinot with the help of Mauritson and his grape-growing

family. ``Charlie loves to come out and get an understanding about why they

are pruning a certain way.''

In 2007, when Palmer opened his latest restaurant -- Charlie Palmer at

Bloomingdale's in Costa Mesa -- Mauritson was there to witness the meticulous

restaurateur in action.

``I was just blown away,'' Mauritson said. ``He was literally moving things

around, from the way that the vases were arranged on the table to pointing out

a tiny, minute scratch on the floor.''

Palmer characterizes himself as ``optimistically aggressive'' -- in other

words, he's not afraid to take charge -- while admitting to being a bit of a

neat freak.

``I like things in their place,'' he said. ``In the kitchen, I'm always on

top of it, saying `We should be more organized and precise' ...You can't cook

in a mess.''

This attention to detail helped Palmer rise from teen-age pot washer to

student at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y.

Later, he honed his technique at some of New York's top French restaurants,

then opened his own fine dining restaurant, Aureole, in New York at the age of

28.

Now at the helm of a growing empire that includes 11 restaurants, plus a

handful of hotels and wine shops, the 49-year-old Palmer doesn't appear to be

slowing down.

This May, he will retool his flagship Aureole restaurant and move it to New

York's new Bank of America tower. At the new space, Aureole will serve lunch

and offer a more streamlined dining experience.

``For it to be prominent for the next 20 years, we had to make some major

changes,'' Palmer explained.

Meanwhile, Palmer is in the process of building a second boutique hotel in

Healdsburg and is developing a resort hotel in Las Vegas.

A hands-on guy, with battle scars on his beefy palms to prove it, Palmer

begins and ends every work week on an airplane, commuting to and from the

kitchens of his 11 restaurants.

Every weekend, he returns home to Healdsburg to relax and reconnect with

his wife, Lisa, and sons Courtland, 15, Randall, 14, and Reed and Eric, 11.

Palmer relishes his role as a dad and takes the job quite seriously.

``When I'm here, I want to take them to school and pick them up and do the

sports things,'' he said. ``That's the important thing, to spend as much time

as you can with them.''

Palmer's down-to-earth attitude reflects his childhood as one of six kids

-- four older brothers and a younger sister -- growing up in dairy country in

central New York state.

``I didn't grow up in a fancy neighborhood, and that grounded me,'' Palmer

said of his childhood in Smyrna, N.Y. ``I don't take anything for granted.''

Palmer's father ran his own business as a plumber and an electrician, and

his mom kept the books. Even as a kid, Palmer worked on the farms, milking

cows.

``My dad instilled the work ethic in me,'' Palmer said. ``He was always

preaching to us that we could do anything we wanted to do, we just had to put

our minds to it.''

Palmer's dad also reinforced the idea that you have to work hard to get

ahead, a lesson that Palmer now passes on to aspiring cooks.

``As a young chef, I was very fortunate to get where I did, but looking

back, I worked hard at it,'' he said. ``In this business, there's no getting

from here to there without the work.''

While in junior high, Palmer started working as a dishwasher at the Colgate

Inn in Hamilton, N.Y. Around the same time, a neighbor who taught home

economics ignited his passion for cooking.

``She got me interested in making pies and pastries,'' he said. ``Then she

dared me to take a home ec (economics) class.''

In high school, Palmer would go to practice every day after school -- he

played football, lacrosse and wrestled -- then would wash dishes for four or

five hours a night.

He worked his way up to prep guy, then brunch duty. Before he knew it, he

was visiting the prestigious CIA campus at Hyde Park and considering a

culinary career.

``It opened my eyes,'' he said of the CIA. ``I met all these guys who had

years and years of experience ... it was inspiring.''

After graduating from the CIA in 1979, Palmer went to work at La Cote

Basque, then one of New York City's most revered restaurants. There, Palmer

worked as the butcher and refined his charcuterie skills.

In 1981, Palmer went to work in France, landing at a three-star Michelin

restaurant in the town of Vonnas, owned by Georges Blanc. Later, he returned

to France to work at the renowned Alain Chapel restaurant, also near Lyon.

Back in the states, Palmer got a job at a small country club in Westchester

county, then landed a five-year gig at the cutting-edge River Cafe in

Brooklyn.

``It was a great opportunity and an amazing stage to work in,'' he said.

``The sourcing of ingredients was a big, big deal.''

At the River Cafe, Palmer started to connect with growers and was able to

showcase seasonal ingredients like ramps (a kind of wild leek) and Columbia

River sturgeon.

Along with other American chefs, he began to experiment with a style of

cooking that fused French techniques with global flavors.

``Asian influence became part of what we did, and the simplicity of Italian

cooking,'' he said. ``You were free to pull different flavors from different

places.''

Palmer calls this style ``American Progressive Cuisine,'' because it's a

work in progress. ``We're constantly changing and going forward with it,'' he

said.

Palmer opened his first restaurant, Aureole, on the tony upper East Side of

Manhattan in 1988. The restaurant was an immediate success, charming diners

with its deep-flavored dishes served in a stylish setting.

Meanwhile, the successful chef was starting to think about settling down.

He met his future wife, Lisa, at a restaurant where the former ballerina was

working.

``I used to take my dates there,'' he said. ``Then I realized the reason I

kept going back there was her.''

After dating for a year or so, the couple got married in a little church on

Maui, then started raising a family in their small apartment off Central Park

East.

In the meantime, they had hatched a 10-year plan to get out of New York

City. Palmer had spun off multiple restaurants on both coasts -- Aureole and

Charlie Palmer Steak in Las Vegas, plus Metrazur in New York's Grand Central

Station. He figured he could live anywhere, and he chose Wine Country.

``Obviously, the whole food and wine thing was a big part of it,'' he said.

``We'd been to Healdsburg a couple of times ... and I loved the little town,

the town square and the surrounding area.''

Palmer opened the Dry Creek Kitchen and Hotel on that Healdsburg square in

2001. It was a turning point in the town's evolution from farm hamlet to food

and wine mecca.

``It's a safe bet that one day Healdsburg's defining moment will be said to

date from 2001, the year Charlie Palmer ... reopened the Hotel Healdsburg with

a brand-new restaurant,'' New York Times writer Frank Prial wrote in 2005.

By the summer of 2004, Palmer had moved his family to Healdsburg, where he

had built a house and planted a 2-acre pinot noir vineyard.

By 2006, Palmer was so determined to bring in his first pinot crop that

when the crew failed to show up, he picked the entire vineyard himself.

That year, Mauritson and Palmer launched their first vintage of Charlie

Clay wines, making 350 cases of 2006 Charlie Clay Pinot Noir and 50 cases of a

reserve wine called The Duellist.

``Clay is the winemaker, and I'm the dabbler,'' Palmer said. ``But it's

really fun to be involved, from growing to harvesting.''

In Healdsburg, Palmer has made his weekly commutes more bearable by

tricking out his car with gadgets and hiring a driver to take him to the

airport. While he's away, the driver helps ferry the kids back and forth among

their three schools and sports.

On weekends, Palmer likes to head out to Sake 'O for fresh sushi, or to the

Singletree Inn for a simple breakfast of eggs over easy. Even at this

understated breakfast spot, the eggs come from a local guy and the bacon comes

from Hobbs, a much-loved brand of bacon used by many Bay Area restaurants.

``I don't think there's a better time to be cooking in this country,''

Palmer said. ``It's become important to people, and they want to know where

their food comes from.''

.

Diane Peterson, a staff writer, can be reached at 521-5287 or

diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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