Talking at the Pass: Chefs Charlie Palmer and Bryan Voltaggio

Our Talking at the Pass series, in which mentors and their successful disciples reunite to chat about their time together and what they learned from each other, continues.

This latest installment features chefs Charlie Palmer and Bryan Voltaggio. Palmer is a two-time James Beard Award winner, who helms New York City’s Aureole, Harvest Table in Napa Valley, and many more. His protégé-turned-powerhouse Voltaggio is a breakout star on Top Chef and chef of Frederick, Maryland’s VOLT, Range in Washington, D.C., and several other concepts.

Charlie Palmer and Bryan Voltaggio

Bryan, how did you begin working for Charlie?

Bryan Voltaggio: I began as an extern at Aureole in 1997 while I was attending the C.I.A. up in Hyde Park, New York. An instructor told me, “There’s one chef whose kitchen you need to be in – Charlie Palmer’s.” So I went down to New York City week after week. I would be in the corner of the kitchen next to the convection oven – next to where you would make your cappuccino, Charlie – cleaning chanterelles or whatever needed doing. After three weeks, Charlie came over and asked, “So, you want to work here?” I don’t know what came out of my mouth. I mumbled something. I was scared out of my mind. Upon my graduation in 1999, Charlie offered me a job there. That was the start of my career.

Charlie, what made Bryan stand out?

Charlie Palmer: I tell my sons this, “If you really want something – you gotta put yourself out there. You gotta show up. You gotta show people that this is really where you want to be.” If someone is persistent, really wants to work with us, wants to be on our team, show ups, and demonstrates that – that means a lot to me. We had a lot of young students who came down from the C.I.A. When we do a stage like that, it’s really more for them to see what they’re getting into. You’re not going to be able to tell much about them because they’re in the kitchen three nights a week just cleaning chanterelles or doing other menial work. What you can tell about them is whether they have a desire to be there and really be a great cook. How do they dress? Are their knives sharp? Do they have the right equipment with them?

How did your preconception of Charlie live up to the man who you went to work for?

BV: I was scared to go to New York City. I was 20-year-old farm boy from Frederick, Maryland. Before culinary school, I had been working at the kitchen of the local Holiday Inn. To then be in a kitchen like Aureole’s with a man like Charlie was overwhelming in some aspects. But I also knew when I walked in that this was the place I wanted to be and why I committed to culinary school. It is why I stopped pursuing a career making pretty good money at a rinky-dink hotel. I wanted to be better than that and be in the best places I could be. At Aureole, I felt I was surrounded by professionals who cared about their craft. Charlie was a part of service and in there every night. I remember thinking, “Wow. I read about this guy in Food Arts magazine. Now I’m seeing him actually cook.”

Do you remember the first dish Bryan put up that really impressed you?

CP: A lot of that happened when Bryan took over the kitchen at Charlie Palmer Steak in D.C. Once you’re in charge, you become accountable. There has to be a tremendous amount of passion. I can’t give chefs the menus and tell them what they’re going to cook. That doesn’t work for us. The thing is, Bryan wasn’t just driving that restaurant but what we were doing as a restaurant group as a whole. Some chefs are followers and some are leaders. Bryan was leading the charge.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from Charlie?

BV: I will never forget running across Park Avenue and dodging cabs because we were going to get an ingredient we didn’t have for a guest – no matter what. That’s hospitality. We always say “yes” to our guests.

Charlie, was it difficult for you when Bryan left to open VOLT in 2008?

CP: It was hard for me. It was like having a brother leave. Let me get one thing straight. Bryan says he worked for me. Bryan didn’t work for me; Bryan worked with me. There’s nothing that makes me more proud than Bryan going out and having success with his own business.Continue Reading

Chef Charlie Palmer on Bringing His Take on Steak to New York City, Longevity, Luger’s + More

CP-BlogThis fall, chef-restaurateur Charlie Palmer opened Charlie Palmer Steak in the Big Apple, a much-welcomed addition to Manhattan’s midtown east neighborhood. Joining sibling Charlie Palmer Steak restaurants located in Las Vegas, Reno, and Washington, D.C., Palmer and his team are ready to wow savvy steak-loving New Yorkers with carefully sourced and deliciously prepared meats (and more). Renowned for his restaurants, hotels, and food-forward wine shops around the nation, he discusses the Charlie Palmer Steak menu, how his restaurant differs from the fabled Peter Luger, what’s in chef Matthew Zappoli’s signature cocktail sauce (sort of!), and diners’ longstanding love affair with the steakhouse in this exclusive Q+A.

You’re a native New Yorker and you opened your very first restaurant, Aureole, there. You have other locations of Charlie Palmer Steak around the nation — what made you decide to bring Charlie Palmer Steak to Manhattan at this point?

I’m actually from upstate New York, a small town called Smyrna, surrounded by farming communities. I opened Aureole in 1988 here in New York City, followed by Astra (which we just closed this year and are reopening as Upper Story in the next month), Kitchen 22, Kitchen 82, Metrazur, and more. So, I’ve long had a footprint and a place in New York City. We’ve been searching for the right location for a Charlie Palmer Steak in Manhattan for quite some time, and this one landed in my lap earlier this year.

Dating back to Peter Luger, the steakhouse feels like a very New York convention. What are the challenges of this market? What do diners expect from a New York steakhouse — and how do you deliver that?

It’s true. The steakhouse, or actually the ‘beefsteak’, has been a New York tradition since the 1800s. I think the challenges are numerous, but so are the successes. There are a ton of steakhouses in this town, so it’s about standing out, serving top quality beef, and providing the best service. My philosophy on steakhouses has always been different from the Luger format. I don’t want it to be a men’s club – I want it to be a place where men and women are both equally comfortable and the food goes beyond the beef — to really thoughtful, composed seafood dishes and hearty salads.

Why do you think we, as a nation of diners, have such a longstanding love affair with steakhouses? What is the ongoing allure? Continue Reading

Cleveland Chef Jonathon Sawyer on Sensual Foods, Gluttony + Grower Champagne

Even though he'll be working, Chef Sawyer will still be able to spend Valentine's Day with his wife, Amelia. She's a co-owner of Greenhouse Tavern!

New York’s loss proved to be Cleveland’s gain as Chef Jonathan Sawyer settled there after several years of cooking in some of Manhattan’s best kitchens. Behind the burner at The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland since 2009, Sawyer has become a driving force in the local food movement in Ohio and his cooking and commitment have helped The Forest City claim its place on the culinary map. Chef Sawyer takes his turn at our Valentine’s Day OpenTable R.Q., or Romantic Quotient, Test, telling us why you won’t find tiger paw on the menu — but you will find grower Champagne. 

What are your thoughts on food and drink acting as aphrodisiacs?

I definitely think that food and drink can bring people together for the greater good of romance. I don’t believe eating a tiger paw makes you strong for days, if you will. It’s really a combination of things, from ingredients to everything else — talking together and eating together.

Aside from aphrodisiacs, what do you think of when you think of sexy foods?

I think a lot of people want to associate luxury with dishes being sexy, but I think almost contrary to that. You don’t want to fill up on starches and butter. There are foods, though, that are luxurious that I think of as sensual which are lighter — asparagus, oysters, and almonds, for example, and prepared in a lighter style. We want people to walk out and be satiated, but not too full to enjoy the rest of the night.

Have you ever wooed a woman with a particular dish?

I’ve been married for a while, but one of my wife’s quotes is that she fell in love with me for my deboned crispy roast chicken that I used to do at Kitchen 22 with Charlie Palmer. It was a revelatory experience for her because she said, “If this guy can cook chicken like this, imagine what else he can do!” It’s a simple dish, but if you source and execute it properly, then it’s more than the sum of its ingredients.

Do you have a dish or food you might recommend to diners seeking to set the mood?

Continue Reading

LudoBites 7.0 Sells Out in 60 Seconds; Dope-Free Dining; Lyonnaise Cuisine for Dummies; American Menus Through the Years; Charlie Palmer on Sin City

"Finally, there's something hotter than I am in Gone in 60 Seconds. And it's LudoBites 7.0."

* Gone in 60 seconds. That’s right! LudoBites 7.0 sold out in under a minute! [FrenchChefWife]

* Just in time for Bastille Day: Lyon chef Chris Leahy explains what Lyonnaise cuisine really is. [Fork in the Road]

* Where’s his ‘stache? Chef Charlie Palmer reflects on the Vegas dining scene in a guest column. [Las Vegas Sun]

* Is 1833 the most anticipated restaurant of the century? If you live in Monterey, it just may be. [InsideScoopSF]

* Don’t be a dope. Dine dope-free, if you’re a swimmer or not, in China. [TimesLive]

* How to Make  Michael Bauer Drool by Michael Bauer. Menu writers, take note. [InsideScoopSF]

* Summer breeze, makes me feel fine. Blowing through the jasmine rice in my mind. Chefs get sappy about foods of summers past. [HuffPost Food]

* A book that really is food for thought. Check out this first look at Menu Design in America, 1850-1985. [The Atlantic]