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.

Is there a dish of yours that best reflects what you learned from Charlie?

BV: Before I even went to culinary school, a chef told me, “You’re going to go out there and work under all these people. And you’re going to learn all these bits and pieces. There will always be a piece of everybody on your plate, but, eventually, you’ll put a dish together and it will be yours.” Charlie will always be with me in my food.

Charlie, do you have a memorable moment dining at one of Bryan’s restaurants?

CP: The first time I ate at VOLT. Watching the performance, execution, and passion that went into the food was as important as the taste.

Bryan, is there anything you’ve ever wanted to tell Charlie that you’ve never had a chance to say before?

BV: Everything I am and everything I was able to become as a chef and a restaurant owner I learned by working with Charlie. I’ve only been able to accomplish all I’ve done because Charlie opened those doors for me. I can’t thank him enough. I try to repay him by doing to those cooks that are coming up in my kitchens the same he did for me.

CP: Bryan, you know this and I don’t have to tell you, but I’m very proud of you. You’re always a part of the family. And I’m always there for whatever you need.

Charlie Palmer and Bryan Voltaggio

Make a reservation at Aureole and VOLT to experience the stellar cuisine of Charlie Palmer and Bryan Voltaggio.

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Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell