Celebrity chef-restaurateur Charlie Palmer has earned his fame the old-fashioned way, getting his start as a dishwasher and prep cook at the tender age of 15. Though the Smyrna, N.Y., native claims the lowly position “was a lot more attractive than milking cows — people talk about hard work; that’s hard work” — it’s clear that the ethic of the dairy-farming community he grew up in, not to mention of his own household, rubbed off on him. “My dad was a plumber, an electrician, a jack of all trades,” Palmer notes. “He could fix anything.”
The Meals That Made Them
An occasional series by Ruth Tobias and Louisa Kasdon about American chefs and the meals that changed their lives.
Likewise, Palmer is nothing if not a multi-hyphenate: He writes cookbooks, makes regular television appearances and plays the proud papa to four sons, all while running an empire that stretches from coast to coast. And the member of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America remains deeply attuned to the people and places that inspired him on the road to success.
A French dish Charlie Palmer will never forget
“I was working at Georges Blanc in Vonnas, (France). It was my first stagière; I was entrenched in the notion of becoming a great chef — that was my focus, that was my goal — and it was just an incredible atmosphere to work in. I stayed until I didn’t have enough money to fly back. I had to con somebody into loaning me the money for the ticket to New York [laughs]. I would visit Troisgros and as many places as I could. One day we went to L’Espérance à Vézelay; what Marc Meneau was doing back then was very progressive from a French countryside standpoint, and it was the first time I ate cromesquis. Cromesquis is like this liquefied foie gras that he somehow had jelled or maybe chilled into blocks, which he then breaded in rice flour three or four times to make these little fritters. They were presented really simply, and the waiter had to explain to you how to eat them: You had to put the whole thing in your mouth and bite down, because the warm foie gras exploded all over the place and oozed down the back of your palate. The sensation was so intense that the food memory is embedded in my brain — I can still taste it 30 years later.
“Then there was the first time I went to Restaurant Alain Chapel — this was before I worked there, which I actually did for a short time. I had cocks’ combs and kidneys in a slow braise and then a roast pigeon I’ll never forget the flavor of: this perfectly golden-brown roasted squab breast that they carved off the bone tableside, with whole garlic cloves. It was just an amazing experience. I’ve had meals in fabulous places all over the world, and I’ve sat there after 10 courses thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to just have that squab?’ It was so simple, but so perfect. That was a life changer.”
Charlie Palmer’s Japanese Charcoal-Grilled Sonoma Squab With Caramelized Cipollini Farro and Toasted Pine Nuts
- Separate the breast and the legs from the squab. Bring ½ cup olive oil to 140 F in a saucepan along with the thyme, sliced garlic and bay leaf; when the aromatics have infused the oil, immerse the squab legs and cook until the meat is tender.
- Season the breasts with salt and pepper and place them in a bowl. Add the heavy cream to tenderize; set aside.
- In a warm pan, melt the butter and add the cipollini onions, sugar and water; cook slowly over low heat for approximately 30 minutes or until the onions are caramelized and soft. Set aside.
- Add the remaining oil to a pan and cook the diced white onion slowly over low heat; add a whole garlic clove, chicken stock and farro and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until most of the liquid is gone. Add the cipollini onions and mascarpone, then gradually add the parmesan to obtain a creamy, risotto-like consistency. Add the toasted pine nuts and finish seasoning with salt and pepper.
- Remove the squab breasts from the cream and thread the breasts and the confited legs, placing the prunes between them, onto two bamboo skewers. Place the skewers on a hot charcoal grill for a couple of minutes on each side, until golden and crisp. The aroma of the charcoal will impart a pleasantly smoky flavor to the squab.
- Serve skewers on a plate over a bed of creamy farro.
Zester Daily contributor Ruth Tobias is assistant editor at Sommelier Journal as well as a seasoned food-and-beverage writer for numerous city and national publications; she is also the author of the upcoming “Food Lover’s Guide to Denver & Boulder” from Globe Pequot. Her website is www.ruthtobias.com or follow her @Denveater.
Photo: Charlie Palmer. Credit: Bill Milne