The accolades tower high for Charlie Palmer, a culinary legend who was one of the first “celebrity chefs.”
Starting with his first restaurant, Aureole, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Palmer soon after opened Metrazur in the city’s Grand Central Terminal, followed by another Aureole, in Las Vegas, and then Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington, D.C. A two-time James Beard Award winner—among many other professional accomplishments—author of six cookbooks and a frequent guest on NBC’s Today Show, the celebrated chef’s empire now stands at 14 venues, including three boutique hotels that cater to small meetings. But it’s the chef-driven hotel concept that truly sets him apart.
“I’m somewhat unique,” Palmer said. “If you look at Europe and other places it’s certainly not unheard of, such as in Burgundy [France], where chefs may have expanded from a restaurant to an inn and then a hotel. It’s a natural progression. We look at all aspects, from how comfortable the pillow is to how good the soup is to how good the bacon is in the morning.”
Palmer’s culinary style is termed American Progressive Cuisine, a farm-to-table concept he describes as “bold, dynamic flavors and unexpected combinations built on a foundation of classical French technique.”
Palmer’s group-dining philosophy is reflected in the individual flavor of his restaurants and hotels, where each property offers a unique style that eschews the cookie-cutter qualities many of his colleagues have found successful.
“Groups don’t want the same-old, same-old,” he said. “They want something different all of the time. It’s not just another meeting—it’s special. We’ve done everything from interactive cooking classes and teambuilding to interactive tastings, such as bourbon tastings and creative cocktail-making.”
Palmer stressed that meeting planners should be a forceful advocate in order to ensure their group has a unique experience.
“Be demanding—look for creativity and expect that,” he said. “If someone’s in the business of creating great meetings, then they have to push the envelope—push for what they want. It’s more than picking up the phone and saying, ‘I have a meeting for 40 people and I need this and this and this.’ Look to the property for creativity.”
His three boutique hotels in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, Napa Valley's Harvest Inn, with 10 indoor and outdoor meeting spaces surrounded by redwood groves and vineyards; Sonoma County's Hotel Healdsburg, with four spaces; and San Francisco’s Mystic, offering a speakeasy style and a smaller amount of meeting space, epitomize his chef-driven concept that aims to offer attendees a savory respite from the seriousness of meetings.
But as an intrepid hospitality industry entrepreneur, one may be tempted to ask Palmer how he would describe himself. Is he a chef or a hotelier?
“I am a chef,” he answered emphatically, and then quickly added, “I’m a hotelier with a chef’s vision.”