Chef Charlie Palmer’s accomplishments are so impressive it seems there is nothing he can’t do. Not only has he established a signature “progressive American” style of cooking that showcases regional ingredients in unexpected and flavorful ways, he has combined his talent with his business savvy to create an ever-growing culinary empire. Palmer has launched 13 restaurants across the country, four cookbooks and a growing collection of boutique hotels and wine shops. After receiving countless accolades and critical acclaim, one would think that there is nothing left to do.
Palmer managed to take his passion for cooking one step further by launching Pigs and Pinot in 2006. The weekend-long festival located at Hotel Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Kitchen (one of Palmer’s restaurants) offers a series of intimate dining and educational events featuring over 20 chefs and 60 wineries, all inspired by the perfect pairing of pork with pinot noir.
On the heels of the 8th annual event, Palmer paused for a “kitchen confidential” moment with Haute Living.
Haute Living: How did you get started in the culinary industry?
Charlie Palmer: I began cooking in junior high school and found it to be incredibly satisfying and that led me to culinary school and now, where I am today.
HL: What is the inspiration for your cooking?
CP: A progressive American style that always includes the search for better ingredients and better quality products.
HL: What dishes are you best known for?
CP: No specific dishes, but an ever-changing approach including seasonality, proximity to ingredients and the search for great taste.
We’ve got such a great team working on this event, from our chefs and managers at Dry Creek Kitchen, to the hotel staff, to our project manager, Kristen Gegnas.
HL: Why did you start Pigs and Pinot?
CP: I’ve always felt that the pairing of pork and pinot was the perfect match. The idea was catalyzed over a couple of glasses of pinot noir between myself and our Pigs & Pinot winemaker extraordinaire, Daryl Groom. It started as a simple dinner and has become what it is today.
HL: Walk us through your process to prepare for Pigs and Pinot – when do you start preparing for the event, and what do you have to do to prepare?
CP: We’ll start preparing for next year’s event right after this one ends. We need to start the process of identifying the guest chefs from across the country and Daryl has the immense job of selecting all of the Pinot Noir producers that we can invite for the next year. We also have to choose the dates, create the schedule and try to make it better and more interesting than the previous years. We look at the event and review the feedback we received from guests, chefs and winemakers. From a food perspective, we have to think about the timing of raising specific pigs for the event, sourcing ingredients, coordinating with vendors and sponsors, etc. Once we’ve got these details together, we start working on the menus, corralling all the chefs and ordering rentals. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. We’ve got such a great team working on this event, from our chefs and managers at Dry Creek Kitchen, to the hotel staff, to our project manager, Kristen Gegnas. They always pull together such a great event.
HL: In your opinion, what makes this event sell out year after year?
CP: There are so many reasons – the fact that we keep it small and intimate and the fact that every year the wines get better and better. And of course, that we continue to be so fortunate in getting great chefs to participate. This combination makes for such a great demand for the event.
HL: What is your favorite part of this event?
CP: All parts of the event are unique and picking a favorite would be like picking a favorite child. Having different chefs, winemakers, emcees and guests each year makes each year’s event one-of-a-kind, so my favorite changes from year to year.
HL: What is the secret to your success?
CP: Surrounding myself with great people and staying true to my craft.
HL: What are the top 5 ingredients one should have in their refrigerator?
CP: Great quality butter, good smoked bacon, fresh market vegetables, a bottle of great champagne and fresh eggs.
HL: What are the most important ingredients you cannot do without?
CP: Salt and pepper, good quality olive oil, artisanal pasta, canned San Marzano tomatoes, Starbucks coffee, heritage pork. Pinot noir.