Celebrated Chef Charlie Palmer Dishes On His Upcoming Hudson Valley Venture, Willow By Charlie Palmer

Mirbeau Rhinebeck
A rendering of Mirbeau Rhinebeck

Photo Credit: Mirbeau Inn & Spa 

It’s a glorious day in Sonoma when we catch up with celebrated chef Charlie Palmer, who’s on his way to Portugal (for culinary “research” purposes, of course). The reason for our chat: to discuss the celebrated chef, hospitality entrepreneur and hotelier’s upcoming venture, Willow by Charlie Palmer, a restaurant featuring Progressive American Cuisine that will open this fall at the Mirbeau Inn & Spa Rhinebeck in Rhinebeck, NY.

Willow will hopefully be, according to Palmer, a trendsetter, bringing a Hamptons-like feel to Rhinebeck, that will make it a must for city-dwellers. Its aesthetic certainly sounds incredible: From its open-air back deck, guests are treated to wild forest views dotted with willow trees, the inspiration for the restaurant’s name. The restaurant will showcase local Hudson Valley products; its menu will include items like grilled Maine lobster; Hudson Valley foie gras, steak au poivre sourced from Hudson Valley farms, and Hudson Valley summer corn pancakes.

Says Palmer, the man the James Beard Foundation named “Best Chef in America” in 1997, who has penned six cookbooks and owns 12 restaurants and two rooftop bars under his Charlie Palmer Group umbrella, including  Aureole, his award-winning fine dining restaurant—now in its 30th year—located in Manhattan’s Theater District, “We’re really excited about this project; we’ve been working on it for a really long time, and we’re anxious to open the door, invite people in and start doing what we do well.”

To find out more on Palmer’s haute upcoming eatery—as well as to hear what’s happening with his Las Vegas hotel project—keep reading below!

Charlie PalmerPhoto Credit: Mirbeau Inn & Spa

What made you decide to open a restaurant in the Hudson Valley region?

It started with a relationship with the Mirbeau team especially Gary and Linda [Dower, the team’s principals]. They’ve done some interesting stuff with this spa hotel concept, first in Skaneateles, then outside of Boston—this is their third thing. I’ve always loved Rhinebeck because of my days at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). I’m still involved with the school. I was the chairman of [and currently sit on] the Board of Trustees at the CIA, and Rhinebeck is right there. Selfishly, I’m hoping to be able to stay at the Mirbeau when I’m there for meetings, too. There’s not a lot of hotel choice [in the area]. The Holiday Inn Express is just great, but it’s not charming. Mirbeau is a beautiful rendition of a Parisian hotel, but done in a very modern context. They’re first class. They know how to execute, and they deliver a great experience; we’re excited to be involved with them. We can really bring a more robust food and beverage component to the spa. For us and our whole team in NY, it’s been an interesting journey. Because it’s a spa hotel in a smart, dieted kind of way, I think there’s an interesting opportunity here for us, and also because of what’s going on in the Hudson Valley in general from an agricultural standpoint. I think Rhinebeck is a really cool town; it’s become this hamlet. I see it as an alternative to East Hampton or Southampton. It’s pretty dynamic. A lot of people have second homes there. The area attracts a really interesting mix of travelers, including the international. We had a chance to really help with the design, especially the restaurant and how it opens on to a terrace, located within a forest of trees. There’s a good amount of willow trees and forest behind you. Here you are, not very far from NYC, and you’re in a forest. It’s pretty great.

What is Willow’s concept, and is it similar to any of your other venues?

I think it has some similarities to the Dry Creek Kitchen here in Sonoma, where we’re in a rural area. [Sonoma] is very wine-centric, but Hotel Healdsburg has a spa component. It by no means has a spa menu; it’s about delicious food and really focused on having a great destination dining space for hotel guests—but maybe more importantly—people in the area, or people coming from NYC, or from the CIA. I hope it becomes one of those “must” destinations for people visiting the school, which has however many million visitors a year. Thomas Burke, our chef, is really the perfect person for it, because he wants to be outside the city. He’s worked in NYC with us, but he wants this [more rural] lifestyle, and [finding the right fit] is a huge part of everything we do. Having the right team and right support in place is key. You can take a great chef and plunk him down in the middle of anywhere, but if he doesn’t want to be there from a life standpoint, it’s not always going to work well. We’ve learned that over the years.

Lunch and dinner at Willow

Photo Credit: Mirbeau Inn & Spa

Tell us about Willow’s menu. Will there be a ‘signature’ dish?

I think we’ll develop signature dishes. That happens over time. For instance, part of the menu is this nightly—I don’t want to call it “blue plate special,”— dish that every week is offered certain days. I want to promote that local, neighborhood-like feel. On a Saturday night, you can come and have beautiful prime rib with a lot of nice offerings from the area. We’re starting to nail down suppliers, especially vegetables, but also meat purveyors [with exotic offerings] like Fossil Farms, stuff like that. We’re really focused on the best of the area from a supplier standpoint. I don’t use the word “locavore” so much, but I want there to be a sense that all of this is grown not so far away when you come to Willow for dinner.

What will the cocktail and wine program be like—will you feature local wines?

Absolutely. It’s not Sonoma or Napa, but we’ll have certainly a good amount of offerings from the area. We’re looking at beers that are brewed nearby, and the spirits thing that’s happening here, too. We’ll also have a good international list because there is a French bend to [the restaurant] because of the Mirbeau brand, but in a good way—we’re not trying to create a French bistro by any means. It’s going to be very genuine and original, both in the design and the menu.

MirbeauPhoto Credit: Mirbeau Inn & Spa

When are you opening?

We’re hoping to have a super grand opening of the entire property on September 27. I’m pretty confident we’ll be open and operating before that on a trial basis. I don’t want to call it a test kitchen, but in some ways that’s what it is. All the culinary team incubated at Aureole in New York. It will be nice going into early fall with the foliage thing; it should be pretty spectacular.

What do you hope Willow will bring to the area?

It will bring another great option dining-wise. There’s some pretty decent restaurants going on currently in the Hudson Valley. I see it as a percolator; it’s coming along there. I hope with this offering with Willow it puts a stake in the ground there, to say “There is a great restaurant community here.” If we can be part of that, or the genesis of that, that’s really rewarding to me. We’re not pretending that we’re the end-all, but I like the thought of starting a movement more than just opening a restaurant. I think we have the opportunity here, and that kind of opportunity doesn’t come along every day.

What’s going on with the Charlie Palmer Hotel in Las Vegas? Is that still happening?

We broke ground on a hotel called Hotel Cloe. We’re trying to hold back on what it is and what’s happening with it, specifically. It’s in the Arts District downtown. The Arts District is becoming a bit like Brooklyn—all the cool kids want to live in the Arts District. There’s no gaming; it’s pretty unique and really cool there. But there’s more news to come.

Mirbeau Aqua Terrace

Photo Credit: Mirbeau Inn & Spa