Legend has it that the Culinary Institute of America threw out Charlie Palmer for coating a Volvo belonging to the school's restaurant manager with aspic. It's not hard to picture the 40-year-old chef-owner of Aureole (rated New York's best American restaurant) playing games like that. Neither is it surprising to learn that he runs a string of eating houses, nor that he owns a dairy farm.
Aureole labels itself "progressive American". As a definition, it is about as apposite as "modern British". Roughly deconstructed, it stands for generous portions, home-grown produce with taste, applied French techniques and a nod to tradition. It also stands for a massive commitment to consistency and a system that runs as smoothly as a Cadillac on an empty freeway.
It seems to be a point of honour among the Big Apple's celebrity chefs that they look as though they have just returned from a health spa. It's true of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, of Daniel Boulud and especially of Palmer. If they are stressed, they don't show it. Perhaps it's because they find administration and management less tiring than cooking. Aureole's boss still keeps his hand in, though. In particular, he likes to work alongside new or comparatively raw kitchen recruits: "You don't find accomplished cooks. You have to create them."
To be the best (Aureole scores the highest-ranking 28 out of 30 for food in New York's influential Zagat guide), cooking has to look recognisably French. Any menu vying for top honours will display foie gras - North American in origin - as well as lobster, oysters, caviare and truffles. Palmer balances the obvious status dishes with wood-grilled sardines, vegetable salad with tomato tart, spiced butternut squash soup, oak charcoal-grilled tuna, chicken or steak. What he serves may often be haute cuisine. It is just as likely to be good cooking.
Either way, it is presented with finesse. Bread sits in elegant Shaker-style baskets. Butter comes from Palmer's own farm. Here you'll find the same designer Laguiole knives as Michel Bras puts on his table. Hockney prints, offered for sale, dot the walls.
The biggest difference between Aureole and any European counterpart, however, is the logistics. Seating more than 100, it can cater for up to 400 covers a day and rarely drops below 300. Lunch bookings start at 11.30am. Between 2pm and 2.30pm there's a $19.99 (£12) prix-fixe menu. Americans often drink water (the house bottles its own mineral brand), so it is possible to dine at the smartest spot in town for less than £20.
Customers may not always eat at the double yet it's fairly rare for them to linger for hours over a dinner like the French. Eating off the carte or the $65 (£39.27) menu narrows the gap between continents.
The biggest change in US food over the past decade has been the strides made in improving the taste of the raw materials. Palmer, raised on a New York State farm, has been a prime mover in raising standards. He became a partner in a poultry farm to obtain chickens that could match genuine free-range standards. He owns a dairy farm that gives him his butter, and the vegetables he uses are almost all organic. Spiced butternut squash or barley and vegetable soups deserve their place because they have a freshness that only traditional home-cooking can boast.
"Everything on the menu is something I'd love to eat," insists Palmer. He is convincing, too. What is as important as a dish's conception is its execution. To maintain the consistency over two distinct meal occasions, he has separate brigades. The first starts at about 5.30am and works through the lunch session. The second clocks in while the late-lunchers are still nibbling at the petits fours and works through until late. Nominally, kitchen staff do eight-hour sessions but, like chefs throughout the globe, they can do 12.
Big in America
Naturally, the success of Aureole has snowballed Palmer's interests. His biggest venture is a spin-off at the Las Vegas Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, an awesome restaurant (Raymond Blanc did a recent guest spot there) with a four-storey glass wine cellar. This year he is set to open Metrazur, a brasserie at Grand Central Terminal competing with a Michael Jordan restaurant at the other end of the station.
Palmer owns three other restaurants in Manhattan: Lenox Room (upscale); Alva (bistro); and Astra (private-dining and catering). In total, he employs more than 460 staff, a figure that will edge above 500 with the opening of Metrazur. On to these he tacks an interest in a Palm Beach restaurant, his Egg Farm Dairy (which does clotted cream and cheeses as well as butter), a flower shop, a book and a line in bottled sauces.
In a city where restaurant price increases outstrip inflation (4.7% against 2.5%), where the public has an average 7.1 restaurant/take-away meals a week, where the average restaurant meal costs more than $33 (£19.93), where openings easily outstrip closures, Palmer sits close to the top of the pile. It is not surprising he sounds upbeat. "The clientele is more knowledgeable. Ingredients are better. There's a wave of excitement. It's a great time to be cooking," he says.
He shows few signs of strain and has no plans for retirement. New York, it seems, energizes the high achievers rather than burning them out.
Charlie Palmer's book Great American Food is published by Random at $38 (£22.94).
Aureole has a sharp and informative Web site at www.aureolerestaurant.com that is a model for other restaurants thinking of setting up something similar.
Roasted foie gras and quince terrine
Makes about 12 portions using one terrine (30cm x 12cm x 10cm)
1.25 litres water
Juice of one lemon
700g foie gras (two large lobes)
170g duck liver mousse
3 to 4tbs chopped herbs (thyme, tarragon, parsley and chives)
4 soaked gelatine leaves
600ml reduced chicken consommé
Salt and white pepper
For the garnish
Poach the peeled quinces in water, sugar and lemon juice until tender. Chill overnight.
Line the terrine with film. Remove veins and traces of blood from the quinces and cut the small lobes in half and the larger ones into quarters. Sauté over a high flame to caramelize the surfaces. Put on a wire rack over a tray, transfer to a hot oven for two minutes only and cool. Quarter the quinces.
Combine duck liver mousse and herbs. Dissolve gelatine in warmed consommé. Layer the terrine with quinces and foie gras, pour a little of the consommé over each layer and season. Spread the duck liver mousse over the top layer, cover and leave to set.
Turn out, slice and accompany with a quenelle of quince purée.
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 27 January - 2 February 2000