What was the evolution of Willow By Charlie Palmer at The Mirbeau Rhinebeck?
I met Gary and Linda Dower (owners of the Mirbeau) about 3 years ago. I grew up in upstate New York, Gary is from upstate, and we had this connection right away. He asked me to take a look at the plans for what he was doing in Rhinebeck and I've always loved the town. I'm a true believer that these things are about relationships. Anyone can spend money building stuff, but you want to be involved with great people who want to do something special. Gary and Linda are not accepting of second-rate anything, they want it to be the best.
Where did you grow up?
A little town called Smyrna, of about 236 people. Not 236,000 — just 236. I grew up on a dairy farm. We always had amazing vegetable gardens, and my dad and I fished and hunted. But from a culinary standpoint, things started in high school for me. I started working at Colgate Inn (Hamilton, NY) as a job, not a career. First as a dishwasher, then a prep guy, but then I became the brunch guy, because everyone hated brunch.
What goes into creating a new restaurant for a new hotel?
It’s an opportunity to represent the region, and the surrounding area of Rhinebeck and what is happening here, food-wise. No matter where you are, you want to find the best ingredients, and there’s not many places that have access to bounty we have here. Linda designed a beautiful dining room, and to put something like this in the middle of this quaint town is special. Then you put thoughts on paper and start putting the right team together. It can’t be just about me, you need everyone to be passionate to make it a success.
How do you design the menu?
Thomas Burke, our Executive Chef, has some history with us, but we brought him to New York for two months so he could learn our system and language in the kitchen. It’s important we both understand how we think about food, so when we seasonly change dishes, or talk new ideas, we’re talking the same language. We feature what I call progressive American cuisine. We’ll have beef, pasta dishes, seasonal fruits, and a duck that I think may become one of our signature dishes. Being so close to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, we’ll be part of that culinary wave of visitors coming to this area.
Is the signature dish always the one you expect it to be?
No. There’s always one dish that you think wow, this is great, and then nobody goes for it. Then you wonder if it’s not worded right on the menu? Does the staff not understand it?
Do you approach opening a restaurant here different than you would in a larger city?
Absolutely. You have to understand your audience — who is your guest? We’ve gone out of our way to see the other restaurants in this community — what do people like about them? What isn’t working. It’s important to be very inviting to locals. Guests who are visiting the area, aren’t that different than guests at our city places. They can be with us one night and in Vegas the next. But being endeared and welcomed by local clientele — that’s what is going to be our driving force and set the language for the restaurant.
Are openings still exciting for you?
I’m always excited, and there always a little nervousness. Food has been my entire life, but you have to remember, we’re not saving lives here — we’re cooking and making people happy. Some people get so serious, but I say if we’re not having fun, we’re not doing it the right way.