Celebrity chef Charlie Palmer on career switches: ‘All you can do is focus on the future’

They say that the best things in life happen unexpectedly. For legendary chef, restaurateur and television personality Charlie Palmer, that is exactly the kind of thing that happened to him that has led to his dominance in the culinary world for the past three decades or so.

Palmer’s journey started with a high school class and led to him to opening his first restaurant, Aureole, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 1988. Since his debut, Charlie now has his name on several high-end restaurants splashed across the United States, all the way from New York to Sonoma, California. His success, he says, was all based on figuring out a knack for something and going with that full throttle.

Sometimes that lightbulb moment about our best career happens when we are young; other times it can happen when you are in the middle of your own career and aren’t happy with where you are and need a change. Charlie’s story is truly inspirational for anyone who is teeter-tottering on making that jump into doing something they know they are talented at, and the results can be quite spectacular. 

Ladders: Was the culinary world your first choice of career when you were thinking about what you wanted to do with your life? 

Charlie Palmer: I sort of stumbled into this profession. In high school, I enrolled into Home Economics on a dare and not only did I end up enjoying the class but it turns out, I was pretty good at it. When it came time to graduate, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do after high school but I thought The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) would be a good fit for me. At that time, I had no idea it would lead me to where I am today.

It has been almost thirty years since you opened your first restaurant, Aureole. Did you ever think that you would achieve this much success?

I never imagined that I would have even half of the success that I’ve had, but I attribute all of that to good old-fashioned hard work. I’m a very real example of the great American dream. I had a humble upbringing in rural upstate New York and my parents instilled in me very early on that, to get what I wanted out of life, I would have to work hard. Which is exactly what I did.

Where does your drive come from that has allowed you to open several restaurants and hotels across the country?

After all these years, I am so fortunate to wake up every day with endless passion and motivation for my career, my team and the possibilities for the future.

I am and have always been all about progress, which to me, translates to always looking forward and not backwards. I try to stay as busy as possible, whether that means opening a new restaurant, updating menus, or planning an event. I try to make sure that any ideas or projects that I’m working on will move my team forward and creatively challenge them.

You have worked with some big icons in the culinary world, notably Julia Child. Was there any particular person, in our out of that world, that gave you the best advice when it came to establishing yourself in your career?

I’ve worked with hundreds of talented chefs and restaurateurs, but those that I consider true mentors are Jean-Jacques Rachou of La Cote Basque, Buzzy O’Keeffe at the River Cafe and Leon Dahnens, a Belgium chef that I encountered at The CIA.

Do you use that same advice for all your employees or do you tell them something different in hopes that they will be just as successful as you have been?

I encourage all my sous and chefs to constantly look forward, keep the momentum and not to dwell on the past. It’s important that they learn all aspects of the business, including front of the house operations. The more you understand about all the components that go into an evening’s service, the P&L, the total operation, the more questions you ask, the more you become an invaluable member of the team.

What has been the biggest pitfall in your career and how were you able to overcome that?

Sure, I’ve had some hurdles throughout my career but I choose not to dwell on them. I believe it is what you do in the face of any setback that truly defines a person. All you can do is focus on the future.

We all have naysayers in our life, whether they come from a good or a bad place. How have you dealt with these types of people in your life, and have you ever let what they have said truly affect how you approach your career?

Life isn’t without its difficulties – it is what keeps things so interesting! I believe that my constant motivation and ability to look to the future has ultimately kept me focused and allowed me to not get distracted by any negativity.

Finally, what is the best career advice you can give to anyone who wants prosperity and longevity in whatever career field they are going into? 

It is simple but the advice I would give is to work hard and learn as much as you can. Be curious and humble and try to surround yourself with good people, both whom you enjoy being around and that you can learn from.