A few weeks back, celebrity chef Charlie Palmer took Grub Street on a tour of his Healdsburg restaurant Dry Creek Kitchen, and drove us out to the idyllic pen at Quivira Vineyards where he and his team have been raising a couple of heritage pigs for this year’s Pigs & Pinot festival. The pigs have presumably been, uh, "finished" on their acorn-only diet, and the three-day pork-a-palooza — which benefits Share Our Strength and Healdsburg schools — kicks off tomorrow night with a tasting event featuring 50 pinot noirs from the Pinot Cup competition and dishes by Palmer, his chef de cuisine Dustin Valette, and guest chefs Tyler Florence, Roland Passot, Kevin Gillespie and Bryan Voltaggio.
We asked Chef Palmer about his travel-heavy schedule, about shooting Top Chef, and about why he’ll never open a restaurant in San Francisco.
So do the pigs have names?
Nah. You know, all I see when I look at them is a butcher’s chart. I think things like, ‘Wow, those hams are developing nicely.’ I remember this one time years ago, back when I was living in New York and my kids were really little. I was working these crazy hours [at Aureole] and I’d be at the restaurant until two in the morning and then go home, get a few hours sleep, and wake up with the kids at six or seven. One morning I took the kids out to Central Park, and they were playing around and I was just sitting there on a bench in a total daze, and I start looking at the pigeons walking by and thinking, ‘Huh, there’s a good bit of meat on there.’ I had to shake myself out of it.
How often are you on the road these days?
I’ll be gone for two weeks at a time, about every six weeks. I’ll spend a few days in New York, a couple days in D.C., a couple days in Vegas and Reno, and now I’ve got a place in Dallas [Charlie Palmer at the Joule], and one in Southern California, so I’ll spend a couple days down there. But I try be in Healdsburg as much as I can. This is my home.
You still waking up with kids?
Yes, in fact. One of my sons is playing football, and I was up at 6 a.m. driving him to the gym this morning.
Your episode of Top Chef last season seemed to make Pigs & Pinot a hot ticket this year. Would you ever do Top Chef Masters?
No. It just takes too much time. You can’t tell from watching, but we’re sitting there doing take after take at the judges’ table. It goes on for hours. If I had to hear Padma say, ‘Pack your knives and go,’ one more time I was gonna pack my bags and walk right out of there.
Tell us about the The Tournament of the Pig.
We usually do a kind of demo thing, but this year we have so many guys everybody wanted to do it. We’re going to have a cookoff kind of thing. Not a quick-fire. There’ll be teams, and we’re going to have three different pork products, some kind of salt-cured product like a pancetta, then a fresh pork product, and a sausage type thing. The audience will get to taste everything, and there are going to be two judges. Roland’s going to be one of the judge, but a couple of the chefs said I couldn’t be a judge because I’d be biased [likely in favor of protégé Bryan Voltaggio]. And I’m like, what, me? Biased? Please.
What’s your personal favorite pork dish to make at home?
I take a really good quality rack of pork, and French the bones, and then brine in some type of a cider brine, and then slow roast it. Like 250 degrees for three hours. It’s so succulent, juicy, it just falls off the bone. The house smells wonderful. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Would you ever open a restaurant in San Francisco?
Never. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been approached about opening something there. People have thrown some of the craziest deals at me — just stupidly great deals, like no rent for five years, free build-out. And I’ve turned them all down.
I just love San Francisco too much, you know? I’ll go down there with my wife, and we’ll spend a weekend, have a fantastic time. But if I had a place down there I’d be working. It wouldn’t be any fun anymore.