When Chef Charlie Palmer was presented with the opportunity to open a place in Rhinebeck, New York, it was a full-circle moment. This is a place laced with his own memories from childhood as well as the beginnings of what would be a fruitful culinary career. But it’s also become a testament to a chef who’s not afraid to take chances. Remember, Palmer has always been a trendsetter, paving the way for others to follow in Las Vegas, where he opened Aureole in 1999. Even in Reno, where a thriving culinary landscape has emerged. We sat down with Chef Palmer to talk about his latest opening.
Rhinebeck is special to you for several reasons. You grew up close by and went to school at the CIA. Were those key motivators behind getting involved in Willow?
Yes, those are certainly compelling factors. But it’s also because the Hudson River Valley is a truly beautiful place with a strong agricultural heritage. Multigenerational farms are still at work in this region, as well as emergent food artisans and craft distillers. So it’s old and new, which is interesting and exciting.

Dining destinations are no longer entrusted only to major cities, or even secondary markets. Healdsburg is a perfect example. Do you see Rhinebeck in the same way?
It is similar to Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, a sophisticated but mainly small town within driving distance of a great American city. Like Healdsburg and its relationship to San Francisco, Rhinebeck has long been a weekend house or day trip destination for New Yorkers—and now more than ever. People are stretching out from the city, looking for places to have a different experience than what comes with their daily lives. So I think the appeal is just getting stronger and stronger.

With the CIA so close, could you conceivably create a staging opportunity for student chefs at Willow?
Definitely. I went to the CIA myself, as did one of my sons. I am a former chairman and currently sit on the Board of Trustees, and I do whatever I can to support that institution and encourage the students. The kitchen has shaped and influenced my life, and I want to share that experience with anyone who has the interest and passion for a culinary career. We already have several employees who are studying at CIA and working for us at Willow. But we have always hired CIA students in every Charlie Palmer restaurant.

Willow derives its name from the trees in plain view from the restaurant. Much like Dry Creek Kitchen, does the space’s design and materials invite an inside–outside connection?
We had a chance to help with the design, particularly the operational aspect of the restaurant, which was key to developing a kitchen that can support all of our menu ideas. But the aesthetic inspiration behind the Mirbeau brand is the art of Claude Monet. And his legendary garden in Giverny, the inspiration for his impressionist style, features a willow tree. So there’s a historic and artistic connection to the willow, as well as a geographical one. The French doors in the restaurant take you to the terrace, which opens up to a forest with willow trees along the border. So here you are, not very far from New York City, and you’re in a wild forest. It’s pretty great.

Who helms your team in the kitchen?
Thomas Burke, our chef, is really the perfect person for it, because he aspired to be outside the city. He’s worked in New York with us, but he wanted this more charming lifestyle, and finding the right fit is a huge part of everything we do. Having the right team and proper support in place is key.

Given your location, menu options for local produce are no doubt endless. Can you give us an example from your menu?
We try to source items from within 50 to 75 miles from the restaurant. The restaurant showcases so many local Hudson Valley products that will change with the seasons. I’d have to say that my current go-to dish is our Hudson Valley Rohan Duck Breast served with huckleberry, creamy farro, Taproot Farm turnips, and duck jus.

What about local wines from the area?
We don’t have the same number of regional wineries to choose from as we do in our Sonoma and Napa locations. New York has a good scene, and it’s reflected on our list. But as much as we champion classic American food, we will always have an international list. We love good wine and spent decades building a network of vintners around the world. And that works well at Willow, because Mirbeau has a French spirit, and naturally we want the list to reflect that.

Each of your restaurant locations represent your progressive American style. Can you elaborate on how Willow is no exception?
As with all of our best projects, it started with a good relationship—in this case, the Mirbeau team, and especially Gary and Linda Dower, the team’s principals. They’ve completed several interesting projects that deliver a great experience, and we’re energized to be involved with them. And because it is a spa hotel in a smart, directed way, we are focused on respecting that while contributing a more robust food and beverage component than you might find at other spas. For our whole team in New York, that’s been both a challenge and opportunity. Also, being in the Hudson River Valley has a hometown appeal. Rhinebeck is a really cool town—a hamlet, really. And it’s certainly dynamic, with a lively mix of travelers that includes an international crowd. So opening here is a way to represent our restaurants in a part of the country I’m familiar with, but in a way that feels new and requires us to rethink contemporary food. It’s been inspirational for all of us.