Q&A: Charlie Palmer Steak executive chef Thomas Griese
Thomas Griese, the new executive chef of Charlie Palmer Steak at Four Seasons, was busy during his formative 20s, working in Miami, San Francisco and Las Vegas for chefs such as Thomas Keller, Michael Mina and Andre Rochat. The Indiana native and Johnson & Wales grad is fitting right in, keeping up Palmer’s high standard for beef and showing off interesting new items such as kim-chi fried rice and charred Indian sweet corn. He spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Nina King.
Can you tell me a little about your childhood and your first inspirations with food?
I grew up in Indiana. My grandparents were farmers in Logansport, Ind., so they grew corn and soybeans, and we had basically a large farm; growing up we used to have pigs we raised as well. That was my grandparents’ house, and I lived more in the city side of things. Coming from West Lafayette, Ind., it was a big 10 kind of college area. So I grew up, I think, born into that being men and women of the soil with farming as our roots. Remembering just where I came from, that was the first inclination of food. … I come from a German heritage, where there’s always a bottle of red wine on the table. Family time, and our time together, was always dinnertime. … That was one of my earliest memories growing up; that was our special time to spend. And after that, like I said, my dad had taken some French cooking lessons, we started to cook together, it was kind of a weekend thing, like Sundays were my father’s and my time together…that’s where I kind of got to know him better as a son. And my brother—My dad always says it this way: Blake is very analytical, very studious; my sister was a social girl and I was the one who would say, “Hey dad, there’s some lamb out there, I want to fix this and that”—at a young age, a very young age. …
When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
When did I decide I wanted to be a chef? I think it was probably in high school. Growing up, my dad (introduced) us to new things like charcuterie and prosciutto and salami. When you’re a kid, that’s weird, but it was awesome for me. ... That was where it kind of started, working in a restaurant environment, eating good food, having a teacher that was like, “You’re good at this.” And I always watched Food Network and stuff; I wasn’t watching MTV, I was watching Alton Brown and learning about the chemistry behind it.
Which is interesting.
Now it evolves into beyond cooking for your family, now you’re looking at what professionals are doing. I remember the day that I picked up the French Laundry cookbook, I was like—this is it. It was something of complete elegance and so much finesse. I told myself, I told my dad, “One day, I’m going to work there, one day I’m going to work for Thomas Keller.” One day, that day came and I got to work there when I worked with Thomas Keller, and I got the opportunity to work at Bouchon here…
You went to Johnson & Wales.
Yeah, Johnson & Wales. I get there and it was like all I have to do is go to class and cook. That’s amazing. That’s what I enjoy. And I was a straight-A student. My parents called me and said “Hey, we got a letter from the dean that said you made the dean’s list. Are you OK?” ’Cause I never was a straight-A student, but it was something I was good at. Like anything in life, I’m a firm believer that what you put into it is what you get out of it. No matter what you do—people who want to be doctors, people who want to be farmers, same thing, it’s all what you put into it. I put a lot of effort into it at that time. I spent a lot of money going to culinary school, so my parents were like, “You need to take this seriously.” And so I made the dean’s list all three trimesters the first year. Grades were good, I had fun with it—the campus was basically brand new. I was the second graduating class of the campus. That being said, there were a lot of CMCs (certified master chefs) that were there as teachers, so I met some really great people.
How did you get into your first big restaurant?
Where it really got started was working here in Vegas at Bouchon. I told myself, one day I’m going to work for Thomas Keller, so I came out here on a whim, I bought a one-way flight ticket, my sister was out here. I put out resumes everywhere and nothing, nothing, nothing. I actually went to California because I didn’t hear back (and worked for a bit). I came back to Vegas and was ready to throw in the towel and go home because I didn’t hear back and I got a call. It was Bouchon. Chef said, “I want you to come in for an interview, and you are going to work,” and I came in and it was like, “Boom, this is it, this is everything.” The feel of the restaurant, the way that people work together there, there’s a difference. Thomas Keller’s restaurants were institutions; the way that you work, with camaraderie, with the others. Of course, it’s a very clean kitchen, it’s one of the cleanest kitchens I’ve ever worked in. … It’s a brigade system, so you follow the leader; you come in and you hustle, you work. You put your head down and you focus, and make good food. The core values of where I really started were developed there.
Were you most interested in French food? You have a few French restaurants on your resume.
Yeah, I’m a sucker for black truffles and foie gras. I think that—it’s hard not to say that LaRousse Gastronomique is one of the greatest cookbooks, it’s really one of the greatest recipe books in that it’s all based on culinary technique... You can have Asian ingredients and do French cuisine with it. You can make a miso black cod with French technique. It was more so developing the techniques and understanding plating and those other things. French technique requires more energy. It’s not just a roasted piece of fish—it’s perfectly wrapped in a crépinette with layers of potato, so it’s crispy and the skin comes out crispy and delicate. You have a little bit more effort and a little bit more focus that goes into it. That’s what interested me. ’Cause it was harder to do that. French cuisine is harder to embrace versus classic Americana. It’s not throwing stuff on the grill and sautéing something up something really quick. It’s building pan sauces, making reductions, making jus, sauces. … That’s what interested me—the French technique.
You worked in Florida and San Francisco, before Charlie Palmer.
The Setai was a … five-star, five-diamond hotel. And so I went out there because I wanted to see something different… Then Michael Mina was opening up something in the Fontainebleau and I jumped at it. … After a while, Michael had asked me, “You know we have a flagship restaurant in San Francisco. We’d like you to go. I’d like you to come closer to me.” That’s where Michael is at, that’s where many of his restaurants are. It’s the mecca; it’s a great food city. So I was like, “Yeah. I want to do the city.” I moved to San Francisco, and then it was on to working with the Mina group, closely, and then the Test Kitchen came about. What it was was an all tasting menu. … Every three months, we would flip the concept and do a new menu. The core of the restaurant stays the same, but its all the food. It’s crazy to think … I’d never done Indian food before but somehow I was researching and teaching myself Indian food, and bringing some Californication to it. …Ayesha Curry—I got to cook with her; it was an international smoke menu, it was about bringing barbecue from around the world. And barbecue is not just mop and sauce. It can be Japanese bincho-tan charcoal or Thai flavors. If you look back over the beginning of time, we’ve always had some kind of smoke; we’ve always had to cook over an open flame. There’s something inside us that roots us to it. …I realized that restaurants are more than just a place to eat. They restore one’s needs, but they are experiences and bring back memories. … At this point, now, I understand food on a different level. You think you know it’s cuisine, but as you evolve and as you get older and work in different restaurants and environments, it’s just like building, you keep building your inventory of knowledge and you have to continue to stay open to that.
How did you come to Charlie Palmer?
Michael and Charlie are good friends. I loved San Francisco, but I wanted to get back to Vegas; I have some family out here. So the opportunity came up and Charlie, I’ve always though of as an amazing chef as well. I remember picking up the Art of Aureole. … now I’m the chef in one of his restaurants. It’s crazy. It was a no-brainer for me; Charlie had grandfathered in so much great American cuisine. With him, he’s just like Michael—he gives you the freedom to express. When we talked about the menu, we talked about keeping the shellfish programming, how we can improve it, how we can make some new presentations. He fuels off my energy and we trade back and forth. It’s things like soup. We’re going to make this variation of lobster bisque that’s truffle crème fraiche and some puff pastry. He helps keep me rooted to the classics. The beef programming has to be exceptional here. There’s a lot of high energy behind it. Sides are creative and fun and different—kim chi fried rice, charred African street corn.
I love it here. The team has been real receptive some of the changes to the menu are fun and exciting and I think there’s a lot of energy, a lot of great energy. The staff is real receptive. You need the staff behind you, the cooks, you need the support of your sous chef.
What is your favorite food?
Depends on the day.
Scallops. I have this kick for scallops right now. Growing up it was strawberries, anytime I could get my mouth around a strawberry, that was it, it was go, go ,go. I wouldn’t stop eating them. Now it’s scallops. I also love Asian food, I live sushi, I love sashimi. I think it depends. As a culinarian, you can’t just say, “That’s my favorite food.” I think there’s so much great food out there you can’t say just one thing, but right now I’m digging on scallops. Nice massive juices, custardy in the center, Nantucket, Bay Areaa, seared perfectly. Scallops, and cauliflower with white chocolate. We do a cauliflower purée and finish it off with just a little bit of white chocolate.