Chef Spotlight: Francesco Palmieri

Orange Squirrel Nuts
Photo Credit Cathy Miller
Photo by Cathy Miller

The accomplished and visionary chef Francesco Palmieri spent eight years working at top New York City restaurants prior to opening his own restaurant, The Orange Squirrel, in November 2008, in his hometown of Bloomfield. He quickly received accolades from the New York Times with a “Don’t Miss” review and The Orange Squirrel was called “most exciting new restaurant in 2009 in New Jersey.” In 2012, The Orange Squirrel was given the distinction as a “Top 25 Restaurant” by New Jersey Monthly and named Critics’ Pick “Best American” in 2013. In September 2013, Chef Palmieri competed and won on Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen. And in February 2014, Inside Jersey magazine named him one of the state’s Top 5 Chefs. He has appeared on TODAY with Katie Lee & Hoda on NBC and Two in the Kitchen on CBS. And now he can add the following to his resume: Jersey Bites Chef Spotlight. (Lucky us!)

JERSEY BITES: What is your earliest food memory?
CHEF PALMIERI: Making pancakes with our German neighbor. She was super. I would tell my mom I was going there to learn how to cook German food. Boy, was I an eight-year-old li’l s—!

When did you realize you wanted to make cooking a career? Was there an “a-ha” moment?
I was always going out to eat, traveling and whatnot, and I was doing the art thing [when] I decided to enroll in a culinary school. I visited the two best schools in the area: Johnson and Wales and Culinary Institute of America (CIA). I decided to enroll at CIA, but they had a wait list, so I needed to do something in the meantime. Since I love art and drawing and restaurants, I thought, I’ll do restaurant design. I enrolled at FIT, Fashion Institute of Technology and was loving it. Until one day I got a call from CIA and they had an opening. So I left FIT and the rest is history.

Dirt Trio Neapolitan
Three Dirt Tasting

Any interesting stories about where and with whom you started cooking professionally?
What most people probably do not know is I was cooking at Windows on the World until September 11, 2001—I was on my way in as the towers fell and sadly lost quite a few of my coworkers. I needed to keep working, so a few days after, I went on a hunch to see my first instructor from CIA. I had read in the New York Times he was the chef at Coco Pazzo, an Upper East Side restaurant. When I arrived, I learned he was no longer there, but the woman who was the overseeing chef interviewed me and hired me on the spot to be the sous chef. I began to get settled in and have a look around the dining room. It was barely lunchtime and the city at that point was extremely eerily quiet, post September 11. As I glanced into the dining room to get a feel for the space, I saw this longish-haired and bearded, salt-and-pepper man look at me. I looked at him and I went back to the kitchen. I thought it was the owner, whom I had not met yet, and the chef who hired me says, ”Have you met Mr. De Niro?” I had seen most of his movies and was definitely a fan, but silly me still didn’t recognize him, so I played it off and simply said yes. From then on he was at Coco Pazzo every Sunday for the two years I was there and I enjoyed cooking for him and his family. That restaurant was always full of celebrities, notable business people and lots of other amazing people. It helped at the time to take my mind off the horrible, tragic situation we had all been put through on September 11.

Orange Squirrel Nuts
Orange Squirrel Nuts

What is your cooking style?
Clean, straightforward simple, but not simplistic.

What is the greatest opportunity that has come from cooking?
My mother being mentioned in the newspaper and magazines as my cooking influence, I felt that was pretty cool — she’s like famous now. I have been on national TV a few times now and seem to be easing into it, although, my goal is to get mom on.  Then I’ll need an appointment to see her. Wish my dad was alive to be here for all this, he would have loved it.

What is the most memorable meal you’ve had? What did you eat and where was it?
That’s a tossup really, Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Daniel.

It’s your last day on earth. What will your final meal be?
This is easy. On my mom’s family farm in the mountains of southern Calabria, with all my aunts and uncles cousins and their children. The view is breathtaking, like none other. As for the food nothing is bought. NOTHING! From corner to corner on the table, all the produce and protein is created on-site as well as our oil, bread, cheese, wine—it’s truly spectacular.

What is the best advice you have to share with young folks interested in becoming chefs?
My advice is that if they are asking for advice, they probably don’t want to do this and they should look for a different job.

Orange Squirrel
The Orange Squirrel

If you could choose to be any food item, what would it be?
Kobe, hang out in Japan, do nothing all day, drink beer, get massaged and have people marvel on how sweet you taste. Ahh.

What is the one “staple” food you always have in your cupboard at home?
Mayonnaise or something pickled.

What is your beverage of choice?
Beer, wine, and the holy spirits!

What is your favorite comfort food?
Sandwiches are my thing, damn I love that invention! Add mythree favorite foods potatoes, eggs and cheese, that’s Heaven. Oh, and I have to mention hot dogs!

What New Jersey restaurant do you enjoy dining at, besides your own?
Well it’s no secret I can usually be seen at Blu on my only day off, Sunday. Chef/Owner Zod and I met when I opened The Orange Squirrel around six years ago and hit it off. I respect him and his love for food is exceptional. Although I do also try to hit all the other great restaurants that NJ has to offer, and there are many.

Vegan BLT Soup
Vegan BLT Soup

If you could have dinner with any three people, living, deceased or fictional, who would they be and why?
Salvador Dali is usually always on top of my list he was way to intriguing and well-traveled the conversation must be killer. [The second one] is a tough one. I teeter between dead and alive and this one is artist driven, live: I’d like to eat and chat with Lady Gaga. This person defiantly puts the amazing factor in all the she does as well as knows the food lifestyle. Dead: would have to be Marilyn Monroe same as Gaga although It makes me sad when I think of her. [Number three] relates to my favorite “foodies,” first Chef Fernand Point born Feb 27, 1897. For me, it starts here. You can visit him in my kitchen where his larger-than-life portrait hangs. And of course Vincent Price, and yes both dead.

Are you working on any upcoming projects our readers would be interested in learning about?
I have been very fortunate to be surrounded with lots of creative and extremely artistic people. This keeps me quite busy with all sorts of interesting food- as well as non-food related projects. By the end of the month, a new television chef-driven food challenge should be wrapped-up and air later this year. Also our Vincent Price dinner in October should be quite interesting this year since I recently became quite friendly with his daughter, Victoria Price, and she is interested in being involved. We will keep you posted.

The Orange Squirrel
412 Bloomfield Ave.


Veronique DebloisFood & Wine Chickie: Veronique is a food and wine writer based in Morris County. As the author of the popular blog, Food & Wine Chickie Insider, Veronique shares recipes, wine and restaurant reviews and insight into the travel industry of which she’s a 15-year veteran. Follow Veronique on Twitter or like her Facebook page.