When I think of cigars, one of the first things that comes to mind is relaxation. In a life like mine—where you’re running from one meeting or one restaurant to the next, and you’re always on a deadline or adhering to a schedule—when you finally are able to sit down with a good cigar and a drink, you can relax and say, “OK, the day’s over.”
I was introduced to fine cigars when I was in my early 20s by my chef/mentor/friend Leon Dahenens, who taught at the Culinary Institute of America at the time. It was a trip with him to Belgium, to visit some of the restaurants where he had worked and apprenticed, that exposed me to a level of cigar smoking I hadn’t realized existed. For the first time, I experienced expert cigar service in a fine restaurant, where a staff member came to the table after dinner carrying a huge humidor, presented me with a cigar, clipped it, and then lit it with a cedar spill. The ritual was as enjoyable as the cigar itself.
I used to smoke a lot of Cuban Punch and Davidoffs, and later, Davidoff’s Zino brand. I especially like Davidoffs because the brand reflects quality and consistency, the same values I strive for in my restaurants. I used to smoke a lot of them, about three cigars a day. But as life goes on, your tastes change. I once was a big Bordeaux fan, but as I grow older, I find I’m drinking more Pinot Noir. In this same way, I’m now drawn to lighter cigars. On average, I smoke from four to 10 cigars a month. I keep a small humidor in my office, but I usually select my cigars from my restaurant humidors. I also receive a lot of cigars from manufacturers and customers, and that also influences what I smoke.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many chefs smoke cigars; it is related to this tradition, as practiced to perfection in that Belgian restaurant, of finishing a long dinner with a Cognac and a cigar; Dahenens probably never had a great dinner that he didn’t finish with a cigar. I’ve attended cigar dinners where guests would smoke cigars between courses, which confuses the palate, especially if they smoke Havanas or other heavy cigars. This also poses quite a challenge to the chef, who has to prepare a dish that will pair with the taste of tobacco. A cigar should be reserved for after dinner, when it can be appreciated best. On one recent occasion, however, I was asked to create a cigar breakfast. A breakfast? I ended up preparing smoked duck sausage, sheared eggs, and a hollandaise-like sauce laced with chipotle, so you had a little bit of smokiness throughout the entire meal, which was followed by a light cigar.
Regardless of when you smoke them, cigars can help you form a camaraderie with fellow smokers. Cigars are great equalizers. I find it easier to converse with my chefs when we’re smoking cigars together, rather than if I were to conduct a formal business meeting with them. A cigar loosens up everything. When you sit down with someone with a glass of wine and a cigar, you really get to the heart of things.
In New York, however, where we have these terrible antismoking laws, finding a place to have such a conversation can be difficult. At my restaurant Métrazur in Grand Central Terminal, we have a little private room in the back, where we have what I call our Contraband Suppers, during which my chefs, their friends, and I can kick back and enjoy some different wines and light snacks and then savor a good cigar. I have to put a guard at the door who tells anyone who approaches that we’re having a private party, and that unless they’re invited, they can’t enter. It’s either that, or we would have to stand in the street to smoke our cigars.
Because I am accustomed to having a cigar after dinner, and because I appreciate how smoking cigars can help form a bond between people, I implemented the cigar lounge at Charlie Palmer Steak at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas. I promote it all the time, because there are fewer and fewer places that will let you smoke a cigar at the table; the steak house is kind of a safe haven. You can sit on one of the lounge’s couches or at the bar and enjoy a cigar, or you can have dinner in the front of the restaurant, which is an entire smoking area, and enjoy a cigar afterward, right at your table.
Likewise, at Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington, D.C., we promote cigar smoking, and we sell cigars in the bar area. In fact, we have a lot of politicians as customers because we are known as much for having a great venue for cigars as we are for our food. My business is centered on making people happy, and great food, great wines, and great cigars are a big part of that.
Charlie Palmer is the owner/chef of 11 restaurants that include Aureole in New York and Las Vegas and Charlie Palmer Steak in Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. He is the author of three cookbooks: Great American Food, Charlie Palmer’s Casual Cooking, and The Art of Aureole.