With a warm smile and a firm handshake, Chef Jeffery Russell leads the culinary team at one of Napa’s newest eateries, Charlie Palmer Steak Napa.
“For over a year I’ve called Napa Valley home” the Auburn, N.Y. native said. “This valley has all we need: a good amount of sunshine, a generous edible bounty, seasonality is long and vast. We are here to stay.”
When he says “we,” he refers to his wife, whom he has known since second grade and his baby, who was born only a few months ago here in Napa Valley. Their previous home was in Washington, D.C. where Russell spent a number of years split into two tours both working under chef Charlie Palmer’s guidance.
When asked what was his first encounter with the culinary arts, Russell glows and remembers being 6 or 7 years old and fishing with his father. Back then they had luck with trout, pike bass, but the most memorable is smelting. He describes the process as exciting; catching, cleaning, flouring and cooking. He also remembers Bullhead fish.
In detail, he explains after the rains is the ideal time. When the water is murky the fish feed and it makes it easier to be successful. He also remembers the gardens 400 feet outside his house to be exact. He lights up thinking about tomato harvest, sitting with his mom in the mill processing for the winter. It is no surprise he fell in love with cooking from an early age.
His first encounter with a commercial kitchen came at the age of 15 on a New Year’s Eve night. His brother and friends who worked at the local country club opted to enjoy the evening out and persuaded young Jeff and his best friend to cover the dish station for the night.
“Needless to say, a complete disaster” he says. Bartenders, servers and everyone had to help since it was a 300-cover night. Surprisingly, he adds, they called him to help the following spring, and he agreed. He began in the dish station and worked hi way up the ladder.
Shortly after, he realized his love for the craft, he enrolled in a vocational class where he found the right mentorship when he most needed it. He describes this stage of his life as a “punk” period where he used to dye his hair blue, and even pierced his own ears.
This did not deter his teacher, Jim Baker, from seeing the light in him. Russell moved to Rochester, N.Y. for four years working at The Rochester Country Club. And then, at age 22, he was off to Martha’s Vineyard where he quickly moved to an executive chef position at the West Chop Club.
“It was the right time at the right moment,” he said, modestly. “There were two chefs in charge and shortly after they put their notice and by default I was promoted.”
In 2004, he decided to jump into higher education, and after a community college stint to meet the requirements, he enrolled at the CIA where he applied himself full throttle. His culinary externship took him to the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs where, under Chef Sigfried Eisenberg’s stern leadership, he worked impressive sized banquets for up to 3,000 people on a regular basis.
His first choice was the fine dining restaurant, and although he ended up at the banquet side he staged on his days off at the smaller space. This added a new set of skills to his resume. After the Broadmoor, he returned to Martha’s Vineyard, a somewhat comfortable place on earth that allowed him to hone his craft and save some money.
Russell’s next move was critical on his career. Thanks to his instructor at the CIA, he became connected to the Charlie Palmer Group. He was called for a stage at Aureole, Palmer’s upscale restaurant in New York City, but it wasn’t going to be that easy.
“Now back in those days there were no smart phones,” he said, so he would go to the library on a weekly basis to check his email. A day before his trek to New York City, he found an email from the Charlie Palmer Group canceling of his stage until further notice, due to damaged pipes in the restaurant that eventually caused a temporary closure.
Too late to cancel travel arrangements, he headed to New York. He decided to take in the city on foot and walk by Aureole. There, he saw chef Palmer in jeans and a T-shirt, moving pipes and working as hard as the construction crew. This reinforced his drive to work for the Group.
Two weeks after his original stage date, he was called to try out, and he capitalized on the opportunity to prove his worth. The duties as a new member of the kitchen required that he not only complete his tasks, but also help everyone else around him, “a common practice for New York City kitchens those days,” he said.
One thing he recalls about Aureole is how hard everyone worked in the kitchen — proud and always thriving to put the most beautiful food possible. In 2008, he agreed to take a position at Charlie Palmer Steak D.C. as a sous chef. He was there for three and a half years, and, he said, this position really helped him learn to delegate and lead a team.
Palmer offered him a position as executive chef at a new concept named District Meats and Wazzee Wood Fire Pizza in Denver, Colo., which Russell accepted; he was up for the challenge. Unfortunately, factors like construction nearby led to an early closure of the restaurant.
“It was a blessing in disguise” Russell said. He returned to Washington, D.C. where the executive chef had just put in his resignation, so he stepped right in. He spent the next four years in the leading position until the opportunity to open Charlie Palmer Steak in Napa came knocking on the door.
Russell, his wife and baby have found a long-term home in the Napa Valley. Over the last 13 months, they have become acquainted to the pace of life, the friendly nature of the locals and the diverse eateries. Russell and his wife have some repeat spots throughout the Valley, Basalt being one of his favorites along with Celadon, and late night he and his wife enjoy Morimoto Napa. He has taken on running as a hobby and he likes to frequent the gym when time allows.
The team at Charlie Palmer Steak Napa is formed of many successful veterans of the industry. Alongside Russell, there is food and beverage director Peter Triolo, an ever-positive face on the front of the house who held the same position at the CIA Napa Valley since 2013. There is also Pastry Chef Jason Collins who comes from the great school of Chef Ken Frank at La Toque.
There are a number of dishes that Russell is fond of and it is easy to tell because when he talks about them it is like he’s describing his kid making the honor roll: The Pig Ear Pad Thai, the Short Rib Pastrami and the Wagyu Carpaccio certainly belong in that group. Other dishes he is excited to share are the Doughnut Wheel and the Pastrami Hash, which are featured on the brunch menu.