Bryan Miller - January/February 2014
…As well he should in the hearts and minds of everyone wielding knife and tweezers. Yet some 12 years after his passing, this obsessed, hard-charging, large-living chef, so seminal and influential, barely registers in today’s now-and-new culinary universe. His last name was Palladin, by the way. Bryan Miller restores the institutional memory of a great one.
Tall and lanky, with a thick mustache, playful myopic eyes barely corrected by oversized glasses, and shaggy brown hair cascading to his shoulders, he resembled a post-Woodstock academic or a roadie. Even in a crowded room, he commanded your attention as someone you’d like to meet. And your effort would be rewarded.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the late Jean-Louis Palladin, one of most influential chefs at the dawn of the so-called American food revolution, and a mentor to countless of today’s culinary celebrities. As far back as 1979, he was among the first proponents—along with Alice Waters, Larry Forgione, and several others—of what is now nearly a gastronomic cliché—farm-to-table cooking.
“When Jean-Louis first came here, he said to American chefs, ‘Hey guys, where are the farmers?’” recalls Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Per Se. Keller was in awe of the imposing, yet congenial, chef, so much so that he put aside money during the year for an annual pilgrimage to Palladin’s restaurant in Washington, D.C. “I could only afford dinner for one, so I sat alone in the dining room. But it was an amazing experience.”
Many of Palladin’s innovations—technical, conceptual, and visual—remain stitched into the fabric of today’s freewheeling haute cuisine. And he led the charge of the French invasion of the 1980s and 1990s that saw the arrival of luminaries like Alain Senderens, Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé, Michel Richard, and many others. Along the way, he mentored and inspired a long line of talent like Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Charlie Trotter, Eric Ripert, and Daniel Boulud. So why is Jean-Louis Palladin all but forgotten, especially by today’s generation of chefs?
“I walked into my kitchen the other day and asked the crew, ‘Do you know who Jean-Louis Palladin is?’” says Richard, who just added Pomme Palais pastry shop and cafe, and restaurant Villard Michel Richard in The New York Palace hotel, to a portfolio centered by the bistro Central Michel Richard in Washington, D.C., where he’s been a longtime player on the culinary scene. “They looked at me and said, ‘huh?’”
Of course, Palladin continues to be revered by his contemporaries, and remembered warmly for his friendship and generosity. He was also a most entertaining fellow to travel with, as chefs often do for charity events. On the road, he was a practiced prankster and inveterate merrymaker. “If everybody was out at a bar, he was always the one ordering more Champagne and staying up until the end,” recalls Laurent Manrique, a fellow Gascon and owner of restaurants in San Francisco and New York City.
Palladin made his mark in his adopted country with an eponymous restaurant in the Watergate Hotel that enjoyed a lustrous 17 year run. Washington—and the country for that matter—had never seen anything like it.
Palladin came of age in the liberating era of nouvelle cuisine. Unconstrained by the weighty barnacles of classic French cooking, he blazed his own path with flourless emulsified sauces—but plenty of butter—al dente local vegetables, daring combinations (foie gras pasta caused quite a stir), and stunning kaleidoscopic presentations. Before long, he became a luminary among the capital’s movers and shakers. Ronald Reagan celebrated a birthday there.
In his free time, he loved to drive around rural Virginia and Maryland, meeting farmers and fishermen. His talent for hunting is said to have been in inverse proportion to his cooking skills. “He loved to hunt,” says Manrique, “but he was lousy at it because he couldn’t see, even with those big glasses.”
There’s a story about the time he was so frustrated over his inability to bag a pheasant that he began shooting randomly at trees. These trees were in a woman’s backyard. The local constabulary put an end to it, never realizing they were crossing paths with culinary royalty. Mark Avondoglio, an owner of Perona Farms in Andover, New Jersey, which held an annual game dinner in the restaurant’s kitchen that Palladin participated in, has endless anecdotes about the chef’s almost comical passion for ingredients. “One day he calls and says he wants a live turtle,” Avondoglio recounts. “So we got him a live turtle and popped it in a UPS box. He saw nothing wrong with that—but UPS really did. He never got his turtle.”
Palladin was among the first chefs in America to introduce a wide variety of wild game—venison, elk, hare, wood pigeon—as well as exotica like fresh snails, sea urchins, lamprey, and skate. Having grown up without a refrigerator, he found the prevalence of “fresh frozen” vegetables in American restaurants appalling. Diners in his dining room encountered dishes like sautéed baby eels from Maine with red and yellow bell peppers; sea urchin flan; sautéed abalones with enoki mushrooms; and moulard duck hearts stuffed with foie gras. He loved soups, and liked to serve them with a primary ingredient—crawfish, lobster, foie gras—in the bowl, then ladle the liquid around them (sound familiar?).
Unlike most chefs at the time who presented fixed-price menus with several daily specials, Palladin insisted on cooking virtually all dishes à la minute. Every afternoon he hand-wrote the evening’s menu, leaving cooks mere hours to pull it off. This, he maintained, kept his staff taut and focused.
“Believe me, it’s not easy when you have 45 customers ordering all kinds of dishes,” recalls Ripert of Le Bernardin in Manhattan, who landed his first job in America in Palladin’s kitchen. “But it helped me develop a creative mind.”
In 1989, Palladin, in collaboration with the late photographer Fred Maroon, penned an elaborate cookbook that is cherished among chefs (at least those over 50 years of age). For the most part, the recipes in Jean-Louis: Cooking with the Seasons are within the scope of a home cook—that is, if your immediate family includes a forager, a vegetable sculptor, a small game hunter, a graphic designer, and a scuba diver (for scallops).
Palladin was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America in 1987 and was the recipient of the first-ever James Beard Award for Best Chef (Mid-Atlantic) in 1991. Two years later, he received the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. One might think that such accolades and universal veneration would have led to a lasting legacy. But by most measures they have not. He never hosted a jovial cooking show, although his raspy, three-pack-a-day voice and thick accent might have left viewers confounded. Perhaps his finest hour, publicity wise, was a Vitamix ad appearing in Food Arts in which he appeared nude, with the machine concealing his salient parts.
Palladin was born in 1946 in the small town of Condom in southwest France. By age 13, he had abandoned his studies to attend cooking school in Toulouse. This was followed by apprenticeships at the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo and the famed Plaza Athénée in Paris. Returning to Condom, he found work in an Italian restaurant. The proprietor, one René Sandrini, was so impressed with his young chef that he decided to create an institution worthy of his talents. He restored a magnificent Gothic monastery to house La Table des Cordeliers (Cordeliers was a volatile district of Paris during the French revolution). His cooking could best be described as refined Gascon—naturally, carrying a profligate quantity of foie gras and truffles.
After six years, at the age of 28, he garnered two Michelin stars, the youngest chef in France to have done so. This was great fodder for the food press, and almost overnight he became a French superstar. His newfound status found entrepreneurs knocking at his door, although he remained at Cordeliers. Four years later, one of his admirers, an American who owned the Watergate Hotel and apartment complex in Washington, D.C., offered to build him a restaurant to his specifications. Palladin took him up on it and, in 1979, launched Jean-Louis at the Watergate. Housed in the basement near a parking garage, the windowless dining room seated 40. It was enlivened by rows of colorful little flags and one of the country’s first glass-enclosed dining room wine cellars.
In 1982, unhappy with the quality of commercial seafood, Palladin traveled to Camden, Maine, where he was introduced to a 27 year old marine biology student and owner of a wine and cheese shop. Conversation with Rod Mitchell turned to seafood. Palladin noted that the coastal waters of Maine were similar to those in the Bordeaux region, and that they had to hold a bounty of underutilized species, like baby eels, lamprey, crabs, and more. “He was persistent, and at the beginning was a real pain in the ass,” Mitchell recalls, from the headquarters of Browne Trading Company in Portland, his wholesale seafood business. Palladin was particularly keen on sourcing pristine sea scallops. Such was Palladin’s persuasive powers that Mitchell soon found himself strapping on scuba gear and plunging into the 39 degree waters of Penobscott Bay. He returned with several pounds of fist-size scallops and handed them over to the eager chef.
“Jean-Louis sliced off a piece of meat and placed it in the palm of his hand, and it moved,” Mitchell remembers. Within weeks, Palladin was featuring “diver scallops” on his menu. A niche industry was born.
The Watergate Hotel complex was sold in 1996. The new owners saw scant value in a restaurant that contributed relatively little income, and terminated the lease. Unmoored, Palladin needed to find something fast.
“Jean-Louis was always broke,” explains Ariane Daguin, a fellow Gascon and owner of the foie gras/game/meat company D’Artagnan in Newark, New Jersey. “He was a great chef and a great host, but what he was not was a good businessman.” When an offer came in to headline a splendiferous restaurant in the Las Vegas Rio Hotel and Casino, he grabbed it. “It was unbelievably beautiful,” Daguin says, “But it turned out everybody just wanted steaks.”
Demoralized by the experience, Palladin looked around for another opportunity. He found backers for a brasserie in The Time hotel, near Times Square in New York City. Friends say that, while the food at times excelled—he was on premises only part-time—his heart was not in it. It lasted but a year.
About this time, his health began to fail. When it was evident lung cancer was consuming him, he moved to suburban Virginia to stay with his ex-wife, Régine, with whom he had two children. In his final days, a steady stream of chefs and friends stopped by to say farewell. Some brought food, although he was too weak to taste it—or opine as to how to improve it. He passed away on November 25, 2001.
Two months later, a memorial service, attended by dozens of chefs from as far away as California, was held at Bistro Français in Washington, D.C. Naturally, it was rich with food metaphors and funny anecdotes about Palladin’s brilliant and eccentric life. Fund-raisers were held to help pay his medical bills. An educational foundation was created to foster awareness of Gascon gastronomy and Palladin’s legacy.
All of this would be news to most young chefs today. But for those who knew him, and those who learned from him, he will always be present in their fond and shining memories.