The Man Who Started a Movement
Jacqueline Sainsbury - February 20th, 2014
“Seasonality” and “farm to table” are among the most hackneyed and overplayed terms in today's culinary parlance, but when young Gascon chef Jean-Louis Palladin arrived on the shores of the Potomac in 1979, he found his peers touting the established imports from Europe and often relying upon vast quantities of frozen goods. Palladin however, chose to look in another direction, and his new back yard—from sea to shining sea—became his playground.
He “tossed a Molotov cocktail into the walk-ins of America's professional kitchens,” Jim Poris wrote when Food Arts awarded Palladin a Silver Spoon in 1996, “virtually rearranging them with the likes of foie gras, sea urchins, diver sea scallops, wood pigeon, skate, exotic wild mushrooms, baby eels, duck testicles, and duck gizzards.”
Watch Jean-Louis Palladin: The Man Who Started a Movement to learn how Michel Richard, Ariane Daguin, Eric Ripert, and Drew Nieporent estimate his impact on the American culinary scene and hear the lessons from Palladin they carry with them today.
COOKING WITH THE SEASONS
“Cooking is a celebration of life,” Palladin wrote in his 1989 book, Jean-Louis: Cooking with the Seasons. “Being creative, trying out new combinations of food, and always striving for something better are part of the festivities...ultimately I want you to be the boss, to make my recipes your recipes by using them as a guide to uncharted territory. That would make me very happy.” Below are excerpts from Palladin's book, in which he expounds upon his culinary philosophy that ultimately prodded American chefs awake to the value of their local bounty.
The rhythm of the seasons is wonderful. It has inspired painters and musicians for centuries, and it does the same for me. Autumn is the time when nature slows down a little, resting after the heat of summer. The trees quietly begin to lose their leaves and the gorgeous colors make me want to walk in the forest to discover again the perfumes of autumn.
I have been cooking with the seasons all my life because people didn’t have refrigerators in Condom when I was growing up. The cuisine in the Gascony area of southwest France developed from the fresh produce that was available locally at different times of the year. In the States, of course, there are many climates, and air freight is now so efficient that I can cook something at my restaurant in Washington that was picked in another part of the country that morning. Still, I prefer to focus on produce that is specific to the season because it’s much more interesting, and I think that is the most important thing—to be happy with what you are doing. I use the same elements for three months, and then I like to forget them and move on to something else.
Autumn is the season of mushrooms, when the weather is humid and a little cold. If you live in a small French village, mushrooms are a big part of your life. When I was young, I used to wake up at five in the morning and go with friends into the forest where I knew mushrooms were growing. By eleven, I would have gathered four or five pounds of mushrooms, and I would be really happy because I knew I would have a good lunch that day. Ten years ago, if you were talking about mushrooms in America, you only meant button mushrooms; people didn’t want to taste any other type because they were afraid of getting sick. Now I have a supplier in Oregon who sends me morels, chanterelles, and other varieties—many more kinds than I ever saw in France. If someone brings me a mushroom I’m not familiar with, I make him eat one and tell him to call me in a few hours. Then I decide whether to put it on my menu.
Perhaps the best gift of the season is foie gras. Although we can have it year-round, I associate it with autumn because that is the time farmers began force-feeding the ducks and geese when I was a boy. You need about three weeks to fatten them, and before air-conditioning it was too hot in the summer for this. The birds would suffer and get short of breath, and the foie gras would not be as good.
Foie gras is an integral part of my cooking. Along with truffles and caviar, it is one of the three important ingredients which are difficult to find in this country. However, I’m sure the day will come when Americans raise geese for foie gras. We already have duck foie gras, but geese are more fragile and expensive to care for. Also, farmers have not been allowed to import the right kind of goose, the type we find around Toulouse.
Duck foie gras is very good, and I even prefer it to goose when it is served hot. But cold goose foie gras is a true delicacy. To make foie gras, the farmer fattens the geese with corn. Most foie gras you find comes from geese fed with white corn, but I really prefer the taste and color produced by feeding with yellow corn. It’s a small difference, but when you are born in my area, you know ducks and geese like your own parents.
On each of my autumn and winter menus, you will find a hot soup or a consommé; in warm weather, I prepare cold soups. Even if people only want to eat three or four dishes, I always give them soup. I love soup because my mother taught me to love it. My father, an Italian, was a very hard worker, and if he didn’t have a pot of soup every day, he was the most unhappy guy in the world. My mother made many different kinds, and for Christmas we often had pumpkin soup. I served soup a lot in my restaurant in France, but when I first came to America in 1979, there were very few interesting soups on the menus. The choice seemed limited to onion soup or vichyssoise. I think I helped introduce Washingtonians to a lot of new varieties because they’re on my menu all the time. I have soup running through my veins.
Some people might think that winter is not an interesting season for a chef. Nature seems to be asleep, waiting for spring. But people aren’t asleep at all; in cold weather they want to eat heartily. When I was a child, the people in Gascony had to do a lot of hard physical work in winter, and they needed to have something substantial to eat. For most families, it was the time to eat the animals they had butchered and preserved in the fall, along with the pâtés, sausages, stews, and confits the women had made.
Since we had no refrigeration, all of our meat for the winter had to be preserved. After the harvest was finished and the ducks, geese, and pigs had been killed, we would put them in salt overnight with some seasoning—thyme, pepper, tarragon—depending on the taste we wanted. The next day we would cook the meat in duck or goose fat and then store it, covered with the same fat, in clay pots on shelves in the basement. We could keep meat for one or even two years like that because the fat hermetically sealed it.
One pig provided our family with enough meat for a year. From the head, we made headcheese and from the blood, blood sausage. The breast was salted to make pancetta; we preserved the loin and made ham from the thigh. We made sausage from the shoulder and cooked the feet for use in soups or salads. We made tripe stew, and the liver and heart went into pâtés. Even the ears went into a soup called garbure. Nothing was wasted.
Perhaps the most common classical winter dish in France is the pot-au-feu. It’s a big, hearty dish, a kind of corned beef with vegetables and herbs cooked in a pot over a fire, which is what its name means. We could not afford tender cuts so my parents bought cheaper, tougher meat and boiled it until it was tender. The aroma was fantastic. Afterwards we had something we could eat for three or four days, served hot with vegetables and a little consommé, or cold with potato salad, cornichons, and onions. It is a very economical and interesting way to feed a family; you can really play with what you have. A traditional pot-au-feu is made with beef, but in Condom I got the idea of doing one with veal, which I don't think had ever been done before.
On one of my winter menus, I have cream of eggplant soup with “white kidneys.” They are not really kidneys, but we are in a country where I need to use a different name—some people aren’t yet ready to know they are eating testicles. In Condom, nobody minded because it was natural; we ate every part of the animal. But we are not at that point yet in America. Sometimes customers will call me over and say, “Jean-Louis, they are delicious! What are they?” And if I don’t know them, I will tell them they are quenelles. If I know them and they seem brave, I will say they are sweetbreads. And if I think they are strong enough to hear the truth, I will give it to them. This is one of the big differences between the French and Americans. Americans are not ready to try all the parts of the animal we eat in France.
People in this country have begun to eat sweetbreads, but it is still difficult to serve tripe or kidneys. When I started to serve calf’s brain in my restaurant here, perhaps one person a night would take it, usually a European. But brain has a very good taste, so I tried to think how I could make it appealing to Americans. I prepared a crêpe and mixed the brain with egg and a lot of other good things, and the people ate that like crazy. It is really psychological. But a lot also depends on the chef and how the food is presented. Kidneys can have a strong taste, but if they are prepared well, they are very good. And tripe in red wine is a classic dish I learned from a friend of mine, Zizou Duffour, who owned a restaurant in Gascony. I hope one day we will be able to work with all the different parts of the animal in this country; I think people will enjoy them all.
Spring in Washington is the most glorious time of the year. When I think of winter's sad and dark weather, I see black-and-white pictures in my mind. But in spring, the pictures are full of color: What a joy for a chef! Here is a time to play with color again.
As a small boy, I spent many hours with a cabinetmaker, helping him work on his furniture and going with him to look at antiques. Since then, I have had a great appreciation for beauty. I used to think, “What beautiful work! If only I could make something like that, I would be a happy man.” In my cooking, the taste, not the look, is the most important thing. But if you can combine the two, then you have something special, and the fresh appearance of spring produce always arouses in me the urge to see what I can create.
With spring comes a bounty of vegetables, fruits, and herbs once again. For a good chef, the produce is always the starting point; the market decides my menu. I often wake up in the morning with no idea of what I will do that day until I see what is available. Sometimes I surprise myself.
There is wonderful produce in America today. I have to say that the chefs and food writers in France are chauvinists. Until very recently, they always looked down on American produce. But ever since I came to the United States, I have been confident that we could have everything right here. I have been saying, “Watch out! In 10 years, America will have the best produce in the world.” And now it is being shown I was right.
I admire Americans; they lack Europeans' centuries of tradition and history, but they are willing to learn and to try new things. They want to be the best, and they succeed. When I first opened my restaurant, Jean-Louis at Watergate, a man named Richard Ober came in to see me with a bunch of mint and a bunch of thyme. He told me that he worked at the State Department but was bored with his job. He had made a bet with a friend that he could grow herbs and vegetables and sell them to the best restaurant in Washington.
I looked at him and said, “Did God send you to me? You're exactly what I've been looking for.” He had a French seed catalogue with him, Louise de Vilmorin, and I read through it and listed everything I would like to be able to have by next year. He grew it all, won his bet, and is still my supplier today.
He comes at the end of each season and asks me if I want anything new or different. We're always adding things, and that helps me to keep creative as a chef. The problem with the produce in supermarkets is that it is grown fast for volume and often with chemicals. The best fruits and vegetables are those grown naturally. My father owned an orchard he worked in every Sunday. He had cherry, apricot, apple, and peach trees, and the fruit he got from those trees was fantastic. Why? Because under his orchard was the old cemetery.
Most people relax in the summer. But for the chef, it is a season of challenge. He must come up with light and appealing dishes at a time when people don’t feel like eating much. I find myself searching in the back of my head for ways to tempt summer appetites. Cold soups and salads are obvious offerings, and I love to experiment with all kinds of terrines.
Preparing meats in the summer here, I miss having an outdoor cheminée, or fireplace. In Condom, we grilled and barbecued everything outside in the summer. It’s a much more interesting way to cook than in the oven. We used different kinds of wood—oak, apple, and cherry—also vines. There was a boy whose sole job was to keep the fire burning and watch over the cheminée.
Like Paris, official Washington shuts down in August. Congress leaves town, and Washingtonians take their vacations. Some admirable tourists brave the heat, but even they don’t feel like eating much or getting dressed up. In Condom, the summer was my busiest time, and for 21 years I never knew what it was to take a summer vacation. Now, when August arrives, I am happy to get out of my kitchen, and give myself a chance to grow in other directions. That way I know when I return, I will be eager to rediscover the smells and tastes of autumn.
Washington summers can be terribly hot, but one thing more than compensates for the weather: fresh corn. When I was living in France, we didn’t have sweet corn—we only grew feed corn for the animals. I fell in love with corn when I first came to America, and the affair is still going on. I like the sharpness of yellow corn; the white I find a little more subtle. I will always have corn on my menus in summer because it is one the glories of American produce, and there are so many ways of using it. Of all the wonderful fruits and vegetables we have in summer, the best, for me, is corn.
Jean-Louis: Cooking with the Seasons by Jean-Louis Palladin and Fred J. Maroon is available on Amazon.com.