Jimmy Sneed

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Greatest Chef of Our Time?

Jimmy Sneed - February 21st, 2014

Jimmy Sneed remembers his friend, chef, and co-conspirator Jean-Louis Palladin. Sneed is the owner of SugarToad Management Consulting and the co-owner of vegetarian restaurant Fresca on Addison with his daughter Jenna, in Richmond, Virginia. In his spare time, he writes on his blog, Product, Passion & Salt.

I’m writing a book, trying to decide a title and direction. You see, I spent five and a half years working for what I think are the two greatest chefs of our time: Guenter Seeger and Jean-Louis Palladin. Which one was better? You’ll have to read the book.

But this is about Jean-Louis. One thing is true: every cook, chef, and food lover in America owes much to what Jean-Louis brought to the table, so to speak. When I began working with him in 1982, he had been open a scant two years at the Watergate. I got the job, not because I was a talented cook (I wasn’t) but because I speak French. I wanted to learn from a master. And I was willing to do whatever it took. As my friend, chef Jeffery Buben, advised me, “Stay with him as long as you can stand it, because there’s not a better chef anywhere.” So it was that I spent five miserable years in his kitchen. I wouldn’t change a thing.

I watched as Jean-Louis developed relationships with purveyors, pleading with them to find exciting new products: unheard-of fungi, ink from squid, coral from lobsters, hand harvested scallops, baby eel trapped (illegally?) in nets. All of this was new then, although now we take it for granted.

Jean-Louis decided he wanted to host an event that harkens back to his days in Southwest France. Thus began the annual tue cochon, or pig killing, at a farm just north of Aldie, Virginia. It was an excuse for a party, a gathering of chefs, friends, and culinary fans from all over. This annual event was on everybody’s calendar.

If memory serves, he actually only killed a pig the first year. It seems that somebody ratted him out and the Feds got involved. After that, the noble beast (the pig, not Jean-Louis) was brought in already dispatched.

Speaking of throat slitting… On another trip to a duck farm, he asked if he could have one of the ducks, whose throat he promptly slit and captured the blood in a bucket for later use. A dish served at a banquet for 350 French chefs included “white kidneys,” two of which hang from every male duck.

Pig killings and duck balls aside, there is a reason that Jean-Louis should be remembered. He changed the culinary landscape. Forever. Chefs from all over would come into his miniscule kitchen to watch him cook…and hear him scream. A 25 year old Daniel Boulud stood there mesmerized by the talent before him. On a Charlie Rose show recently, Daniel noted that modern American cuisine can be defined as pre–Jean-Louis and post–Jean-Louis. Hear, hear.

Much of what made Jean-Louis great was a matter of timing. Nouvelle cuisine had just run its course in Europe, and America had no “known” culinary greats. There was Julia, who was the first to say she wasn’t a chef. And Chef Tell (aka Friedman Paul Erhardt), with his crazy accent. Oh, don’t forget Graham Kerr's Galloping Gourmet and his ever-present glass of red. Give me a break. And unknown to the public at large were such working chefs as André Soltner, Alain Sailhac, and others. Emerging in coast-to-coast fame were, of course, Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, and a slew of cooks, struggling to engage their customers in the appreciation of great food.

But Jean-Louis arrived with magnificent credentials (youngest two Michelin-starred chef ever at that time) and a personality that could charm the evil out of Dick Cheney.

Jean-Louis was indeed larger than life. For 15 years, he left the stove rarely, usually to do a benefit somewhere. Not once did he go home early and leave his cooks in charge. (I wouldn’t have left me in charge either.) He was a cook’s cook. To watch him create a menu from scratch every day at 4 p.m. with some 30 dishes, some of which we had never seen before, left us in awe. New products (corn, cactus, palm logs, soft shell crabs) offered him a challenge. He thrived at the stove. And special customers like Rostropovich, Jacques Maximin, or Ariane Daguin would get meals that most diners could only dream about, often at the expense of other customers. The backbar area of the dining room would be stacked with plates of food that never got served, usually because of the long waits or the screaming from the kitchen.

Yet, he was quick to applaud, as he did after a 1985 meal at Montrachet, where he proclaimed that David Bouley had cooked him “the best meal by an American chef that I ever ate.” And he was quick to condemn. (For more on that, read my book. I’ll name names.)

Ironically, this Frenchman defined modern American cuisine. True, he trained in France, worked in France, and struggled with the English language for 30 years, but his food was built around the fundamentals of French technique, and most importantly, local product. He called his style ‘cuisine d’instinct.’ When an amateur mushroom hunter showed up with 22 different kinds of mushrooms he had found, Jean-Louis took a slice from each, sautéed them, put them on a plate, and told the guy to eat them. Convinced, Jean-Louis did a fricassée of wild, local mushrooms with fresh hearts of palm on that evening’s menu.

So, was Jean-Louis a great chef? Not even. A great chef leads, teaches, organizes. A great chef creates great cooks. A great chef puts out consistently great food.

Was Jean-Louis a great cook? Maybe the best ever.