Joshua Willem van den Berg - February 21st, 2014
"[Jean-Louis Palladin] was the essence of the Three Musketeers rolled into one. You just wondered where his sweeping hat with the big feather in it was.” — Michael Batterberry, founder/publisher of Food Arts, quoted in Palladin's New York Times obituary.
When Jean-Louis Palladin arrived at the Watergate Hotel in 1979 to open his first American restaurant, his entourage included three young chefs, all eager to follow their gregarious leader leader from La Table de Cordeliers across the Atlantic (legal working visas or not).
Sylvan Portay, Larbi Dahrouch, and Jean François Taquet spent the first six months in Washington D.C. exploring the city and digging out ingredients with Palladin while waiting for the restaurant to officially open its doors. “The three of us went with him everywhere,” says Portay, “never one without the others.”
With the guidance from a fellow Gascon and the French embassy's head chef, connections were made with providers such as Food Arts Silver Spoon winner Rod Mitchell of Browne Trading Company. "He was my mentor," says Mitchell, "and he was responsible for our existence as the first specialty high quality fish and caviar business. 'Rod,' he told me, 'you need to be serious and the best at what you do. See the fish when it comes from the water, know it is just from the water.' Thus became my mission and, to this day, we strive to make the best seafood and caviar available to the nation's most creative chefs."
Palladin's tenacity meant that soon snails and mushrooms were arriving from Oregon, beef from Wyoming, foie gras from the Hudson Valley, and crawfish from Baton Rouge. The efficiency of airfreight put the whole country within reach. "He was just like a kid with a big new toy," recalls Portay. Night after night, Palladin and his musketeers played with the newest finds, testing ingredients and exploring their uses. "It was a party every night!"
The chef's ebullient personality and their camaraderie also translated into endless hijinks. “He was very spontaneous," says Dahrouch, "after 12 hours of work he would always have an idea. Once, when we were at La Table de Cordeliers, it came out that none of us knew how to ski. The next thing we knew, we were in the Alps, at Courcheval, standing at the top of the piste. It took us five hours to get to the bottom, and Jean-Louis ended up with a broken rib. The owner forbade us from skiing there again.”
“In one of the photos,” says Dahrouch, “you will notice that my toque is a little crushed. Jean-Louis had gotten upset with me right before we took that!” Occasionally laughs turned into swings—yet another of his ribs was broken in kitchen—but smiles in the photographs above attest to joie de vivre Palladin brought to life.
Portay stayed in America for one year before returning to France to widen his experience at Le Negresco. He is now corporate chef for Alain Ducasse Enterprise. Dahrouch and Taquet stayed on longer; the former is executive chef at One&Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico while the latter went on to open Restaurant Taquet in Wayne, Pennslyvania before moving to New Zealand, where he now resides.