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Jean-Louis Palladin

Jim Poris - September 1996

Food Arts presents the September 1996 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Jean-Louis Palladin, the gregarious, restive, and inventive chef whose marriage of French rigor and soul to American foodstuffs stretched the parameters of this country's palate.

Palladin's quintessential attribute, says his great friend Michel Richard, is that "he is not afraid to try." Palladin's daring during a 17-year stint as chef of Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington, D.C.'s Watergate Hotel tossed a Molotov cocktail into the walk-ins of America's professional kitchens, 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. His quest for foods that would allow him to reproduce his French cuisine of earthy refinement helped to establish a coast-to-coast network of boutique purveyors, farmers, and fishermen where one had hardly existed.

When Palladin opened Jean-Louis in December 1979, he presented produce and fish fetched from the Rungis wholesale market outside Paris. "Nearly everything here was frozen," Palladin recalls. "I said, 'This country is 20 times bigger than France, yet why does France have everything and we have nothing?'"

Palladin sought—and found. Through his encouragement and patronage, a shop worker became a premium fishmonger, a lobbyist turned into a chicken farmer, a foreign service officer started farming vegetables, a wedding facility added a salmon smokehouse, and "hillbillies and rednecks," as Palladin fondly calls them, foraged for him in the hollows of West Virginia.

Palladin's first world was the Gascon town of Condom, where he was born 50 years ago to an Italian father and Spanish mother, each of whom had come to France to escape fascism. At 12, Palladin started working in the kitchen of a local restaurant called Le Franco Italien that was owned by the Sardini family, an association that lasted until shortly before his arrival in Washington. He filled the gaps in his training by attending a hotel school in Toulouse and by working in the classically oriented kitchens of the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo and the Hotel Plaza Athenée in Paris. Palladin returned to Condom in 1968 to open La Table des Cordeliers with a member of the Sardini family. Within three years, at the age 25, he had garnered a Michelin star. A second star followed three years later, making him the youngest ever (at the time) to receive such a distinction.

"I tried to stay just on the edge of the craziness that was happening with cooking at the time," Palladin says. "I was young, but I could imagine what was wrong and what was right."

His dream of a third star evaporated with the death of his restaurant partner in 1976. Continual disagreements with his partner's widow led him to abruptly leave La Table des Cordeliers in 1978. A friend recommended him to Nicolas Salgo, the former U.S. ambassador to Hungary who was planning a restaurant to upgrade the image of his scandal-damaged Watergate complex. Palladin arrived in Washington on a steamy August day in 1979 with his wife, dog, and kitchen team of Sylvain Portay (executive chef, The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco), Jean-François Taquet (chef/owner, Restaurant Taquet, Wayne, PA), and Larbi Dahrouch (executive chef, Citronelle, Washington, D.C.), bemoaning the heat, an unfinished restaurant, his total ignorance of English, and the dearth of exciting raw materials to cook.

In time, Palladin succeeded in his new adventure—and mission—"teaching Americans," he says, "how to taste." His inclination to "evolve," to hug "the margins without going crazy," has won him awards (James Beard Foundation Chef of the Year, 1993), international acclaim, and a fiercely loyal following. More than 200 people—chefs and patrons, all friends—fêted Palladin with a surprise 50th birthday celebration aboard a ship cruising the Potomac River one rainy night last May, an affair that turned into his Washington farewell. Earlier in the year, Palladin announced that he would leave the Watergate and that Jean-Louis would close, but that he would remain active in his other restaurant ventures. Palladin's eye, at press time, was on New York City. "I'm going for the top if I can," Palladin says about his move. "Yes, I'm scared. But I have 38 years in the kitchen, and I feel like I can now put all the screws together, build a beautiful car, and run with it. That is what I believe I can do."