Remembering Jean-Louis

I have no idea how many courses Jean-Louis Palladin served me that night many years ago after ascertaining I wasn’t allergic to anything. I do know it was my life’s first degustation, or tasting menu. And while I don’t recall a single dish he set before me, at least one or two involved my life’s first quail eggs. I don’t remember the dining room, though it might have been red. All I recall, truly, is the deep conviction that I was a different person walking out that night than I had been walking in.

Jean-Louis had that effect on people.

In many ways, Jean-Louis – who thankfully gave the Watergate building in Washington, D.C., something else to be famous for – was one of a kind. In other ways, he was an old-fashioned, classically trained, tyrannical French chef. And in still other ways, he was an American chef – or at least a chef in America – who was a generation or two ahead of his time. Except, thanks to Jean-Louis, the very next generation of chefs in America, some of whom had worked for him, were a different species from any that had cooked here before.

This Thursday evening, no less a luminary than Jacques Pepin will join executive chef Sebastien Giannini of Kingbird (which now inhabits much of the old Jean-Louis space in the Watergate across from the Kennedy Center) for a one-time dinner in the late chef’s honor. The sold-out five-course meal will also be prepared by two of Palladin’s former executive sous-chefs, Jimmy Sneed and Larbi Dahrouch. The dinner will bring in Palladin’s children, Verveine and Olivier, plus include a look at the development of a Jean-Louis Palladin documentary film scheduled for release in 2020.

The rest of this month, broken into weeks for each of the four seasons, Giannini and his team will commemorate the 40th anniversary of Jean-Louis’ opening. A Palladin-inspired three-course prix-fixe is themed around Spring (this week), Summer, Winter and Autumn.

“In this precise location, Jean-Louis Palladin did so much for the culinary scene – not only in Washington but in the entire United States,” says Giannini, who hails from the South of France and cooked with Alain Ducasse in Cannes and Paris before arriving in the nation’s capital. “I am incredibly honored and grateful to be part of the legacy of Jean-Louis at the Watergate. Forty years after his restaurant first opened here, I am humbled to represent the new generation of French-born chefs in the United States.”

Dining Room at Kingbird, The Watergate Hotel

As food editor of United Press International (UPI), I was invited to interview Jean-Louis in the mid-1980s after submitting to a multi-course feast with paired wines in his restaurant. I was told in advance that regulars in the dining space included dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, though my eyes scanned the super-stylish crowd that night without any particular success – until the food started showing up and I forgot the crowd entirely.

I had never seen such food: delicate presentations on white plates of vegetable, seafood or meat, napped here and there by a sauce that tasted like it had reduced for 357 hours over low flame until the taste and consistency were exactly right. Oh, and that taste! Everything tasted as you’d imagine if you’d put in an order to God, saying you wanted the best tomato He ever made, or the best scallop, or for that matter the best chicken. Beginning with the opening of Jean-Louis at the Watergate in 1979 until it closed in 1996, you could simply put in your order to Jean-Louis. He would have that chat with God.

When it comes to influence, great chefs are often measured by those who cook on after them. Jean-Louis died unexpectedly in 2001 at only 55, but if you want to know what he was about, you can ask Thomas Keller, Michel Richard, Eric Ripert or Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and naturally many others who spent time in that kitchen. There are chefs today who never met Jean-Louis who point to his influence, perhaps inspiring them to become chefs. Or you can ask me.

Jean-Louis was the first chef ever to “make zee menu” for me, sending out what seemed a loosely improvised series of natural wonders, each course following the course before as night the day. He was the first chef I ever watched standing guard at the kitchen door, assessing with a constant scowl each plate heading out to the dining room. Once or twice, I recall, he sent things back for a makeover – and he once turned red behind his overgrown mustache and spun back behind the rejected plate to tell the cook precisely what was what.

I already knew a few things that were part of the Jean-Louis Legend. I liked that he hailed from Gascony in southwest France, home to D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers, which seemed entirely apropos. And Gascony was (and is) home to Armagnac, which I like even better than cognac, which I like a lot. At 28, as chef and owner of La Table des Cordeliers in Monte Carlo, Jean-Louis had become the youngest chef to ever win two Michelin stars. He was already famous around DC for knowing the best cheesemaker in Virginia, the best crab fisherman in Maryland, the best scallop guy in Maine. In fact, according to the legend, it was Jean-Louis who convinced that guy to slip on a wetsuit and dive for his scallops. Today, we’re all still loving “diver scallops.”

When he finally sat down with me that evening as guests were having dessert, he also was the first chef to express and embody a philosophy that, thanks to him and a handful of others, seemed so old it was new again. No, he didn’t wait for food to show up at his back door in a delivery truck. He himself went out each morning, walking or even jogging through various DC neighborhood markets, poking and prodding and sniffing, choosing the best things that were local (and, by definition, seasonal) for that night’s service. I take it there were helpers following close behind, left to the tawdry tasks of paying and toting things back to the restaurant. And Jean-Louis, I remember asking, exactly when does all this happen?

“Of course, at zee time it must be,” he answered in his low, rumbly voice, a smile at last finding the briefest home on his lips. “Five, perhaps seex in zee morning.”

It made for a very long workday. Yet in the eyes of Jean-Louis Palladin, being celebrated this month in the Watergate space he called home for 17 years, mornings at the markets were what made evenings at his restaurant worth living for.

Chef Giannini’s Lamb Folie Folie Jamison Farm. Photo by Rey Lopez

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