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Palladin: Inspiration for Chefs

November 28, 2001|PHYLLIS RICHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Allo." The gravelly voice had an immutable French accent. "Jean-Louis here."

That was the telephone greeting of America's first world-class French chef, when one measures those things by Michelin stars. The inspiration of many great chefs cooking today, Jean-Louis Palladin, who died Sunday, needed no last name. Like Julia or Cher. And truth be told, if Jean-Louis Palladin had been born a woman, he would have been some combination of those two.

After winning two Michelin stars for his restaurant in southwest France at the tender age of 28, Jean-Louis became restless and began looking for new challenges. Five years later, in 1979, he decided to try his revolutionary ideas on the steak-and-potatoes diners of Washington, D.C. It wasn't long until the Watergate Hotel was as famous for its Jean-Louis restaurant as for its political scandal.

Jean-Louis staffed his dining room with not just French men but American women. Mon dieu! He invited American ingredients--corn, sweet potatoes--into his French pantry. Horreurs! He further scandalized his native land by declaring that many American ingredients were better than the French.

And he enchanted Americans with such French delicacies as fresh foie gras--then a rarity--and even smuggled ortolans, those tiny, one-bite wild birds. He gave cachet to homely ingredients: barnacles and pigs' ears. And when he couldn't find what he wanted, he found someone to grow it for him.

Jean-Louis was a chef's chef. When he created a chestnut soup ladled at the table over a still-life of squab-and-chestnut quenelles and duck confit, that sort of soup theater was copied all over the country. When he sent little pre-dinner gifts to the table--such as croquettes of oysters and caviar, or the age-old toad-in-the-hole refined into quail eggs fried in the torn-out center of a small brioche round and topped with caviar-you could be sure you'd encounter them in other chefs' repertoires.

But Jean-Louis changed the American food scene through more than his cooking. He brought life and a sense of open friendship to what had been a sometimes stodgy and wary profession. He was as addicted to parties as he was to hunting game birds and driving fast cars and flirting with women of every age.

His charisma was as brilliant as his cooking skills. He organized game dinners and pig roasts. He created new standards for generosity and loyalty, devotedly teaching not just the apprenticed sons of France's top chefs, but his kitchen's dishwashers and salad girls, even diners who expressed a desire to learn. He shared with competitors his sources, his recipes and his insatiable drive for a good time. A natural leader, he turned Washington's Babel of French, Italian, Japanese and American chefs into a community.

By the mid-'90s, Jean-Louis was a star, a guru, an icon. His disciples had gone on to be stars in their own right: Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, Daniel Bouloud at Le Cirque and then Restaurant Daniel, Silvain Portay, likewise at Le Cirque, now at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco. He was admired, respected, beloved by chefs everywhere, often called the best chef in America.

And so he got restless. He spent less time in his kitchen and more on the charity circuit or the hunting grounds. His restaurant in the Watergate, probably the cheesiest-looking great dining room in the world, hadn't been redecorated since it had opened, and despite high prices and full tables the place hardly made money. It--and perhaps Washington--seemed too small. Jean-Louis yearned to prove himself on a bigger stage.

So he went to Las Vegas. It's the archetypical story: He bet the store and lost. Free of fetters and family, divorced and starting again as if he had retrieved his youth, he dreamed of becoming financially secure, then opening in New York or San Francisco his ultimate goal: a small, homey restaurant with a fireplace for cooking "farm food from Southwest France."

He was marking time. Which ran out. Jean-Louis Palladin was diagnosed with lung cancer late last year and died Sunday at the home of his ex-wife, Regine. He told his doctor he'd once wanted to be a surgeon. He undoubtedly would have been a brilliant one and saved hundreds of lives. Instead he created unforgettable meals for thousands and inspired a generation of chefs who, in his honor, will create many thousands more.

*

Richman was restaurant critic for the Washington Post for 23 years.

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