The book is as large and weighty as a stone tablet. The volume, in fact, feels as if it transcends mortal dimensions — although, at 14 by 10 inches, those are impressive, too — no doubt because the man behind the project was considered a sort of messianic figure in Washington during the 1980s and ’90s.
“Jean-Louis: Cooking with the Seasons” is the cookbook, and its author was the late Jean-Louis Palladin, arguably the most influential chef who ever worked a kitchen in this city. When the French native arrived in the District in 1979 to open Jean-Louis at the Watergate, Palladin was a two-star Michelin chef who was about to help transform the way people cooked in the nation’s capital.
He did so just by applying the principles of his native country: He followed the seasons, relying on the produce available from each, long before “seasonal cooking” and “local ingredients” became code words for high-end gastronomy. There was only one problem: America had not yet developed a culture for growing herbs, organic fruits and vegetables and meats for French chefs, two stars or not. Foie gras and day-boat scallops in the States back then? Forget about it.
Many chefs in 1970s “used to buy fish from farms or fish from Italy. Jean-Louis was different,” notes Michel Richard, who has created a special six-course tribute menu for Palladin, which will debut tomorrow and run through Dec. 10 at Michel at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner.
“He went to Maine for the fish. … He was able to use the American ingredients, which are fresher than the ones coming from Europe,” Richard adds. “It was tough and expensive.”
Palladin would help shape and influence some of the greatest culinary minds in America, whether chefs or restaurateurs, from Eric Ripert (who almost quit Palladin’s employ over the boss’ shabby treatment of cooks) to Daniel Boulud to Drew Nieporent (who called Palladin the “most important influence in my life in terms of food”) to Richard himself.
“Maybe Daniel didn’t work for him, but he spend a lot of time with Jean-Louis. Sometimes you don’t need to work with a chef to understand. Just spending time with him, talking to him,” notes Richard, who started his career as a pastry chef in France and Los Angeles, before turning to the savory side of cooking. “I have to tell you another thing: I become a chef because of Jean-Louis. I used to love the way he was cooking.”
To honor Palladin on the 10th anniversary of his death from lung cancer, Richard has not only created a menu dedicated to his friend, but also unearthed copies of “Cooking with the Seasons,” which was originally published in 1989 and which has apparently been out of print for more than two decades. The Jean-Louis Palladin Foundation, started a year after the chef’s death, reprinted the book in 2003, and the James Beard Foundation, which absorbed the JLF in 2009, has made 100 copies available to Richard for the dinner. The chef is selling them for $50 a pop.
You seriously shouldn’t miss the chance to buy one. It’s a window into a different era of cooking — and cooking in Washington.
The coffee-table volume — featuring the photography of the late Fred J. Maroon , a man whose work still influences shooters today — is as much art book as cookbook. As Maroon wrote in the introduction:
When Jean-Louis and I were considering the best way to present his work, he suggested that we talk to his friend Jeffrey Bigelow, a nationally known sculptor who works in acrylic. We met in Bigelow’s studio and asked him to design for us some vessels in a variety of geometric shapes that could serve as plates and bowls. He produced a series of fascinating pieces, some solid, some laminated, and all in neutral colors. Each was itself a work of art...
We never planned a day’s shoot ahead of time. At about ten in the morning, Jean-Louis would arrive at my studio with fresh produce. As always with master chefs, the quality of the produce available determined his menu. After he described what he planned to cook, we decided which sculpture to use. Occasionally he showed me a pencil sketch of the presentation he had in mind, but more often he worked intuitively on the acrylic, much as a painter does on canvas. Unlike canvas, however, the acrylic was unforgiving. The food placement had to be right the first time because grease showed glaringly in the camera if we moved an item. We also soon learned that no matter what we did to prevent static electricity, the acrylic quickly attracted dust.
Palladin’s elaborate recipes featured ingredients that chefs, particularly French-trained ones, took for granted a generation or two ago — the kind of ingredients that today have been relegated to suburban ethnic eateries (like pig’s ears) or pretty much sworn off menus because of price, availability or sustainability (like beluga caviar and French black truffles). I asked Richard to attempt to price out one of Palladin’s menus with a foie gras terrine, swordfish with ossetra caviar and a rack of veal.
The chef carefully reviewed the eight-course menu, with wine pairings from Mark Slater (now with Michael Landrum’s Rays the Steaks group of restaurants), and figured it’d cost a contemporary diner at least $500 each. This helps to explain why Richard selected six of the more affordable dishes from Palladin’s book, like a chestnut soup and a roasted duck with date sauce, a menu that will still set you back $150 per person at Michel this week. (Some a la carte dishes from Palladin’s book will also be available at Michel throughout December.)
As expansive as Palladin could be — and his reputation loomed large when it came to his many appetites — Richard wanted to emphasize one characteristic of his friend’s career, which may have been lost to history.
“He was creating his own dishes,” Richard says of Palladin. “Before nouvelle cuisine, no chef had the right to create their own dishes. You had to copy Escoffier.”
The mentality among the rank-and-file chefs back in France, notes Richard, went something like this: “Creating your own dish when I was a young man? Are you sick? You’re not smart enough to create your own dish.”
But Jean-Louis Palladin had a dream to create his own style — and woe be to anyone who stepped in his way, Richard remembers.
“Jean-Louis was in love with his profession,” Richard says. “He didn’t like anybody to destroy his dream. That was his dream: to come up with wonderful food. If you are the one next to him that tried to destroy that dream, you might end up in a pot. You’d become a human stock.”