From the Archives: Jean-Louis, Cooking With The Palate of an Artist

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 27, 2001; 12:00 AM

In honor of Tom Sietsema's 10th Annual Dining Guide, we took a look back through the archives to find his article about Jean-Louis Palladin.

When most great modern artists say farewell, they leave behind physical evidence of their talents. The oils of the painter, the recordings of the singer and the films of the actor still remain to entertain and enlighten once and future witnesses.

The same, unfortunately, is less true of departed masters of the kitchen. Oh, they might bequeath pleasures of the table in the form of wine-stained menus and dog-eared cookbooks, but those are mere playbills of their work and omit the texture and perfume and flavor of memorable cooking. A good meal, after all, is a performance that lasts all too briefly, in the physical sense, as its audience literally devours the handiwork of its creator.

There are exceptions, of course, and chef Jean-Louis Palladin, who died Sunday of lung cancer in McLean, was a monumental one.

Just ask anyone fortunate enough (and probably rich enough) to have experienced his original take on French cooking in Washington in his glory years, at his namesake 40-seat restaurant in the Watergate Hotel. Or anyone to whom the native of Gascony showed professional interest; the list of names he nurtured in his short 55 years reads like a Who's Who of Cooking in America and includes Daniel Boulud of Daniel and Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, the chefs of two long-celebrated New York restaurants, as well as countless suppliers of ingredients haute and not (but always first class).

From the moment he left his home town of Condom, where he dazzled guests at a renovated monastery, and opened Jean-Louis at the Watergate in 1979, Palladin shattered the stereotype of the self-centered French chef.

"Since I began cooking," he told The Washington Post that year, "I used the products of my region. Now I'm here, and I will experiment. To some extent, the restaurant will be a laboratory to see if I can surpass what I've done before."

What he had done before was delicious enough to make him the youngest recipient of two stars (out of three) from the esteemed Michelin restaurant guide. What he did in the United States was nothing short of extraordinary. Here was a French chef not only willing but happy to use American ingredients -- ingredients that he often took time to discover on road trips of his own, like the wrinkled black eel-like fish known as lamprey, which he got from Maine.

He was also a team cheerleader who made it a point to rally local chefs, regardless of where their cooking originated, into a tight restaurant community, embracing people who might have had to struggle for recognition.

If there was a truffle source to be shared, he shared it. The same was true of his culinary epiphanies -- who knew that cooking fish in duck fat could enhance its appeal? Chefs who worked with him talk about his intense, missionary nature.

Where others saw a just-picked vegetable or freshly caught fish, for instance, Palladin envisioned a dish that would give them new life as art on a plate. And in the process, he gave people reason, other than politics, to make a pilgrimage to the nation's capital. Almost single-handedly, he put Washington on the restaurant map.

Palladin wasn't beyond succinctly criticizing inferior work. "This food is an insult to everything I've worked for in my life!" he declared to a dining companion after one inept meal. Yet he lived life the way he cooked: exuberantly.

Just two years ago, he posed naked in an ad for the Vita-Mix blender, the equipment barely covering his privates. Palladin always appreciated a good joke.

Jean-Louis at the Watergate never made much money during its 17-year run. And his subsequent restaurants, including Napa in Las Vegas and Palladin in New York, never received the kind of raves that greeted the chef's debut here. But no one can argue that the world wasn't headier for having a star like Jean-Louis Palladin around.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company