Ageneration of chefs will have backaches thanks to Jean-Louis Palladin. During the past 17 years, while this charismatic chef rendered Washington "worth a detour" -- as France's prestigious and persnickety Michelin guide would put it -- disciples have copied him down to his posture: hunched over the work space, nose practically in the plate, as if arranging each atom of the dish.
Tonight his restaurant -- the most acclaimed Washington restaurant ever -- closes its doors in a stormy ending to a stellar reign. Jean-Louis at the Watergate will be no more.
Palladin arrived Aug. 10, 1979, to open a small restaurant in the basement of the infamous hotel. He was, at 33, the youngest chef to ever be awarded two Michelin stars. He closes this restaurant having won nearly every honor a chef can win in this country.
And more. Palladin didn't come to show us French food, he came to reinvent American food. He discovered, commissioned and showcased American ingredients finer than even a Parisian chef could have at hand. He hosted the top chefs of Europe and apprenticed their offspring, thereby spreading the gospel of American cooking. "He did something for America," says Daniel Nicolas, a captain who has worked with Palladin for 13 years. "He allowed us to be taken seriously."
Palladin turned Washington's chefs into a community, organizing picnics, game hunts, parachute jumps, charity benefits and sharing culinary resources. He introduced diners to lamprey eels. Monkfish liver. Barnacles. Periwinkles. Scallops in the shell that cost $7 each -- wholesale -- not to mention the $150 truffle dinner and the 60,000-bottle wine cellar. But he didn't teach anybody how to make serious money. There's the rub. In its best years, Jean-Louis at the Watergate netted a mere $40,000 to $50,000 profit annually for the hotel.
Now Palladin is out of a job. The Watergate is closing his restaurant two weeks earlier than scheduled, despite an attempt by Palladin's lawyer to win an injunction to keep the doors open until June 29. Now the hotel must cancel more than 500 reservations that came in before the closing was hastened. As for Palladin, the chef is struggling to decide whether to stay in Washington or accept offers in New York.
No matter what, Washington will likely never again see a restaurant like Jean-Louis at the Watergate. This cramped little miracle is destined for memory.
But what memories.
5:40 p.m., one week before closing. Three diners descend a flight of carpeted stairs, pass through an entry hall decorated with photos from the Jean-Louis cookbook, along a corridor lined with two glass-fronted wine cellars, to the desk of maitre d' Maurice Mony (five years on the staff).
Jean-Louis has one of the least impressive dining rooms ever to bust an expense account. Small, below ground, decorated with cloth panels in shades of orange and brown. One magnificent flower arrangement does its best to liven the room, echoed by a small bouquet on each of the 15 tables -- 18 on the weekends.
Mony escorts the guests to their table and pulls out their chairs. Soon, one of the captains -- Nicolas, Kathy
Dinardo (17 years on the staff) or Paul Girard (13 years) -- arrives with menus.
"Monsieurs et dames, good evening," Nicolas greets his table. He offers drinks and explains that the menu offers three dinners: five courses at $85, six courses at $95 and a truffle menu at $150 -- plus wine, tax and tip.
At most, a third of the diners ordered hard liquor at Jean-Louis; indeed the staff discouraged it: "That won't fit with the dinner you are going to have," Nicolas has been known to say. Most drank wine. Sommelier Vincent Feraud accumulated a 60,000-bottle cellar after his arrival six years ago at age 22, and he claims to have known the restaurant was doomed when the hotel stopped adding to the cellar three years ago. The restaurant has been selling $700,000 worth of wine a year, which works out to about $3,000 a day; so Feraud had estimated that there would be only 2,000 bottles left when the doors close.
By 6 p.m., the dining room is beginning to fill. Nicolas explains the rhythm of the restaurant: The early service builds to a peak around 6:30, the later one about 9 p.m. "By 7 and by 9:30, it's going to be a ballet or it's going to be a disaster."
But Dinardo is already nearly at a run. She pours two glasses of champagne and discreetly rushes them to a table. Once drinks are served, the captain explains the menu, often in ingredient-by-ingredient detail. The order is taken in triplicate -- one copy for the chef, the second for the cold station (soups, salads, desserts), the third for the waiter. The captain brings a tray of silverware and places the appropriate tools -- fish knife, sauce spoon, soup spoon -- at each place.
Now comes a little treat from the chef, usually three or four rings of tempura squid. They're famous, these incomparable rings of squid with an airy puff of batter made only of flour, baking soda and ice water, fried in grape-seed oil at exactly the temperature to make the outside crisp and the inside silky.
A busboy -- Israel Ortega (10 years of service), his brother Jose (three years) or Paco Guzman (four years) -- warms Jean-Louis's astonishingly tall, buttery brioche and delivers a slice to each bread plate, along with small ramekins of anchovy and plain butter. Then Guzman starts the coffee -- a foil pack of Wilkins, enriched by a few spoonfuls of espresso grind. And to Start . . .
In the kitchen, the pace builds more slowly. Seven men and three women work in a space so cramped they have to squeeze past each other. On the lone double-width stove, four burners are blazing and will be all evening. A double oven burns underneath. The space in which Palladin and his sous chef, Jose Hernandez, work is so narrow that they can lift a hot platter to the counter and close the oven with a backward kick.
By 6:30 only six order slips flap above Palladin's stove. One of them reads, "VIP -- slow." This particular "very important person" is an out-of-towner who says she is writing a book on women dining alone. Well, she's not exactly writing it yet, but she is thinking of writing one.
Palladin ties on a long apron. He wears a white jacket that contrasts crisply with his mop of curly hair, jeans, black socks and black loafers. He nibbles a strip of bacon -- the rest of which will be poised between the claws of fried soft-shell crabs. Then he stares at the orders. This is the crucial moment. He must organize the cooking of as many as 500 dishes per seating in this tight space. It's a complicated puzzle.
Palladin shifts into action. Three mushroom soup, he calls out.
"Oui," comes the answer.
Four lobster terrines.
He waits for each "oui"; nothing can be missed. By 6:45, the smell of garlic is enough to sting one's eyes.
Palladin and Hernandez stir and taste, stir and taste. Hernandez, remarkably, started as a dishwasher a dozen years ago when he was 18. One of his assets in his culinary climb, plainly, is speed. He darts so fast between stove and counter, across the kitchen for spaghetti squash, back again for diced ham or little truffled gnocchi, that he must keep wiping the sweat that pours from his forehead and chin.
Indeed, there's a certain stride developed for this tiny kitchen: fast, but clumping, with feet planted firmly at each step. With all the jostling, the chefs must be well grounded. But nobody in the kitchen is idle for a moment -- except the men in black tie, who must be ready the moment a hot dish is finished. No wonder they're called waiters.
Ibu Diaite patiently cuts tomatoes to form petals of vegetable flowers to decorate terrines and salads, as he has done for 10 years. Nearby is Maria Loza, the senior member of the kitchen staff. She's been pulling herb leaves from their stems, peeling oranges, slicing peppers, deboning squab legs -- for 17 years.
Marc Igolen (three years service), Noureddin Ennaboulsi (10 years) and his brother Abdelhakin (10 years) are the waiters, which means they are liaisons between the kitchen and dining room. Their first contact with a diner is apt to be over soup.
At Jean-Louis, soup is art, a still life of cunning geometric shapes arranged in the bottom of the bowl -- tiny truffle quenelles, precisely diced wild mushrooms, discs of stuffed squab leg. Only at the table are the designs covered with wildly fragrant broth ladled from a tureen to set them afloat. Arranging the bowls for soups is a full-time job for Gaelle Thibon, the baby of the crew at 22.
Thibon is from Palladin's home town, Condom, France, and she's here to learn. When the last soup has been served, she'll move forward to help Christopher Phaneuf, a fairly new chef, with the fish and shellfish.
Meanwhile, in the dining room, the sommelier is much in demand. "Vincent, table 11 wants to talk to you." Feraud was raised on wine lore: "This wine was made by the uncle of my ex-girlfriend in France," he'll note. Or: "This needs time to open up in the glass, because the grapes were so tight when they were picked that they were as small as this," he says, showing the tip of his pinkie. Feraud routinely sells 50 to 100 bottles of wine a night. "Weekdays is business people," he says approvingly. "Much better. It's corporate." One recent Thursday, somebody bought the third of Feraud's precious dozen bottles of '89 Petrus -- $850 a piece. Tonight's most expensive sale will be a mere $210. Feraud gets 5 percent of the wine sales, and 5 percent of the tips. Dinner Is Served
The dining room smells of soup, and aspic-framed terrines are shimmering on the tables. In the kitchen, fish and meat courses are underway. Countless whole fat duck livers are being roasted, then sliced thickly and anchored to warm plates with thick rhubarb puree, surrounded by bright fuchsia commas of sliced rhubarb.
Then Palladin starts the main courses. He forks small racks of lamb, their bones covered with foil, into saute pans and sets them on the stove. He plops on branches of sage -- every meat is roasted with sprigs of herbs. One turn to brown each side, then into the oven. A few minutes later Palladin bends low to remove the pans, turns to his counter with a kick to close the door, and slices the lamb, storing the trimmings for saucemaking. He arranges the pink-tinged chops on plates with celery root risotto and carefully spoons sauce in exactly the right spot. He checks for drips.
Perfect: He claps his hands, and a waiter immediately carries the hot plates to the dining room, careful to keep them level so the sauces don't run.
Palladin pens a black line through the lamb orders and pulls a pan of duck breast from the oven. He slices it with the concentration of a surgeon, absent-mindedly popping a stray bit into his mouth.
He issues orders in French, in English. Then, to the dishwashers, "Platos, por favor."
As each course is finished, the captain resets the table with silverware for the next course. Whether the table is for two diners or 10, the captain knows exactly who gets which dish -- dozens of dishes for a table of four, say.
When the diners are contentedly eating, Dinardo has time to talk. The topic: servers who interrupt diners to ask if everything is all right. It's rude, she believes. "I look at the table. If the glasses are full, they have wine, they're talking -- they don't need me."
By 7:30, the first service is winding down. The entree plates are cleared, the table is swept of crumbs, and dessert silver is placed on the table. First comes a freshly made pineapple sorbet with a sprig of mint, followed by some extravagance -- maybe one of pastry chef Thierry Evennou's warm cubes of chocolate cake with a crackly graininess and a center of molten chocolate that flows like lava toward a scoop of caramel ice cream. Round 2
At 8, the first seating is finished and the kitchen is suddenly quiet. Palladin disappears for a break. "Jean-Louis can't take it when it's slow," explains waiter Igolen.
Gradually, though, the activity resumes. Faucets, fans, pots and pans rise in a crescendo of noise. Palladin returns, and with this more crowded seating, the kitchen frenzy makes the earlier seating seem like a vacation.
Palladin begins a tense patter: "Cut cut cut cut . . . three three three . . . four four four . . . Okay, let's go!" His voice grows louder. "Where's the foie gras?" He examines the 10 order forms hanging before him as intently as a million-dollar poker hand. Five plates of soft-shell crabs to be strewn with spices and dill. "I need one langoustine, I need two langoustine, I need four langoustine."
"I need nine foie gras. I need four soft-shell." At top speed he sounds like an auctioneer.
Those 10 order sheets represent 31 diners, five or six courses each -- perhaps as many as 180 dishes to be produced, precisely cooked, properly timed, ready in unison. Another order sheet is handed to him, and soon another.
"Gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme!" His litany is larded with curses, his volume increasing. Hernandez rolls down his sleeves to protect his arms from burning as he recklessly leaps from refrigerator to oven to counter. There's not even time to grab a fork; he turns the roasting meats with his fingers. Pans are piled on the stove. Plates are piled on the counter.
A pan catches fire. Hernandez hardly pauses as he beats it out and continues his frantic ballet. Next his towel catches fire. He stamps it out. Hot fat spills on the floor; someone rushes for a mop. That Will Be All
By 10:30 the pace is slowing. Only six slips remain above Palladin's counter. Nicolas comes in and wraps two desserts to go. The restaurant has served 96 people tonight -- about 500 dishes, not counting the hors d'oeuvres and the chocolate truffles.
In the dining room, coffee is served, and, at the diner's signal, the captain brings the check. Jean-Louis's art was never cheap: $150, $200, even more per person, depending on the wine and the generosity of the tip. One recent evening, a group of 12 tipped $100 each after staying hours past the usual closing.
The last diners are growing louder with each new pouring of wine. And now that it's almost over, the staff is getting a little gregarious, too. Almost a family, this group, a family about to be broken up. They slip into reminiscences -- the couple who showed up after 10 years away from the restaurant, embarrassed, perhaps, that on their earlier visit they'd wound up throwing caviar at each other. The man who, a mere year and a half ago, refused to be served by a female captain. Feraud still blushes remembering the couple who passed him a note inviting him to join them for very explicit and illicit pleasures.
Most of all, they remember the intensity of the work and the commitment to perfection. "Jean-Louis used to be on hands and knees with his head in the oven to arrange the plates so that they would stay hot," Dinardo says. "Where do you go from Jean-Louis?"
It's almost the end. "The sad thing," says Feraud, "is that the team is going to break up."
He shakes his head. "This," he declares of the little marvel in the hotel basement, "is a haunted house now." CAPTION: Chef Jean-Louis Palladin in his signature crouch, arranging souce on a dish in his tiny kitchen; Kathy Dinardo, a 17 year old veteran, looks over the vast wine selection. CAPTION: Patrons begin to fill the restaurant early on the evening before it closes for good. CAPTION: Chef Jean-Louis Palladin takes a call in the quiet kitchen before the rush. Later in the night, it will be "Gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme!"