Inside the Kingbird kitchen at the Watergate Hotel, amid the clattering of dishes and the click-clicking of knives against cutting boards, Sneed is leaning against a stainless-steel counter and ruthlessly staring at the chops. Kingbird executive chef Sébastien Giannini composed the dish as an homage to the late Jean-Louis Palladin, the French native who, four decades ago, opened a restaurant in the Watergate that would influence a generation of cooks and earn him a pair of James Beard Awards, including one for outstanding chef in 1993.
Good intentions be damned, Sneed is not happy with the plate’s composition. He says it doesn’t look like something Palladin would serve, and he would know. For more than three years at Jean-Louis at the Watergate, where Palladin reimagined nouvelle cuisine with American ingredients, Sneed served as executive sous-chef under the Frenchman with the legendary touch with ingredients — and the legendary temper during service. Sneed has the gray hair to prove it.
“Jean-Louis wouldn’t do this,” the former sous-chef says about the sauce next to the chops. “Really, Jean-Louis wouldn’t do the green.”
And then he adds, like swift kick to the pants: “This is precious, too precious.”
Giannini may not have realized it when he gave over his kitchen to a 40th-anniversary tribute dinner to Palladin on Aug. 8, but he had just received a small taste of what it was like to work at Jean-Louis during its heyday in the 1980s and ’90s. Equal parts charming, caustic and indecorous, Sneed may be the closest spiritual link to Palladin himself, one of the most demanding chefs to ever lead a kitchen in Washington.
Sneed was one of several chefs whom the Watergate and producer Suzi Bittles invited to take part in the dinner. Both parties had their motivations. The hotel had pulled together the multicourse meal as the centerpiece of a month-long celebration of Washington’s original celebrity chef, who helped, at least a little, destigmatize the Watergate name following President Nixon’s ignoble exit from public life in 1974. But Bittles wanted to bring the chefs together to reminisce on camera for a documentary she’s producing on Palladin. The film will be told through the eyes of Verveine Palladin, the chef’s daughter, who was just 17 when her father died in 2001 from lung cancer.
After the birth of her second child last year, Verveine realized she wanted her children to know about their grandfather’s legacy, one that is fading from public memory as younger chefs and diners take for granted the standards he help set for American restaurants, notably the all-consuming farm-to-table movement. “Do many of the young chefs know him? Maybe a little bit, but not really,” chef and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck said about Palladin during his recent stop in Washington.
“It’s a shame that the story hadn’t been told,” Verveine says. “Maybe it just wasn’t the right time. I feel like this was the right time in my life to tell people the story.”
The chef’s history has been told, of course, but it’s been mostly relegated to magazines and newspapers, the kind of old media that doesn’t resonate as much with the wired generation as YouTube and streaming services. Many of the best Palladin stories remain locked in the memories of those who knew him best: not just Sneed, but also Larbi Dahrouch and Jamie Stachowski, two others who toiled in the Jean-Louis kitchen. Then there are the artisans — the lamb farmers, the grapeseed oil producers, the scallop divers — who all have tales to tell about the chef who encouraged and championed them. Then there are the diners and old friends, such as chef and author Jacques Pépin, the living legend who showed up to lend a hand for the tribute dinner.
“If he were alive today,” Pépin, 83, says about his fellow French chef, “he’d still be 10 years younger than I am.”
The stories about Palladin flit between the sacred and the profane. Sometimes they incorporate both, as if the battling dualities could not be separated in a man whose exploits in the kitchen were rivaled by those in the bedroom. Palladin’s private flirtations were public knowledge, at least among those who ran with him. His former spouse, Regine Palladin, once quipped
, “I knew Jean-Louis for many years. I was occasionally his wife.”
Palladin’s twin passions were no secret to those in his kitchen..“If somebody says they knew Jean-Louis, the test is to ask them, ‘What are the two things Jean-Louis loved to do more than anything in the world?’” Sneed posits during a lunch break at the Watergate, still hours before the tribute dinner.
The first thing is “cooking,” he says. The second “-ing” word is unprintable in this section of the newspaper.
“But that’s what made him,” he adds, “and I think there’s a very fine line between the two, the way he did it. In the kitchen, he had so much sexuality and passion. It was really central.”
Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the truth ends and the mythmaking begins in these stories. Each of the chefs who worked with Palladin was, in some profound way, defined by his time at Jean-Louis. They have some small stake in pushing the legend. Dahrouch was only 15 when he started working at La Table des Cordeliers, Palladin’s restaurant in his hometown of Condom, where Palladin became the youngest chef in France to earn two Michelin stars. (Dahrouch, Palladin’s longtime sous-chef, was part of the package deal when Palladin was hired at the Watergate in 1979.) Stachowski was in his early 20s when he entered the Jean-Louis kitchen. Sneed was something of a journeyman cook when he finally convinced Palladin to hire him in the 1980s.
The men all recall the impossibly cramped kitchen at the subterranean Jean-Louis, where Palladin had a stool, with wheels, that he would use to paddle about the space. They talk about how there were just three men to prep, work the line and plate every dish on Palladin’s elaborate, handwritten menus. Later they acknowledge that, as Marcel’s chef and owner Robert Wiedmaier points out, Jean-Louis also had three women in the kitchen, some of the best prep cooks in the business, all from Central America.
The women “were like a machine,” Wiedmaier recalls. “You name it, they did it.” Wiedmaier would inherit the prep cooks when he took over Palladin, a casual bistro upstairs at the Watergate that opened several years before its namesake chef would leave the hotel for good in 1996. The women had such skills they could handle work for both the Palladin and Jean-Louis restaurants.
The one subject in which there is no disagreement: Palladin’s temper, which flared, it seems, only during service. His words were loud enough to be heard in the dining room. They were harsh enough to convince cooks to leave, including Sneed and Eric Ripert (who would later find fame and four stars at Le Bernardin), even if they would frequently return to the fold, sometimes the very night they called it quits.
“I would sit him down every month or two, and I’d say, ‘Jean-Louis, can you stop screaming at me?’” remembers Sneed. “And for a week, he wouldn’t scream at me, and then one night he’d start and it wouldn’t end for months.”
Cookbook author and former restaurateur Susie Heller never worked at Jean-Louis, but she and Palladin were close friends. She, like others, takes pains to single out Palladin’s generosity, the sunny counterweight to the screaming darkness of his kitchen. Like all the time Palladin devoted to charity or just mentoring young chefs. Or the time Palladin bailed Stachowski from jail for an offense that the cook would not name. Or his efforts to grow the business of producers such as Jamison Farm (which supplied the baby lamb for the dinner) and Salute Santé! (which supplied the grapeseed oil).
Heller has a theory about her late friend’s tantrums.
“He was so brilliant,” she says. “I think the words couldn’t catch up with what was in his mind. I think he just got really frustrated. ‘Why can’t they know what I know? Why can’t they see what I see?’ ”
Sneed must have felt the same way when he first eyeballed Giannini’s preparation of baby lamb, which the chefs eventually replated. They ditched the green parsley-and-potato sauce and placed the chops over a small jumble of sauteed chanterelles, a study in shades of gold and brown, just as Palladin would have wanted. Sneed had no qualms with the other courses for the evening’s meal, including a quail egg buried in buttery brioche and topped with an intemperate amount of osetra caviar, and a silky corn soup studded with fresh lobster and lobster quenelles.
This is sumptuous food from another era, a time before the #MeToo movement and before chefs embraced techniques and ingredients from all corners of the globe. This was when white male chefs knew few boundaries, and whatever ones they encountered, they often pushed past them or didn’t even recognize them. Sneed recalls the day that Palladin punched the maitre d’ on the Queen Elizabeth 2 after he informed the chef that the ocean liner’s customers didn’t like his food. Valentin Humer, founder of Salute Santé, remembers when Palladin ripped off his shirt at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and rubbed grapeseed oil all over his chest because he heard it might prevent impotence.
Sneed, for one, says he wouldn’t trade his five years at Jean-Louis for anything. But for Regine Palladin, Jean-Louis’s former wife, the chef’s legacy is more complicated. She has fond memories of his food, which she says she misses terribly. As for her personal life with Palladin, she prefers to remain mum on the subject. She says it is Verveine’s turn to grapple with her father’s legacy.
“It’s not my time to be there,” Regine says. “It’s her time.”
True to her word, Regine was nowhere to be found at the Watergate tribute dinner to the man who made so many people happy — except, perhaps, the one closest to him.