On Thursday afternoon, five notable chefs took a break from preparing a five-course dinner at the Watergate Hotel’s Kingbird restaurant to sit around a table and reminisce about an old friend and one of the culinary world’s greatest innovators: Jean-Louis Palladin.
“What didn’t I learn from Jean-Louis?” Richmond-based chef Jimmy Sneed said, referring to Palladin, who ran his namesake restaurant at the Watergate from 1979 to 1996.
“He made me a chef. I doubt I would have made it without him.”
Nearly 40 years before Bon Appétit named D.C. the country’s Restaurant City of the Year, Palladin was already turning the nation’s capital into a food capital with his 15-table dining room, tucked in the parking garage level of The Watergate Hotel in Northwest, D.C.
The French chef, who had two Michelin stars by the age of 28, was tapped by the owners of the D.C.-based hotel to help bring a new image to the property, whose name at the time was synonymous with scandal. Palladin’s first U.S. restaurant, Jean-Louis, opened in 1979, and his menu blended French techniques with East Coast ingredients.
“Before he opened, French food of the ‘50s and ‘60s was French onion soup and quiche and snails … and beef bourguignon. And when Jean-Louis came here, he had done classical French and then he had done nouvelle cuisine in France, and he brought all that with him here and did what he called … instinctive cuisine,” Sneed said.
“So he could take a product he’d never seen before and taste it and cook it and taste it again and make a dish out of it.”
Colleagues consider Palladin a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, long before the term was coined. Sneed said fisherman started bringing whole monkfish to the restaurant because Palladin wanted to cook the cheeks and the liver. The chef also commissioned divers to pick live scallops from the ocean floor, hence the name “diver scallops.”
“That was revolutionary,” said Sneed, who added that Palladin also encouraged his friends in the industry to order from small, regional farmers and fisherman.
“There are so many producers in this country that owe Jean-Louis their livelihood.”
Jamie Stachowski, who used to work with Palladin and now runs Stachowski Market in Georgetown, described Palladin as “the Alice Waters of the East Coast.”
“He was a passionate, generous man, no question,” said legendary French-American chef Jacques Pépin.
Palladin was also known for being a mentor to the next generation of culinary superstars. Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin worked at Jean-Louis; Daniel Boulud also learned from the chef.
“When Jean-Louis started here, there were no famous chefs in America,” Sneed said.
“We had a couple of TV chefs, but the idea that chefs were everywhere — on TV, getting awards — that meant nothing to Jean-Louis. His world was in the kitchen and in the dining room.”
When Jean-Louis shut its doors in 1996, it left a hole in D.C.’s culinary community. At the time of its closing, Phyllis Richman wrote in The Washington Post, “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.”
Five years later, Palladin died in McLean, Virginia, of lung cancer.
On Aug. 8, the restaurant and the chef who led it were remembered at a tribute dinner to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Palladin’s arrival in D.C. The menu — which included quail egg with caviar on brioche; corn soup with Rod Mitchell lobster and lobster quenelles; summer vegetable terrine with tomato coulis; and Jamison Farm baby lamb with chanterelles and herbs — was prepared by Pépin, Sneed and Stachowski, plus former colleague Larbi Dahrouch and Kingbird Executive Chef Sébastien Giannini.
“You can tell, he touched all of us,” said Stachowski, who also met his wife at Jean-Louis.
Kingbird’s tribute to Palladin will continue throughout the month of August with a three-course prix fixe menu, highlighting his favorite recipes and sourced ingredients.