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"The French Chef Who Taught Washington How to Eat"

The Washingtonian, 2015



In early 2013, Mark Luria, then a development executive with Euro Capital Properties, finally descended the stairs to Level B-2, a catacomb-like basement connected to a parking garage at the Watergate Hotel.


A year before, Euro Capital Properties had begun a $125-million renovation of the hotel, and Luria wanted to see how much demolition the long-disused area would need. Navigating with a flashlight and a floor plan, he crept along a narrow hallway that dead-ended at a windowless room.


Inside, the air was cold and damp, the red carpet marshy under his feet. He shined his beam upward, and it bounced against mirrored walls. Spotting another door, he inched it open to find a decayed mess of a kitchen, with tarnished pots and pans strewn on a counter, all of it untouched for nearly two decades.


"It must have been my imagination," Luria says, "but I'd walk down into that area and I was almost expecting to turn a corner and see someone standing there."


Today, with the long-planned reveal of the legendary hotel fast approaching, all traces of what used to be a dining room called Jean-Louis at the Watergate are gone. Its creator and taskmaster, Jean-Louis Palladin, too, is long gone, his cookbook out of print, his signature dishes now barely mentioned on blogs that track meals as if they were rare birds.


The man whose table once drew Reagan-administration insiders and 1980s moneymen — and whose kitchen trained a murderers' row of today's star chefs — lacks even a Wikipedia page.


But in another sense, Palladin's imprint is everywhere in today's farm-to-table movement: in how small farmers farm, how chefs cook, and how diners dine. Little known as he is today, he's the author, along with Nora Pouillon and Michel Richard, of DC's nationally known food scene. In his day, he accomplished something as important: His restaurant helped the Watergate, and Washington, shake off its post-scandal pall.


"I don't think there's enough people who pay attention to who he was and how important he was to Washington," says Daniel Boulud, who knew Palladin well back when Boulud was cooking for the European Commission's ambassador. "For me, going back to Washington today, I wish Jean-Louis was still there."


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Jean-Louis Palladin was a rangy, toothy Gascon when he arrived in Washington in 1979 with a one-line résumé: the youngest chef ever to win two Michelin stars.


Never had anyone of Palladin's caliber left France for the United States, much less for Washington, where dining was only beginning to bud as an intellectual endeavor. At the time, French food in the US remained centered on the Escoffier classics — crêpes suzette, boeuf bourguignon — that Julia Child prepared on TV.


Urbane Americans, however, had heard of an upheaval across the Atlantic called nouvelle cuisine, in which the heavy sauces of classic French cooking were abandoned in favor of fresh ingredients and a pared-down, modernist presentation on the plate. Palladin, who'd trained in classical cooking, had won his stars for nouvelle takes on the food of southwestern France, served at La Table des Cordeliers, in his native town of Condom.


Palladin had been plucked from rural France by Nicolas Salgo, a Hungarian immigrant who was chairman of the Watergate and was an art collector whose shopping trips frequently took him to Europe. Introducing the new French style of cooking, Salgo thought, could help change the conversation about the Watergate, which had become synonymous with, as Gerald Ford put it, the long national nightmare of the Nixon presidency. The notoriety was in part good for business — guests at the hotel purloined towels and bathrobes to be able to show off the Watergate logo back home — but for one of DC's swankiest addresses, it was the wrong kind of publicity.


Dangling an open checkbook and the promise of culinary freedom, Salgo lured Palladin and his two Michelin stars to DC.


Jean-Louis opened its doors in an unlikely space: rooms previously used by the Capital Democratic Club, located just off the underground garage. The space seated no more than 50 for dinner; the windowless interior was described by longtime Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman as "an orange cave with mirror tricks turning the curving walls into more unorthodox shapes." Its location, however, worked to its advantage: In a city where people can make news just by eating together, the powerful quickly grasped that they could step from car to table without being exposed to daylight.


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Read the full article at The Washingtonian's website.