Greatest Chef of our Time?

(Written for the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Food Arts)

I’m writing a book, trying to decide a title and direction. You see, I spent five and a half years working for what I think are the two greatest chefs of our time: Guenter Seeger and Jean-Louis Palladin. Which one was better? You’ll have to read the book.

But this is about Jean-Louis. I just read Bryan Miller’s gentle tribute to Jean-Louis in Food Arts. One thing is true: every cook, chef and food lover in America owes much to what Jean-Louis brought to the table, so to speak. When I began working with him in 1982 he had been open a scant two years at the Watergate.

I got the job, not because I was a talented cook (I wasn’t) but because I speak French. I wanted to learn from a master. And I was willing to do whatever it took. As my friend Chef Jeffery Buben advised me, “Stay with him as long as you can stand it, because there’s not a better chef anywhere.” So it was that I spent five miserable years in his kitchen. I wouldn’t change a thing.

I watched as Jean-Louis developed relationships with purveyors, pleading with them to find exciting new products: unheard of fungi, ink from the squid, coral from lobsters, hand harvested scallops, baby eel trapped (illegally?) in nets. All of this was new and now we take it for granted.

On a trip to a duck farm he asked if he could have one of the ducks, whose throat he promptly slit and captured the blood in a bucket for later use. A dish served at a banquet for 350 French chefs included ‘white kidneys’, two of which hang from every male duck.

Speaking of throat slitting… Jean-Louis decided he wanted to host an event that harkens back to his youth in southwest France. Thus began the annual ‘tue cochon’, or pig killing, at a farm just north of Aldie, Virginia. It was an excuse for a party, a gathering of chefs, friends, and culinary fans from all over. This annual event was on everybody’s calendar.

If memory serves, he actually only killed a pig the first year. It seems that somebody ratted him out and the Feds got involved. After that, the noble beast (the pig, not Jean-Louis) was brought in already dispatched.

Pig killings and duck balls aside; there is a reason that Jean-Louis should be remembered. He changed the culinary landscape. Forever. Chefs from all over would come into the miniscule kitchen to watch him cook, and hear him scream. A 25 year old Daniel Boulud stood there mesmerized by the talent before him. On the Charlie Rose show recently Daniel noted that modern American cuisine can be defined as pre Jean-Louis and post Jean-Louis. Hear, hear.

Much of what made Jean-Louis great was a matter of timing. Nouvelle cuisine had just run its course in Europe; and America, had no ‘known’ culinary greats. There was Julia who was the first to say she wasn’t a chef. And Chef Tell with his crazy accent. Oh, don’t forget the Galloping Gourmet and his ever present glass of red. Give me a break. And unknown to the public at large were such working chefs as Andre Soltner, Alain Sailhac, and others. Emerging in coast-to-coast fame were of course Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and a slew of cooks, struggling to engage their customers in the appreciation of great food.

But Jean-Louis arrived with magnificent credentials (youngest 2 star Michelin chef ever) and a personality that could charm the evil out of Dick Cheney.

Nevertheless Jean-Louis was indeed larger than life. For fifteen years he left the stove rarely, usually to do a benefit somewhere. Not once did he go home early and leave his cooks in charge. (I wouldn’t have left me in charge either.) He was a cook’s cook. To watch him create a menu from scratch every day at 4:00 with some thirty dishes, some of which we had never seen before, left us in awe. New products (corn, cactus, palm logs, soft shell crabs) offered him a challenge. He thrived at the stove.

And special customers like Rostropovich or Jacques Maximin or Ariane Daguin would get meals that most diners could only dream about, often at the expense of other customers. The backbar area of the dining room would be stacked with plates of food that never got served usually because of the long waits, or the screaming from the kitchen.

Yet, he was quick to applaud, as he did after a 1985 meal at Montrachet, where he proclaimed that Chef David Bouley had cooked him “the best meal by an American Chef that I ever ate”. And he was quick to condemn. (For more on that, read my book. I’ll name names.)

Ironically this Frenchman defined modern American cuisine. True, he trained in France, worked in France and struggled with the English language for thirty years, but his food was built around the fundamentals of French technique, and most importantly, local product. He called his style ‘cuisine d’instinct’.

So when an amateur mushroom hunter shows up with twenty two different kinds of mushrooms he found, Jean-Louis took a slice from each and sautéed them, put them on a plate and told the guy to eat them. Convinced, Jean-Louis did a fricassee of wild, local mushrooms with fresh heart of palm on that evening’s menu.

So, was Jean-Louis a great chef? Not even. A great chef leads, teaches, organizes. A great chef creates great cooks. A great chef puts out consistently great food.

Was Jean-Louis a great cook?  Maybe the best ever.


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