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.”
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.
They also found the food unlike anything else available in Washington. Because Salgo saw the restaurant as a mark of prestige, not as a revenue driver, Palladin was liberated, in the kitchen and out.
“Jean-Louis was so intent in the way he cooked but also in the way he searched for ingredients,” says Boulud, who arrived in DC a year and a half after Palladin. (He sought out Palladin, he says today, “an hour after collecting my luggage.”)
Boulud remembers how Palladin would pack up his Mercedes convertible and set off for the countryside to hunt for some rare cultivar or connect with farmers so he could custom-order what he needed to grow to his specifications.
“He was doing farm-to-table before anyone knew what that was,” says John Jamison, whose Jamison Farm is now regarded as the purveyor of some of the best lamb in the US. For most of the 1980s, Jamison was scraping by as a shepherd in southwestern Pennsylvania, advertising leg of lamb in the back of magazines around the holidays. He wanted to expand but was having trouble finding distribution wide enough to convince bankers he deserved a loan—until, in 1988, he got a phone call from Palladin.
One night shortly thereafter, Jamison and his wife found themselves shouldering milk lambs through the Watergate parking garage into Palladin’s tiny kitchen. As Palladin unwrapped the butcher-paper and cheesecloth shrouds, Jamison says, the chef wept. He then asked Jamison, “How big do you want to get?”
Palladin’s support for local farms and fishermen was rooted in his disavowal of the standard dogma that French products were better than American.
“You know—Champagne can only be from Champagne, good squab is only from France,” says Jamison. “He told me, ‘That’s baloney.’ Once he showed us what he wanted, he felt we were better than the French.”
Palladin particularly bemoaned the canned scallops commonly served around Washington. Driving through Maine in the early 1980s, he struck up a conversation with a marine-biology student named Rod Browne Mitchell. They talked about how seafood was harvested—American sea scallops were almost exclusively dredged from the ocean floor by giant mechanical scoops, which could leave them bruised and oxygen-deprived. Palladin convinced Mitchell to don a wetsuit and scuba mask to gather the scallops by hand. Their encounter added the term “diver scallops” to menus in restaurants everywhere.
The meeting also spawned Mitchell’s Browne Trading Company, whose seafood is still known nationally as best in class.
“My first time [at Jean-Louis], I had a warm scallop with ginger beurre blanc and seaweed salad,” says Alain Planche, a French-trained chef who owned DC’s Le Rivage and visited Palladin’s restaurant when he could. “I had never, ever tasted anything like this.” Nowadays, Planche says, you can find seaweed at the local Safeway. “Back then, it might as well have been from another planet.”
Palladin made sure his customers knew what they were eating, too. Bruce Nichols, a wine consultant, remembers the extraordinary experience of having a waiter tell guests the origin of each ingredient. “Today it’s become so commonplace, but at the time he was regarded as such an eccentric.”
With so many new pigments to paint with, Palladin was always experimenting with his finds. “First, he’d slice it and he would nibble on it,” says Jimmy Sneed, a sous chef at Jean-Louis who later opened the Frog and the Redneck in Richmond. “He’d sauté it. He’d eat a plate of it. He’d purée it and make a soup out of it. Then he’d create the perfect dish.”
Quite quickly, Jean-Louis became a laboratory for younger chefs.
In 1989, when he was 24, Eric Ripert left the tutelage of Joël Robuchon—who had been anointed a “chef of the century” by the esteemed restaurant guide Gault & Millau—to land at Jean-Louis.
Ripert remembers being greeted by a loose-limbed, long-haired fellow sporting blue jeans beneath his chef’s jacket. “It was like going from Catholic school to Woodstock,” Ripert says of his transition from the formality of French kitchens to Palladin’s freewheeling operation. Palladin booked him a room and a table for dinner. “After my meal, I was like, ‘F---, I came to America to help these guys become good.’ ” Instead, he realized, he was going to have to work just to keep up.
Most afternoons, Palladin shuffled into the kitchen around 4:30 and presented a handwritten menu for the evening to be photocopied so the cooks could begin prepping—a step that at other restaurants begins the night before. “I’m talking like 24 dishes, half of which we’d never seen,” Sneed says.
As a boss, Palladin was like “an attack dog,” Sneed recalls. “My first week, the maître d’ told him, ‘Jean-Louis, customers are going to walk out if you don’t stop screaming.’ ”
That cramped kitchen “was like being in Vietnam,” says Timothy Dean, a Palladin and Top Chef alum who owns TD Burger in Northeast DC’s H Street corridor. “Bullets were flying.”
“He liked chaos,” says Ripert. “If the kitchen was going too well, he’d create chaos to be able to scream.”
But after the last dish left the kitchen, Palladin lit a cigarette, says Ripert, “like nothing ever happened: ‘Let’s go have a drink. Let’s share a piece of foie gras.’ He was very much in the present, in his own world he created.”
Says Dean: “Jean-Louis would fly all night and work all day. In the kitchen, it was business, but when we were done—man, there were some parties I could never talk about.”
Younger cooks especially swooned over Palladin’s Jekyll-and-Hyde routine. “He would be screaming and slamming things, and then after dinner we’d all go out somewhere and they’d fall in love with him,” says Sneed.
It didn’t hurt that Palladin was more than six feet tall, all sinewy muscle, or that he spoke in a smooth Barry White baritone. His electricity, Ripert says, “was almost tangible.” If he walked into a room, you’d swivel your head “because you felt a presence.”
“When he turned it on,” says Sneed, “dude, he could’ve seduced me.”
Palladin’s intensity was at times brutal. Ripert struggled to find a flight path under his constant verbal barrage: “He refused to speak to me in French, and I didn’t speak English.” One night, according to Dean, Palladin “was just riding [Ripert]. Eric looked at him and was like, ‘F--- this.’ ”
“I gave back my apron and said, ‘I’m leaving,’ ” Ripert says.
Palladin followed him to his locker. “It was a huge fight,” Ripert recalls, with the upstart shouting his resentment about months of abuse and Palladin screaming back: “He said, ‘You’re coming from Robuchon—you should be giving me much more.’ ” Finally, Palladin relented. “ ‘You impress me,’ he said. ‘I change my attitude.’ ”
Ripert retied his apron and returned to the line.
After the blowup, Palladin toned down his temper “and I started to bloom,” says Ripert. Promoted to sous chef, he stayed two more years before moving to New York, where he eventually took over at Le Bernardin, one of the most highly regarded French restaurants in the country. “What I learned in France was techniques. Respect for the product. Discipline. Jean-Louis taught me to have no fear.”
Beyond the chaos of the kitchen, Jean-Louis at the Watergate was booming.
Nearly immediately after Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration in 1981, a coterie of the President’s wealthy California pals, known as “the Group,” took apartments at the Watergate—Leonore Annenberg, chief of protocol for the State Department, and husband Walter; Charles Wick, a Reagan fundraiser and head of the US Information Agency; and department-store heir Alfred Bloomingdale and wife Betsy, a longtime friend of Nancy Reagan’s. Jean-Louis, conveniently located, became their clubhouse.
“It was like Hollywood East,” says Buffy Cafritz, a senior stateswoman of the DC social scene.
The Californians, well versed in the West Coast’s foodie revolution, valued Jean-Louis’s creativity and ignored the oddly situated, cramped space. “It’s like a hairdresser,” Cafritz says. “There can be sawdust on the floor, but if the stylist is outstanding, you’ll go.”
After the President’s official 70th-birthday party at the executive mansion, Palladin hosted an intimate party for 48 friends. Actor Jimmy Stewart serenaded Reagan’s table with “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” and House minority leader Robert Michel answered with “Old Man River” and “Send in the Clowns.”
Washington’s old guard had a more complicated relationship with the restaurant. Not everyone was up for the adventure of Palladin’s culinary experiments. (Washingtonian critic Robert Shoffner gave it such a resoundingly bad review that Palladin refused to serve him on a subsequent visit, until Shoffner called in the police to enforce the public-accommodations law.) Cafritz stuck with the Jockey Club, in what’s now the Fairfax hotel on Massachusetts Avenue, which had been a haunt for the in-town elite and celebrities such as Frank Sinatra since the Kennedy years. (It eventually became Nancy Reagan’s go-to lunch spot, too, though the White House chef reportedly sent out for Palladin’s passionfruit sorbet.)
The attention from the administration and rave reviews in other local press, however, soon made Jean-Louis a standard stop on a rapidly expanding restaurant scene. Julia Child often came by, Dean remembers, as did Thomas Keller years before he went west to found his now legendary French Laundry restaurant. (Keller’s eatery still features a beet-and-leek dish he first encountered at the Watergate.) Senator John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor were regulars. Jean-Louis became a venue for high-profile celebrations—Mstislav Rostropovich, then conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, a regular himself, was feted there for his 60th birthday. Imelda Marcos threw a dinner party at the restaurant too, after taking over the Watergate’s entire lobby for the reception.
Stephanie Kinney, who joined the State Department in 1976, remembers hatching a state visit in 1986 between the newly elected president of Uruguay and Ronald Reagan over several meals at Jean-Louis with that country’s ambassador, Hector Luisi. “He wanted to make sure that I understood how serious this was taken by the Uruguayan government,” says Kinney, a midlevel officer at State at the time. “[Doing it at] Jean-Louis was a good signal.”
Success didn’t pacify Palladin’s voracious appetites.
Though he was married, he became notorious around town for an insatiable libido.
“I knew Jean-Louis for many years,” Régine Palladin—who had come with him from France and today owns the Dupont Circle restaurant Pesce—used to say after his death. “I was occasionally his wife.”
Or, as Jimmy Sneed puts it, “All he wanted to do is cook and get laid.”
The latter activity began to take precedence as the restaurant fell into routine. Palladin won two James Beard Awards, including Outstanding Chef of 1993, but was increasingly absent from the restaurant. He opened Pesce. Talk about new ventures in New York began to circulate. Meanwhile, the Watergate had gone through several owners, and by the mid-’90s, a British hotel-management company, Trusthouse Forte, was managing it for an international investor group. Palladin’s new bosses—including general manager Michel Ducamp and another Watergate employee—had less patience with his absences than Salgo did. “They’d come downstairs and be like, ‘Jean-Louis is never here—where is he?’ ” recalls Timothy Dean.
In mid-1996, it became clear the hotel would not renew his contract. Palladin cleaned out his office. “When they came to close him down,” says Dean, “he was already gone.” Less than a year later, he was in Vegas, where he had finally secured an invitation to open a new restaurant, Napa, in the Rio Suite Hotel.
“Tonight,” the Post’s Phyllis Richman wrote, “the most acclaimed Washington restaurant ever closes its doors in a stormy ending to a stellar reign.”
Palladin prospered in Vegas, which was beginning its rise as a serious food city—he’s still honored there, in an annual dinner, as a pioneer—and as the cradle of the celebrity-chef phenomenon.
While still living in Vegas, he was al-so pulled to New York, where he briefly opened a bistro in a Times Square hotel. But in the great big pond of New York, he never became the celebrity he was in Washington.
In Eric Ripert’s offices at Le Bernardin, a black-and-white photograph on the back of a door shows Palladin at work. The picture was taken in 2001, shortly before Palladin, a two-pack-a-day smoker, died of lung cancer at age 55.
“He’s very weak there,” Ripert explains. “But he still wants to cook.”
During his cancer treatment, Palladin visited Le Bernardin nearly every day. When he became too sick, he moved back to McLean, which is where Ripert saw him during his final days.
“They cut . . .” Ripert says, gesturing at his throat. “And then in with the tubes.” But Palladin still wanted to taste and remember the ingredients he used to cook with—the foie gras, the truffle, the seafood—even after doctors severed his digestive system.
Says Ripert: “He’d chew, swallow, and then it goes down into the plastic container.”
The whiff of Nixonian conspiracy still clings to the word “Watergate,” but everything about the newly renovated hotel is sleekly modern, or else refers to the complex’s pre-scandal past: the staff’s uniforms, designed by Mad Men costumer Janie Bryant, have a ’60s swing to them.
The owners want to make the place sexy again. But they won’t be doing so in Palladin’s old joint: The space Mark Luria stumbled on two years ago, according to Euro Capital Properties, will probably end up as a storage space. Like many phenomena that no one could have seen coming, Jean-Louis at the Watergate is almost unimaginable in hindsight.
Still, last year when Daniel Boulud was preparing to open DBGB at CityCenterDC, he hosted an event at Cleveland Park’s La Piquette for several dozen Washington chefs to announce his return to the city. Boulud thanked two people from his past: Phyllis Richman and Jean-Louis Palladin.
“I always loved his restaurant,” Boulud says. “It was like a [Michelin] three-star restaurant in a garage—the most unique, well-known garage in America, for sure.”
See this article in our October 2015 issue of Washingtonian.