Midway through our meal at the restaurant Daniel–after the caviar and tiny rosettes of salmon tartar, after the rolled fillets of Portuguese sardines filled with sweet peppers, and after a few glasses of white and red Châteauneuf du Pape–I asked Jean-Louis Palladin what goes through his mind when he is in the kitchen.
Mr. Palladin–the 54-year-old French chef formerly of the restaurants Palladin in New York, Jean-Louis at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., and now Napa in Las Vegas–bolted upright in his chair, as if someone had dropped a tray of dishes behind him. Bushy-haired with big chopper teeth, he was wearing dark slacks, a cream-colored wool turtleneck and a black Catalina jacket. He looked at Tanya Bogdanovic, his Greek-Yugoslavian girlfriend, a flirtatious woman with dark eyes and a boyish haircut.
“It’s like making love to a lady like that,” he said as his hand reached out and grazed Ms. Bogdanovic’s slender arm. “I believe there is a very fine line between making love to a woman and doing food. It is all, uh, sensual.”
Delivered in his French baritone, the word “sensual” became onomatopoeic.
“When I cook for myself,” Mr. Palladin said, “I believe I make love with the food.”
As I watched him sitting in Daniel that evening, lost in the simple, visceral pleasure of eating good food well prepared, a dark cloud of a thought formed in my brain: How can a man wrestling with death be so alive? If you were to see Mr. Palladin on the street, you would not think, There goes a sick man . His hair is thick, his stride is strong, the woman on his arm is compelling. But in December he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and by the time you read this story, he will be waiting to learn if his second round of chemotherapy shrank his tumor sufficiently to allow his surgeons at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to remove it. Waiting almost as anxiously is the population of chefs of New York, many of whom Mr. Palladin brought to the city.
And yet, for all his shortness of breath and for all the bags of heinous chemotherapy circulating in his bloodstream, I can assure you that Mr. Palladin is a man more alive than either you or me.
Across the table from him at Daniel sat Rod Mitchell, a husky fish purveyor from Maine and a good friend. “He has the passion for ingredients,” Mr. Mitchell said. “I believe it is exactly like when you touch a lady. You feel that–-”
“That stimulation,” Ms. Bogdanovic filled in.
“When I go to the market and touch a leek,” said Mr. Palladin, ” oh-hh-h .” He hunched his shoulders as if shuddering with delight. “Somebody work a lot to provide that leek.” He pointed to Mr. Mitchell. “Just to go to fish and to feel the fish [fighting]!”
Mr. Palladin let out a little sound of exclamation.
“It’s like coming,” he said quietly.
If you spend any time in a first-class restaurant kitchen during the lunch or dinner rush, you will immediately understand that in the ballet of pots, knives and fire there is no time for introspection–only instinct. New York rewards those who can perform in such a theater. But until I ate dinner with Jean-Louis Palladin, I hadn’t realized how clueless I was about the beginning of that equation.
Mr. Palladin made me understand that a leek or a salmon, plucked from the earth or the sea, was not an inert object. That inside every good thing we eat is an after-life force, if you will, which the great chefs take joy in releasing–an act of resurrection performed daily. Animal and vegetable are brought into the kitchen freshly extinguished, and by the time they are delivered to the dining room they are alive again, in new flavors and textures. Clearly, the man revels in this power. But like the hunter who worships the prey he kills, Mr. Palladin has an almost sacred respect for the meshing of life, death and food.
“He has an instinct when he cooks,” said Lespinasse executive chef Christian Delouvrier, who has known Mr. Palladin since their culinary-school days in France. “He comes to the moment, and he knows exactly what to do at that moment. He is right there.” Even the ingredients that Mr. Palladin favors speak to the essence of life. Long before organ meats were in vogue, the chef was working with calf hearts and brains, pig bladders and the blood of lamprey–ingredients that even today give us pause–and working his transformational magic on them. The chef Eric Ripert, a man who filled the shoes of Le Bernardin’s legendary co-founder Gilbert Le Coze, said that in his life, he has had three mentors. “Joël Robuchon taught me technique and discipline. Gilbert showed me how to run a kitchen and restaurant. But Jean-Louis,” Mr. Ripert said, “opened my mind.”
In 1979, Mr. Palladin arrived in America, settling in the nation’s capital with his then wife, Régine Palladin, a culinary figure in her own right who owns the Washington restaurant Pesce. At the end of that year he had opened Jean-Louis at the Watergate, and by 1985 he and Régine had two children. But Mr. Palladin, part missionary, part voluptuary, was determined to teach the country that French cuisine was much sexier and more challenging than Dover Sole, no matter how much we resisted.
He began to tour the states, cooking charity meals and exploring the farmlands and the backwater towns for purveyors who could provide him with the oddities and the quality his cooking demanded.
“While all these French chefs were busy bullshitting about how their butter was better, he was here sourcing American products,” said Drew Nieporent, co-owner of Nobu and Tribeca Grill. Mr. Palladin, he said, was “unquestionably the most influential food person in my life” and “the greatest chef in America,” adding: “There’s an intricacy about his food, but there’s also a simplicity of presentation. He has a knowledge of food and a love for it that surpasses someone who’s book-read on the subject.” Mr. Palladin facilitated a virtual French invasion of chefs to America, helping Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert land their first jobs in New York. “He’s shaped the culinary map,” said Michael Ginor, the owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras.
Mr. Palladin’s stories are those of a man who believes in protagonists and antagonists. For example, Mr. Palladin said that when he was nearly 16, his formal training ended when he was kicked out of culinary school for punching a teacher. “I was not a very good student …. I was the No. 1 joker at school. And this [teacher], he was punishing me.” Mr. Palladin pronounced it “poo-nish-ing.”
“Every Sunday, he was punishing me. Until the day I went with three guys, and boom, boom, boom, we left him in his office flat on his desk. We close the door, pull out the key. By the time they find the guy–” Mr. Palladin finished the sentence with his dusky chuckle.
When they can get away from their kitchens, Mr. Ripert and renowned French chefs Alain Ducasse and Paul Bocuse have accompanied Mr. Palladin on his obsessive explorations of the city’s markets and restaurants. In one recent week, he took colleagues to an Italian restaurant called Peasant on Elizabeth Street and a Basque restaurant called Marichu on East 46th Street, near the United Nations.
Mr. Ripert, Mr. Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and others are bolstering Mr. Palladin’s spirit by giving him open reservations at their restaurants, knocking themselves out to please and surprise him. The chefs of New York are also helping with Mr. Palladin’s extensive medical bills. The sad irony is that the mentor never attained the financial success of his protégés. Mr. Palladin’s ascent came before chefs regularly parlayed their fame into books, TV projects and product-licensing deals. When he did earn well, he lived well.
So in late February at New York’s annual Restaurant and Foodservice Show, Mr. Ripert auctioned off a week of training in Le Bernardin’s kitchen and seats to a series of dinners at Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges and other local restaurants, and raised more than $20,000. Two lots of knives autographed by Mr. Palladin, Mr. Boulud, Chicago chef Charlie Trotter and others sold at La Paulée, a wine event in San Francisco, for a combined $40,000. The money is going into the Jean-Louis Palladin Medical Fund, which the chef’s friends–Mr. Ripert, Mr. Boulud, Mr. Nieporent and Mr. Ginor, among others–have started for him. In June, Mr. Boulud will host a $500-a-plate dinner in the private banquet room of his restaurant featuring 11 French and American chefs preparing dinner. Mr. Ginor has started Mr. Palladin writing a new cookbook on the cuisine bourgeoise of his native country. He is also organizing a late-summer all-star chefs’ dinner to be hosted by Mr. Ducasse at The Essex House.
As for Mr. Palladin, “he’s amazingly strong,” said Mr. Ripert. “He still eat like a pig, fuck like a rabbit, drink like a fish.”
This became apparent upon my arrival at Daniel, where Mr. Palladin sat waiting for me with Ms. Bogdanovic and Mr. Mitchell. The moment I sat down, Mr. Palladin said, “You need to eat.” There was a three-tiered silver tray of hors d’oeuvres.
“Here you have salmon,” he said, pointing to little tarts piled with slivers of salmon tartare. “Here you have truffle.” He motioned to a puff pastry filled with a sharp earthy mix of Parmesan and truffle cream and topped with black shavings.
He has always been a wiry, fit guy (in 1999 he posed naked, save for a strategically placed Vita-Mix blender, in an ad for the appliance, telling The New York Times, “You are a chef, you are a sex symbol …”) and he did not look like he had lost much weight during his ordeal. Somehow, he had managed to keep his hair. All in all, he looked damn good for a man who said he’d undergone eight hours of chemotherapy the day before.
“I don’t think I’m sick. I don’t think I’m sick,” he said. “But I know I’m sick. My breaths. It’s tough, but that’s the only moment I see I’m sick.”
Mr. Palladin made a fist with his left hand and placed it over his heart and left lung. “It’s right here,” he said. “Right here, on the top of the lung.” The tumor, he explained, is also perilously close to his aorta. “You can play tennis with it,” he said matter-of-factly. “Incredible. He is in the body for six years. He never move. For six years. And six months ago, boom.” Mr. Palladin opened his fist like a blooming flower.
“You knew about the tumor six years ago?” I said.
He explained that after a long period of excessive fatigue, “I told my doctor, ‘That’s enough.’ I said, ‘Put me on the scanner’”–his term for the X-ray machine–”‘because I cannot continue like that.’”
On Dec. 12, Mr. Palladin said, the diagnosis came.
“I said, ‘Another shit in my body.’” Mr. Palladin laughed. He then added resolutely: “I need to fight it. It doesn’t matter what. I’m a survivor.”
Mr. Palladin has given up a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, but regarding his other vices, he has a different understanding from that of his doctors. “Today is a little special, not to drink too much,” the chef said, reaching for his glass of white wine. “But last night, I drink like a–”
“You know, last night it was Valentine’s Day,” he said. He and Ms. Bogdanovic were at Jean-Georges and “open and open and open,” he said, meaning the wine. “The nurse tell me, ‘For today, because you have everything in the blood right now, today you need to be very careful, you need to drink a lot.’ I said, ‘What–wine?’” Mr. Palladin shook his head and smiled. “Lucky I didn’t say what I drink last night. Oh boy, she will kill me.”
Then he admitted, “Tonight, I’m a little low.”
Later in the day he and Ms. Bogdanovic were flying to Las Vegas to check up on Napa. And then, Ms. Bogdanovic said, there was a meeting with potential investors for a new restaurant in San Francisco. After all that, Mr. Palladin said, pointing at Mr. Mitchell, “I’m going to Maine, and this guy is going to produce all the fish.”
Mr. Mitchell, a marine biologist by training, was running a small wine and gourmet food concern in Camden, Me., when one day Mr. Palladin walked in, observed how Camden was like Bordeaux on the coast and “made my business.” Mr. Mitchell was game to get Mr. Palladin whatever he wanted, no matter how hard it was to catch or digest. No dish better illustrates both than Mr. Palladin’s signature Lamproie à la Bordelaise.
Lamproie is French for lamprey, eel-like creatures that attach themselves parasitically to other fish. The lamprey is a hideous, wrinkled black creature with a serrated hole for a mouth and impenetrable, milky-gray eyes. Lamprey, Mr. Mitchell said, “is the only organism that can take fish blood and synthesize it into protein directly.” His Browne Trading Company nets the eels and keeps them writhing until just before they’re served.
“They need to be as close to alive as possible,” Mr. Mitchell explained, “because you need to take the blood before it curdles.”
Mr. Palladin himself dispatches the lamprey. He drains their blood, then skins them and cuts them crosswise into two-inch sections and marinates the pieces overnight in Bordeaux wine, a mixture of chopped leeks, onions, unpeeled carrots, celery, turnips and shallots, and crushed garlic, thyme sprigs and bay leaves. Mr. Palladin lightly sautés the lamprey sections in extra-virgin olive oil and seasons them with salt and pepper. To this, he adds some of the marinade, more Bordeaux and lean, finely chopped prosciutto. He brings this concoction to a boil, then reduces the heat and lets it simmer for a half hour.
Next, Mr. Palladin puts the lamprey cuts in a covered bowl. He adds Fond de Veau , a thick, rich sauce that is made from calves’ feet, veal bones and V-8 juice. The resulting mixture is reduced again and then strained through chinois cloth. To this, the lamprey blood is added.
Braised leeks complete the plate. There is something about the paleness of the leeks contrasting with the blackness of the blood and wine sauce that makes it seem as if the struggle between light and dark, that which thrives in the sun and that which lurks in the depths, has been captured on a plate.
“This is a national dish of the Basque area,” Mr. Palladin said. He grew up nearby in a town called Condom. “Very easy to remember,” he added.
Daniel Boulud recalled that when he was in his 30′s, he celebrated a birthday at Jean-Louis in Washington. Mr. Palladin went all out for the occasion. “Almost everything he cooked for me that night was live before he cooked it,” Mr. Boulud said.
“And Jean-Louis liked the theatrical side of the restaurant. So, of course, he had live crabs, and before he served them he brought them out and let them run around the table. And, at the third course, he came out into the dining room with a towel wrapped up around the lamprey which was jiggling all over the place. It was about three feet long. Very scary,” he said, sounding as if he still hadn’t quite gotten over the experience. “He gave me a blast. When he starts to cook, he is just out of control.”
A man of Mr. Palladin’s culinary convictions is destined for moments of genius and failure. Mr. Nieporent described an important culinary showcase in Carmel, Calif., in the late 80′s. Mr. Palladin had planned to cook his own twist on an ambitious dish, Poularde de Bresse en Vessie , in which a chicken is cooked inside a pig’s bladder, which resembles a veiny, translucent, flesh-colored balloon. Mr. Palladin’s rendition involved using squab.
There was the small problem that pigs’ bladders aren’t legal for culinary use in this country. This, Mr. Palladin said, required him to retrieve the 150 bladders–more than enough for 140 or so diners–under cover of night and spend a day personally cleaning them by hand. He borrowed an air compressor from a local Carmel garage to inflate the bladders.
As Mr. Nieporent explained, the bladder is used merely to keep the bird moist and is discarded before the pigeon is served. But Mr. Palladin wanted his audience of food V.I.P.’s to understand what was involved. “He’s done all of this work, and I remember he said to me, ‘Drew, how do they know? How do they see it?’”
So Mr. Nieporent suggested floating a couple of the bladders on a pool of hot water that had been placed in a chafing dish. Mr. Palladin liked the idea, and they marched it past the dinner guests. “For me, that was an absolute coronation,” Mr. Nieporent said. “He had let me collaborate with him.” But when the dish was served, “he had undercooked the pigeons,” Mr. Nieporent said, adding that the critics reamed him. “But that’s the point of Palladin. He’s never afraid to take a risk.”
The photos for Mr. Palladin’s new cookbook make this abundantly clear. In one, you see the top half of a baby pig, head and all, stuffed with black truffles and sweetbreads. It looks like a Damien Hirst exhibit. There is also an entire stuffed veal heart.
“They’re very carnal,” Michael Ginor said. “Very vivid and in-your-face.” In many cases, these are specialties that Mr. Palladin has been cooking since his Condom days; still, he is pushing the envelope. In the past, Mr. Ginor said, the chef would have applied a little bit of nouvelle cuisine sleight of hand to appeal to his less adventurous clientele. “When I’m doing a brain pancake or tempura Rocky Mountain oysters … people love it and they don’t know what it is, and at the end I tell them what they ate,” said Mr. Palladin. “And they say, ‘Whew!–but it was so good.’”
The waiters at Daniel delivered plates of glistening Portuguese sardines that had been fashioned into thick rings and stuffed with a subtle mixture of tomatoes, olives, sweet peppers and basil and bathed in a fragrant lemon vinaigrette.
“So what happened with Palladin?” I asked the chef.
“It didn’t fly” is all that he would initially say about his ill-fated New York restaurant.
Palladin was positioned as a bistro, which some critics found odd, given Mr. Palladin’s ability to produce much more challenging food. “No Reason for Palladin to Get on High Horse–Yet” read the New York Post ‘s May 5, 1999, review, which took issue largely with the service (“Starbucks-trained”) and the décor (“factory-outlet [Adam] Tihany.”)
“You cannot hide the truth,” Mr. Palladin said as he wrestled with one of his sardines. “I believe I was not in the right spot. No big name is going to do something in Times Square. It was a challenge. I lost the challenge.”
Certainly New Yorkers pride themselves as being on the cutting edge of the culinary world, and I asked Mr. Palladin if, in his experience, that was true. “No,” he replied. “They are very conservative. Very, very conservative. Incredible. Even in Las Vegas, they are more creative than here.” A little smile appeared on his face. “Coco Pazzo gonna do well,” he said.
The problem, he said, is that “you need a lot of money to open in New York City, and you need to have a lot of investors. Or you need to go downtown and try to find a shack,” like 71 Clinton Fresh Food.
An artistic success but not a financial one, Jean-Louis in Washington in the 80′s defined Mr. Palladin as a chef who made memorable food but not profits. Mr. Boulud, who was in Washington around the same time, said of the Watergate restaurant: “Nobody would have been able to make that restaurant work except Jean-Louis. I mean, it was in a basement next to a parking lot. It was a 40-seat restaurant, where unless there was a genius there, no one was going to come.”
“The restaurant was not there to make a profit,” Mr. Palladin said. “It was there to put the hotel on the map.” He did, taking D.C. chefs on picnics and game hunts, and then he had a run-in with a food critic in the dining room of the restaurant.
The writer, Robert Shoffner, had killed Jean-Louis in two reviews. And, Mr. Palladin recalled, “I say, ‘One day or another, this one upstairs is going to send him to me.’ And five years later, the maître d’ come and say to me, ‘Shoffner is in the dining room with a lady.’ Holy moly!”
Mr. Palladin’s voice had descended to a growl. “I start to be white like my jacket. I go to the dining room. Packed! I say, ‘Good evening, Madame; good evening, Monsieur. I need to talk to you. I’m sorry, man, you gave me enough shit like that. Now if, in five minutes from now, you are not out of the dining room, I kick you out.’”
Mr. Shoffner didn’t tell it quite this way. He recalled that though Mr. Palladin refused to serve him, he never threatened to kick him out of the restaurant. But both agree that Mr. Shoffner called the cops on Mr. Palladin.
“I’m all shaky,” Mr. Palladin said, remembering how he felt at the time.
Mr. Palladin’s restaurant lasted 17 years. But it was the very act of coming to the U.S. from France–where, at age 28, he had been the youngest chef to earn two Michelin stars–that made him “a global figure,” as Mr. Boulud put it. Venturing to Jean-Louis, Mr. Nieporent remembered, was becoming “a kind of pilgrimage” for the country’s culinary elite.
One of those pilgrimages was made by a group of surgeons. About seven years ago, Mr. Palladin received a call from a chef friend, Robert Del Grande of Cafe Annie in Houston. Mr. Del Grande said that some physicians from The Johns Hopkins Hospital wanted to eat dinner at Mr. Palladin’s restaurant.
“I said, ‘O.K., come, guys.’ Eight or nine people. I take care of the menu. I take care of the wine.”
After the meal, he met the doctors–”nice guys,” he said–and during their conversation he was asked what his life’s dream was. “To be a surgeon,” Mr. Palladin said. “But my parents, they didn’t have any money. That mean, I’m a surgeon for dead animal, you know.”
Six months after that dinner, Mr. Palladin received a phone call in which a trade was proposed. The Johns Hopkins doctors were having a party at the home of the chief of pediatric surgery, Paul Colombani. Mr. Palladin went to Baltimore and let the surgeons help him prepare a multi-course feast. And early the next morning, the chef accompanied Dr. Colombani to the operating room and looked over his shoulder as he performed four procedures. “Ten hours. I was blown out. I was like a kid with John F. Kennedy,” he said, his eyes wide.
Mr. Palladin was in Vegas when he got the news about his cancer, and Ms. Bogdanovic called Dr. Colombani late that night in Baltimore to tell him. Dr. Colombani said they were not to worry and to call back at 7 a.m. Eastern time.
“The next morning,” Mr. Palladin said, “he’s got the doctor at Sloan-Kettering for me. He’s got me an appointment there. Boom. Boom. Boom.”
Mr. Palladin was finishing his dish of scallops, made with a meaty, gelatinous stew of calves’ feet, tomatoes and olives, when Mr. Boulud emerged from the kitchen. “How was your fish?” he asked, his kind eyes peering shyly at the table.”
“So good,” Mr. Palladin said.
“I’ll bring you a good wine when I come back,” Mr. Boulud said, and then he returned to his kitchen.
” Merci , Daniel,” Mr. Palladin called after him.
When Le Cirque’s Sirio Maccioni told Mr. Palladin that he was looking for a new chef at his restaurant and was considering Mr. Boulud and others, including Christian Delouvrier, Mr. Palladin’s boyhood friend from culinary school in Toulouse, Mr. Palladin recommended Mr. Boulud. “I told Sirio, ‘I bet you Daniel can get you four stars in six months after he start.’ That why he went with Daniel. I tell Sirio, ‘[Christian] is going to be ready, but he’s not ready yet.’” Mr. Boulud and Le Cirque got their four stars in six months. “He fly and he fly well,” Mr. Palladin said. And Mr. Delouvrier got his four stars at Lespinasse in 1998.
Similarly, Mr. Palladin influenced Eric Ripert’s career. Mr. Ripert came to the restaurant Jean-Louis from Paris, but the two did not immediately hit it off. About two months into Mr. Ripert’s employment there, the two men got into it in the middle of service. Mr. Ripert handed Mr. Palladin his apron and told him he was quitting. Mr. Palladin followed Mr. Ripert to the employees’ locker room. “You need to prove to me that you can be the best chef in the world, but right now you are nothing,” he said. For good measure, Mr. Palladin said he told Mr. Ripert that if he left, he was never to mention Mr. Palladin’s name again, and that, by the way, “you have nothing between your legs.”
Mr. Ripert put on his apron.
He worked for Mr. Palladin for three years, eventually graduating to the position of sous-chef. He said Mr. Palladin was instrumental in getting him the Le Bernardin job–the restaurant’s co-owner, the late Mr. Le Coze, was another Palladin friend. “I didn’t want to come to Le Bernardin. I never showed up at the appointment,” Mr. Ripert remembered. “And Jean-Louis said, ‘Are you fucking crazy?’”
“You’re like the Godfather,” I said to Mr. Palladin.
“Yeah,” he said, sipping his glass of red Châteauneuf du Pape. “But the nice one.”
The next course showed up. A slender woman at an adjacent table peeked over enviously at what was being unveiled.
“Madame,” a waitress said to Ms. Bogdanovic, “you have the ravioli with nine herbs, black trumpet and Yellowfoot chanterelles and a black truffle cream.” Then she turned to Mr. Palladin. “Monsieur, you have the sautéed frog legs with tomato compote, asparagus, black truffle and almond milk emulsion.”
The black truffles sat on top of the frog legs like a rain cloud. And when you put your fork into the dish, the fungi crumbled and mixed with the almond milk and the tomato to form a black sauce that coated the tender frog legs. Eventually, the black stuff blanketed everything. If you gave yourself over to it, the taste was like a symphony of light. The rarefied, slightly briny taste of the frog legs somehow both absorbed and reflected the earthy musk of the truffles.
Little grunts of approval could be heard around the table.
“Daniel took the truffles out of his office, I can see,” Mr. Mitchell said almost reverently.
“Perfect,” declared Mr. Palladin.
Then, for a while, all that could be heard was the life-affirming clink of silverware against china.
“Oh my God,” Mr. Mitchell said. “We’re in heaven again, Jean-Louis.”
In the 10 p.m. glow of Daniel’s lounge, Jean-Louis Palladin bowed his head almost as in prayer, focused on the frog legs and ate.