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Dining with Jean-Louis

Jacqueline Sainsbury - February 19th, 2014

We've selected a menu prepared by Jean-Louis Palladin from his book, Jean-Louis: Cooking with the Seasons. It reflects Palladin's French origins (like the lamprey à la bordelaise—a dish with roots in his hometown region of France) as well as his embrace of American ingredients. "Lampreys are another of those things that Americans have to learn to like," he remarked in the book. "I really love them, but for years, I was afraid I would never find them here. Then one day I got desperate; I had to have them. I was sure that somewhere in this enormous country there had to be an estuary, and in that estuary there had to be eels. I told my supplier in Maine what I wanted, and three years later he called me with the good news—he had found lampreys. For me, eating eels is like going to the moon, but my customers are still not so sure." (This “supplier in Maine” also happens to be his close friend and Food Arts Silver Spoon award winner, Rod Mitchell of Browne Trading Company.)

Palladin's introduction to his chapter on springtime menus:
"Spring in Washington is the most glorious time of the year. When I think of winter's sad and dark weather, I see black-and-white pictures in my mind. But in spring, the pictures are full of color: What a joy for a chef! Here is a time to play with color again.

"As a small boy, I spent many hours with a cabinetmaker, helping him work on his furniture and going with him to look at antiques. Since then, I have had a great appreciation for beauty. I used to think, 'What beautiful work! If only I could make something like that, I would be a happy man.' In my cooking, the taste, not the look, is the most important thing. But if you can combine the two, then you have something special, and the fresh appearance of spring produce always arouses in me the urge to see what I can create.

"With spring comes a bounty of vegetables, fruits, and herbs once again. For a good chef, the produce is always the starting point; the market decides my menu. I often wake up in the morning with no idea of what i will do that day until I see what is available. Sometimes I surprise myself.

"There is wonderful produce in America today. I have to say that the chefs and food writers in France are chauvinists. Until very recently, they always looked down on American produce. But ever since I came to the United States, I have been confident that we could have everything right here. I have been saying, 'Watch out! In 10 years, America will have the best produce in the world.' And now it is being shown I was right.

"I admire Americans; they lack Europeans' centuries of tradition and history, but they are willing to learn and to try new things. They want to be the best, and they succeed. When I first opened my restaurant, Jean-Louis at Watergate, a man named Richard Ober came in to see me with a bunch of mint and a bunch of thyme. He told me that he worked at the State Department but was bored with his job. He had made a bet with a friend that he could grow herbs and vegetables and sell them to the best restaurant in Washington.

"I looked at him and said, 'Did God send you to me? You're exactly what I've been looking for.' He had a French seed catalogue with him, Louise de Vilmorin, and I read through it and listed everything I would like to be able to have by next year. He grew it all, won his bet, and is still my supplier today.

"He comes at the end of each season and asks me if I want anything new or different. We're always adding things, and that helps me to keep creative as a chef. The problem with the produce in supermarkets is that it is grown fast for volume and often with chemicals. The best fruits and vegetables are those grown naturally. My father owned an orchard he worked in every Sunday. He had cherry, apricot, apple, and peach trees, and the fruit he got from those trees was fantastic. Why? Because under his orchard was the old cemetery."

Spring: Menu Two