For Jean-Louis Palladin, rousing success as a chef and restaurateur has resulted in two obligations. When he comes to Baltimore tomorrow to fix dinner for 200 people at the Brass Elephant, a benefit for the Child Abuse Prevention Center of Maryland, he'll be fulfilling one of them.
"It's for kids," he says of this latest instance of his charitable inclinations. "I've had this chance, this celebrity; this is how I give something back."
The event will be the third annual Great Chef's Dinner to benefit the center, a private, nonprofit group that provides family support. Mr. Palladin, who won two Michelin stars in France before coming to the United States in 1979 to open Jean-Louis at the Watergate, was last year named chef of the year by the James Beard Foundation.
"I think it'll be a really fun evening," says Brass Elephant executive chef Randy Stahl, noting that all 200 places for the dinner have long been sold. "I think everybody's interested in seeing Jean-Louis' food without having to go down to D.C."
A passionate and engaging man who radiates warmth and energy, Mr. Palladin could easily spend all his time doing benefits. "I need to choose . . . or I would not have any restaurant. I would do that every day of the year."
What he chooses usually involves children or the homeless. "I'm doing, every year, Christmas for the kids, for the homeless, and we have about 2,000 people coming."
So he agreed immediately to do the Baltimore dinner. "I think it is a good cause -- one of the better ones. The thing is, I love kids." He has two of his own, 9 and 14 -- "and," he says, "thinking about them, how they are, and thinking about the other ones, how they are . . ." He shakes his head.
The visit will be Mr. Palladin's first to the Brass Elephant, where guests will be paying $175 each to sample curried celery-root soup with pear and lobster, roast sturgeon, stuffed roast guinea hen, frisee salad and mandarin tart with mandarin sherbet and huckleberry sauce, all accompanied by ap
"It's always a challenge" to prepare a meal for so many people, he says, sitting on a sunny winter day in his 42-seat jewel box of a restaurant, with its intimate proportions, profusion of mirrors and tiny lights sparkling behind bright pastel wall hangings. "I prepare everything here, every time -- for Baltimore it's easy, because we have, what, a 45-minute drive. But last week I was in Bangkok, and I went with 1,200 pounds of food."
Mr. Palladin, 47, has a shock of brown curls that a rock star might covet, and he speaks his eloquent and idiosyncratic English in a sultry baritone. Jean-Louis, the place, rates five diamonds from the American Automobile Association and five stars from the Mobil guide, but it is easy to see that Jean-Louis, the person, is a star in his own right.
Although most of his charitable work concerns causes for children, it is not confined by national boundaries. "I try to be international," he says. "This year I went to Jerusalem. . . . I'm going to Argentina, I'm going to Brazil, I'm going to Alaska, I'm going to Russia, to Finland."
It's a lot of traveling. "But for me it's very important," he says, "because I can see some different cultures, I can see some different food, I can learn a lot about what's going on in Bangkok, what's going on in Jerusalem. . . . It's how you can be more creative. If I stayed all the time in the kitchen, I would be bored. I need a challenge like that."
In the years he's been in the United States, Mr. Palladin has seen many changes. "When you look at 15 years ago, you got the French, who were very big in America. But now, you have everybody -- French, Italian, Thai, Southwest, California. I see a big diversity of food, of different ethnic packages. And it's more and more interesting for the customer."
America has also come of age in terms of food supplies, he says. There's no longer a need to import high-end ingredients from France or the Far East. "We are using all the products from this country. . . . This country did a jump of one century in just 10 years" in the quality of its ingredients, he says.
The customers have changed as well, Mr. Palladin says. "Everybody doesn't want to go to an expensive restaurant anymore. But I think you need to have an elite." People don't avoid concerts by their favorite stars because tickets are expensive, he says. Eating out sometimes needs to be more than a way to get out of the kitchen, he contends: It needs to be entertainment.
Training new chefs
And that brings him to his second obligation: creating the next generation of fine chefs. "It's very important," he says. "We cannot do without that."
He's proud of discovering talented young people and putting them on the road to stardom -- among alumni, he counts Louis Sylvain, now at Le Cirque in New York, and Daniel Boulud, formerly of Le Cirque and now of Daniel; and Eric Ripert, now at Le Bernardin, who in two or three years, Mr. Palladin predicts, will take a place among top chefs in the country.
He is not opposed to a culinary education, but he says, "For me the only way to learn is being physically in the kitchen, being with a chef who's got a name, and to learn from that point."
He went to work in a restaurant kitchen at age 12. "And for three years I peeled potatoes, leeks, onions, shallots, garlic and everything. But at the same time, you can look around and see what's happening and put that in the back of your head. And you start little by little, going up the ladder, until you arrive to be chef." But he says that the time has passed when someone could leave school at age 12 and go into a kitchen. Today, he says, "You need an education."
But a school environment, he says, is not a realistic training ground for great chefs. "In school you are protected . . . you have an environment that is a big egg, and you are inside the egg, and nobody can touch you. Here, if you don't make it, I kick you out of the kitchen. If you're going to make it, you're going to cry, you're going cry often, but you're going to make it." He is hardest, he says, on those in whom he sees the most promise.
About a year and a half ago, he relates, he hired a young woman, Linda Purcell, to work in the Jean-Louis kitchen. "She finished being my sous-chef, and now she is the chef upstairs" at Palladin, which opened last May, a larger and more informal version of the intimate and expensive Jean-Louis. "She was from CIA [the Culinary Institute of America], and she didn't know anything. And now, if I lost this woman, I am finished. It's very, very, impor
tant to me to have somebody who will give 150 percent. And one day, she knows she's going to make it."
But he's not interested in turning out a lot of little Jean-Louis. "To reproduce me, they can't. I've got my own heart, my own head, and they cannot think like I think. They need really to think with their own heart and their own brain."
Staying in America
Nor is he interested in returning to his native France. "About seven years ago, I got an opportunity to go back. I went to see. And I said, 'No, I'm going back to Washington.' Why? Because the challenge was much more important here than it was in France. Coming to this country and seeing how the soil was dry, I said, that interests me -- I'm going to put some water on the soil, and let's see what's going to come out of it. And after 15 years out came some beautiful things. America right now, you can compete with the French on the level of product, on the level of the chefs.
"In another 15 years, this country will be one of the best countries in food in the world."
He even sees hope in the current battle among fast-food titans for consumer loyalty. "Who's going to have the best hamburger, who's going to have the leaner one. . . . They don't realize, but fighting all together means they're going to put fast-food restaurants on another level -- they're going to become good."
Good cuisine is not just a matter of training chefs and targeting restaurants, Mr. Palladin says. "For 15 years, I'm teaching people to eat. And not just me, we are 20, we are 30, we are 40, we are 50 chefs in America who are teaching people to like good food. In another 15 years, can you imagine how that's going to be? It's going to be a country that knows how to eat."
And, for Mr. Palladin, the education of a chef is never done. Benefits such as the one in Baltimore, where he can work with other chefs, are part of the process.
"I want to have fun, that's the thing," he says. "If it's to be too serious, I don't want to do it. But being in America, you want to explore another city -- it's how I know 20 or 30 other cities in America, how I know all the chefs, how I know the different techniques of the other chefs. . . . They are watching me, but I am still watching them. . . . That's how you get better."
Here is the recipe for one of the dishes Mr. Palladin will be serving in Baltimore.
Roasted sturgeon with goose ham and sauerkraut
4 7-ounce portions of sturgeon
1 goose or turkey ham sliced tissue-thin with a deli slicer
1 pound of sauerkraut (4 ounces per portion)
2 onions, diced
1/2 pound ham, diced
1 cup consomme
1/2 pound butter
salt and pepper
1 bunch chopped chives
sprigs of rosemary
Saute the ham and onions together. Add consomme and cook for 20 minutes.
Wrap the sturgeon in the goose or turkey ham, covering the fish completely. Saute in a pan with olive oil until ham starts to crisp, and finish in a 350-degree oven, about 5 to 10 minutes.
Heat the sauerkraut with the ham and onion mixture. Add butter, season with salt and pepper.
To serve, put the sauerkraut in the center of the plate. Sprinkle chopped chives around it. Slice the fish in half and place it open on top of the sauerkraut. Garnish with rosemary.