Photo by Tom Donoghue The chefs of the 2011 Jean-Louis Palladin Dinner: In the front row are Sohn (left) and Rochat (third from left).
Hanging in the “Chef’s Dining Room” at RM Seafood is a portrait of chef Jean-Louis Palladin. RM chef-owner Rick Moonen hung it there alongside a handwritten menu from Palladin’s groundbreaking Napa Restaurant at the Rio after it closed and the legendary French chef died, events that both happened more than 10 years ago. It’s not simply a personal memorial to a friend and mentor; it is a reminder of what is owed to Palladin.
“Every fine-dining chef here owes him a debt,” Moonen says. “I have such admiration for what that man did to raise the level of American cuisine. Jean-Louis just didn’t put up with anything when it came to quality.”
‘Zhan-Lew-EE’ was more than just talented, his colleagues say; he was a genius with an intuitive understanding of ingredients. He was intense, obsessive and insane, (meaning it as a compliment). Demanding but inspiring, and known for generously sharing his knowledge with up-and-comers.
The great chef was unable to attend the first benefit dinner held in his honor on Sept. 7, 2001, in the Rio ballrooms; Palladin died of lung cancer two months later at age 55. His close friend André Rochat, owner of André’s in the Monte Carlo and Alizé in the Palms, has kept the dinner alive these many years. The annual Jean-Louis Palladin Dinner draws Las Vegas’ leading chefs to honor a pioneer in fine dining while helping the next generation of culinary artists. Proceeds benefit a professional work/study grant for chefs in Palladin’s name and administered by the James Beard Foundation.
It’s a fitting honor, Rochat says, as the grant sends young chefs to study under farmers and artisan producers, hopefully gaining that visceral appreciation of ingredients for which Palladin was known.
Las Vegas was forever changed in 1997, when Palladin headed west from his eponymous restaurant at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., to a city best known for its buffets and cheap shrimp cocktails. Aside from André’s (downtown at the time), there was no fine French restaurant in the city, let alone in a casino. And Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse had only just begun the celebrity chef restaurant trend.
Uncompromising as they come, Palladin pushed American purveyors to offer better products, and forged the path for the organic, farm-to-table movement the U.S. is so taken with today. Moonen, for one, thanks Palladin for his access to scallops in their shells and free of sodium tripolyphosphate. Joung Sohn, executive chef at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, credits Palladin for ushering in a style of fine dining not overburdened by technique or overcompensated by inferior ingredients.
“He was a great believer in the basics,” Sohn says, “that if you have truly great ingredients, there shouldn’t be much you need to do to them. Sometimes you just have to let go of all your training and just let the ingredients blossom.”
Sohn is applying that lesson to the dish she has developed for this year’s annual Jean-Louis Palladin Dinner. Her simple butter-poached lobster will be served with a shrimp and scallop cake, bitter greens and tarragon aioli. “When the weather gets cooler, the shellfish gets better,” she says, explaining how the dish honors Palladin. “Jean-Louis was such a proponent of using seasonal ingredients.”
“Napa exposed people to the type of fine dining that inspired all of us [chefs] to pursue this field,” Sohn says. “He really opened doors to the possibility of restaurants like [the Eiffel Tower].”
Palladin helmed his Las Vegas kitchen much of the time in its first years. Its menu changed with every season and featured parts of the animal virtually unheard of in American restaurants. Michael Demers, now executive chef at M Resort, worked under Palladin from the day [Napa] opened. “We served cockscomb—that red thing sitting on a rooster’s head. And the man loved his truffles and foie gras. He brought in baby eels from Maine. Everything he did was just … wow.” A little too wow, perhaps. Napa closed after four years, not long after Sept. 11, 2001.
Moonen gives his best Palladin impression: “‘I ’ate Las Vegas,’ Jean-Louie would say, because French people can’t say their H’s. ‘Zay order filets well-done on Saturdays.’ Jean-Louis opened one of the greatest restaurants this city has ever had, but it wasn’t ready for what he had to bring.”
But Las Vegas chefs were ready.
“He helped us turn the dining scene into a form of entertainment, on level with the best shows this city offers,” Demers says. “He inspired all of us—celebrity chef or not—to step up our game.” Jean-Louis Palladin Dinner, 5 p.m., Oct. 21, at Alizé in the Palms; $325 for eight courses with wine pairings. Call 951-7000 for reservations. For the menu and a complete list of participating chefs, visit JamesBeard.org/events.