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Chef Larbi DahrouchINTERVIEW:
Chef Larbi Dahrouch

From a young boy just beginning his culinary career, to an accomplished chef, Larbi Dahrouch spent more hours in the kitchen with Jean-Louis Palladin than any other individual. We spoke with him at Restaurant Taquet during the recent "Book & The Cook" Celebration in Philadelphia.

RR: It's amazing to look at a slice of history and see how your career is so influenced by people and timing. After all these years, you are still involved with Jean-Francois Taquet, a buddy from your boyhood days in France, and of course, Jean-Louis Palladin played such an important role in your life.
LD: In the mid-70's, three of us were doing our apprenticeship with Jean-Louis at "La Table des Cordeliers" in Condom, France - myself, Jean-Francois Taquet and Sylvain Portay. Little did we know that in a couple of years, all three of us would be on a plane bound for the United States and the Watergate Hotel. Our boss was going to America and he included us as part of the package

RR: So one day the chef walks in and says "We're going to America."
LD: That's how it happened. We were young and ready for anything, so all three of us knew immediately that our lives were about to take a major new twist. I believe the owners of the Watergate were looking for something to take the focus off the Nixon affair and to create a new image. They saw Jean-Louis as an important part of this plan, and we went along for the ride.

RR: It turned out to be quite a ride...
LD: We landed in Washington in August of 1979, and opened Jean-Louis at the Watergate in November. I was 19, I could only speak a few words of English, and everything in my entire life was completely new and different.

RR: You were young, but I have to believe that you recognized and respected the talent of Jean-Louis, and to make this leap, you had to have a great deal of confidence in his ability.
LD: All of us were aware that he was something very special, and there was very little hesitation when he announced his plans. In 1973, I was only 13 when I started to work for him in France, and Jean-Louis was only 26. I believed in him, and I would have followed him anywhere.

RR: Was America all that you had envisioned it to be?
LD: I cannot tell you how exciting everything was at that time. I immediately fell in love with Washington; it really is an incredible city, and a very international city, so it was perfect for us. The three of us moved into an apartment together, and spent the next several months opening the restaurant and learning an entire new way of life.

RR: But Jean-Louis complained about the state of food in this country.
LD: I had grown up on a farm where my mother made everything from scratch except maybe sugar and olive oil. My entire thinking revolved around freshly prepared food, and when we arrived in DC, I was disappointed with the level of food in this regard. The only thing that really worked was beef. It seemed like nothing else was of the quality that we were expecting. There was no bread to speak of, and it seemed like everything was frozen. We knew all the embassies were located in Washington, so we assumed the food would be more sophisticated than it was. It became apparent that it was going to take a great deal of effort to find suitable ingredients.

RR: You obviously overcame this problem.
LD: In time we did. We found a local farmer, who had wonderful produce, and Jean-Louis latched on to a seafood purveyor by the name of Rob Mitchell in Maine, and everything started to come together. Of course, we knew that Jean-Louis was going to find the best products available, and he would do anything to get the best ingredients. One of our major problems was the language barrier. None of us spoke English, so the language of the kitchen was French and maybe a little Spanish. We had all kinds of problems communicating with the salespeople and everyone else for that matter. I can remember one time when we ordered turtle meat for our turtle soup. We expected it to come in some type of package, and I can remember how funny it was when they delivered this gigantic, live turtle. We just looked at each other in amazement, and ended up slaughtering and preparing it right in the kitchen.

RR: So language was a big issue in terms of opening and running the restaurant.
LD: It really was. Jean-Francois had studied some English in France, so he was slightly ahead of the rest of us, but I believe that we had a lot of employee turnover simply because our help would not, or could not adapt to understanding French. I know it was frustrating to so many Americans who worked with us, and this went on for a long time.

RR: Maybe it was even more than the language barrier. We are told that it was not easy working with the temperamental Jean-Louis.
LD: He is a very passionate man, and he always insists that everything be perfect. But, we were totally accustomed to working with him, and we understood him. Keep in mind that we were very passionate ourselves. There is tension in every kitchen, and of course, there were moments when things got crazy, but the problems you are suggesting were not an issue with us.We had fun working with Jean-Louis, and I remember a classic night when we were roughhousing in the kitchen as customers were coming into the restaurant. One of us grabbed Jean-Louis, and as he turned, he ended up breaking a couple of his ribs. He was in tremendous pain and we had to call the rescue squad. It was an amazing sight watching our chef wheeled out on a stretcher right through the dining room. It was just one of those things, but I think he missed about four or five days of work as result of this.

RR: Towards the end of the Watergate run, you did leave for a period of time.
LD: I was ready to move to the next level, and had several opportunities that were too good to pass up. I left for about three years, but returned in 1994 to serve as executive chef when he opened Palladin, upstairs at the Watergate. It was 1996 when we finally departed the Watergate for good. There was a new management change at the hotel, and it was just time for everyone to move on.

RR: When you look back at all those years at the Watergate, how would you describe this experience?
LD: It was an adventure, and maybe the best years of my life. There was always something exciting going on, and our customers were a big part of it. There were always celebrities - from the President of the United States to the Kennedy's, and a constant host of politicians. There were customers from Jimmy Stewart to Imeldo Marcos, and just so many wonderful people from all walks of life. The most gratifying thing for me is that after all these years, I still see people from Washington, DC in Taquet. They constantly drive over two hours just to stay in touch with me and of course, to relive some of the Watergate experience. About a month ago, I had a group of nine from Washington celebrating a birthday. They are customers who have been coming to this restaurant for years, and a wonderful thing happened. I got a call from Jean-Louis who was flying into Philadelphia from Las Vegas. He decided to rent a car, have dinner at Taquet, and then drive to Washington. In what turned out to be a total surprise, he walked into my restaurant just after the birthday guests had arrived. He sat at their table, and it was just one of those classic moments. Everyone in the restaurant, including me, had an evening to remember. The Watergate years were very special. I was young, and I needed to learn. I needed to be educated about living in America, and in a culinary sense, I wanted to absorb everything possible. What could be better than spending all those years with a chef such as Jean-Louis, and in such an exciting and visible restaurant?

RR: Which brings up our final question... in your opinion, what made Jean-Louis such a celebrated and respected chef?
LD: He knows the subject of food better than anyone I have ever known. He instinctively understands how to handle a product, even if it was something he has never experienced. He loves this business, and his passion for being a chef is inspiring for those fortunate enough to be around him. He gives so much of himself - he was always involved in charities and promotions. When someone needed Jean-Louis, he was always there.

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