Jacques Pépin has arguably taught America how to cook and eat well, earning more acclaim along the way than most chefs will ever dream of. On Friday, he hit another milestone: entering his ninth decade on the planet. For the beloved celebrity chef, it’s food for thought, food for love and, well, food on a higher plane.
Pépin, who emigrated from France more than 50 years ago, is equal parts artist and artisan. His svelte fingers still guide the knife unerringly, from deboning a whole chicken in a couple of minutes to slicing a ripe tomato into perfect rondelles. Endowed with encyclopedic culinary knowledge, he’s a master chef in search of Thoreauvian simplicity, taking away from dishes what younger chefs want to add.
It’s been a prosperous year for Pépin: His latest TV series, his 13th, “Jacques Pepin: Heart & Soul,” is airing on PBS, and his 29th book, “Jacques Pépin Heart & Soul in the Kitchen,” was released in October by Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In the book, he reminisces about family, career, wine, green markets and fishermen. And of course he shares recipes that reflect it all, from growing up in a close restaurant family near Lyon (seat of the celebrated French culinary region that spawned such luminaries as Paul Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers) to acting as personal chef to three French heads of state, among them Charles de Gaulle, and co-hosting seminal American cooking programs, including a series and two specials with Julia Child. He also draws on recipes based on the Cuban-Puerto Rican heritage of his wife, Gloria, on the abundant fresh seafood and produce of his U.S. home in coastal Connecticut, and on cooking with his daughter, Claudine, and granddaughter, Shorey.
In an exclusive interview with International Business Times, Pépin looks back at his memorable life.
International Business Times: What, for you, makes a good dish?
Jacques Pépin: Quality ingredients, a certain simplicity of preparation so that you can get to the essence of the dish. I like to recognize what I’m eating. As a young chef, I liked to add more. Now I like food that’s really ripe, not too cold, not a lot of embellishment.
IBT: What do you like to cook and eat most?
Pépin: I like to eat what I cook. What I cook depends entirely on what’s in the fridge, what the season is, the mood or what my wife is in the mood for. I have an eclectic palate. [It’s like my book] “Heart & Soul” — very American in the sense that you may have an eggplant, then Mexican, and then you have my mother’s type of cooking. I’m not trying to be French or not. It reflects being half a century in America. I don’t apologize for moving from one type of cooking to another.
IBT: What makes a good recipe? You have said that you keep simplifying, taking things away from your recipes. Why?
Pépin: A good recipe is where I can identify the ingredients and be satisfied. There are different approaches. I want to taste what it is. One approach — if you like pork, for example — is grilled. On the other hand, I use ground pork, and I [make] a pâté. It’s just as satisfying but with a different approach.
IBT: How can you tell if a chef is good?
Pépin: This is amazing but quite easy. At Boston University, I work with 12 to 14 students for a few days, and we make a complicated dinner for $1,000 [a plate]. In those days, [I see] the way they react to the food, the way they are committed. [I can tell if] that person can be taught. The first thing is to learn the techniques. If you happen to have talent, you can take that talent to a different level. I can tell pretty fast, in one day or so.
IBT: Who are the greatest chefs of all time?
Pépin: If you look at [Georges Auguste] Escoffier, he says to do it simply, do it unadorned. [Some cooking] is much more complicated and so forth. To say who is a great chef, you have to say my mother [who owned a restaurant]. Wherever you come from in the world, you cannot escape that ... Those tastes you acquire as a child stay with you the rest of your life.
IBT: What have been the most important milestones in your life?
Pépin: When I got married, when I had a child. The little decisions we make in life, we have to choose those; each project in another direction. In spring of 1960, I went to Howard Johnson’s — not the White House. [If I had not chosen the latter] I might be married to another woman. [Something] might seem innocuous, but it’s big in the overall picture.
IBT: Was the automobile accident that forced you out of your everyday life in a professional kitchen perhaps the biggest turning point in your life?
Pépin: It certainly was something that changed my life, maybe for the better. What would I have done [otherwise]? I don’t know. But from that moment, things changed. I was very lucky to work with Hellen McCully [author of “The American Heritage Cookbook”] writing recipes and doing cooking demonstrations. I was very lucky … I know a fair amount of chefs who are just as good as I am and are not where I am. It’s all a matter of being there at the right time, knowing the right people.
IBT: Do you have a certain nostalgia for the camaraderie of the kitchen?
Pépin: Yes, certainly. There is that type of camaraderie. I have a little of the same thing here [at home] with boules. I have a lot of chefs around, so we still have fun.
IBT: How should an executive chef behave in the kitchen? Should he be shouting at his staff, as many do?
Pépin: Shouting, no not anymore. You cannot really cook indifferently. If you go into the great kitchens of New York, they’re all saying, ‘Yes, chef,’ and doing their job. In France, I was kicked in the rear a few times. I don’t think it really exists much in France anymore. Now, 75 percent [of chefs] are college graduates. For me, you wouldn’t have dared to say, “Why?” You learned in that osmatic way. It was different in France.
IBT: You have had very long relationships in your work, yes?
Pépin: I’ve [been] with KQED for 29 years. I like PBS, and I don’t have to cow to a sponsor. It’s easier.
IBT: How was Julia Child as a collaborator?
Pépin: It was 1960 when we met. We knew each other 45 years of our lives. So we were fine. We argued and were friends, then we had a glass of wine. When we did the series together, a lot of people commented that she was much more French than I was. Very minimal disagreements. What’s important was that we agree on the cooking, the quality of the ingredients, the way to share food with friends, the taste and the presentation — all of that we did agree on.
IBT: When did you start considering yourself a chef, and not a cook?
Pépin: I am a cook now. You are a chef when you are in charge of a bunch of people. “Chef” in French means “the chief.” At home, you are a cook. I hate when people call me chef now.
IBT: Have you ever longed to return to France?
Pépin: Not really. I came to this country without the intention of staying. Most people come for economic reasons, religious reasons. I came because America was, and is, the El Dorado for a young person. I’ve been married almost 50 years; I met my wife here. My life is here. I’m certainly much more American than French.
IBT: Do you still think of yourself in some ways as that boy from Bourg-en-Bresse? Are you a product of the Rhônes-Alpes, where great chefs like you and the Troisgros brothers and Paul Bocuse foraged in the forests?
Pépin: It’s still part of who I am. The way you change is so insidious. I know I don’t cook the way I cooked 20 years ago. All of that makes you change. It’s indefinable. I live in the future.
IBT: You were very young when you were cooking for French prime ministers from 1956 to 1958. Did you understand then what an honor this was?
Pépin: At that time, the position of cook was very, very low. No one called you into the dining room, and I didn’t know the guests, who were heads of state like [Josip Broz] Tito, Harold Macmillan. The only reason a person came to the kitchen was to complain. One of the reasons I didn’t go to the White House was, I had no idea of the celebrity of this position.
IBT: How was it in that kitchen?
Pépin: I was alone. In 1956, when I asked for help at Matignon, the residence of the French prime minister, they sent Jean-Claude Szurdak [who has been Pépin’s best friend ever since]. It had been only me, the maître d’, the butler and the dishwasher. So I was basically by myself, and then it became easier. The biggest dinners were for 20 to 25 ... It almost seems like that was someone else. I look at paintings I did 50 years ago, and I can never do that now. I would love to do the food I did 50 years ago.
IBT: What was the biggest influence on your life and your work?
Pépin: I don’t know. My mother when I was kid. In the U.S., certain people like Craig Claiborne. Within six months of coming here, I had met Craig, Pierre [Franey], Julia. But mostly it was Craig — the people he knew … He did my wedding in 1966. I was lucky to meet the right people at the right time.
IBT: What are you most proud of?
Pépin: My daughter, who loves me; the next book. I think forward.
IBT: What do you think your legacy will be?
Pépin: I just hope the people I meet, that I bring a smile to their face. Maybe they say, "I learned something from him." That’s the best you can expect, I guess.
IBT: Any regrets?
Pépin: No. But it would have been nice if I hadn’t had that accident in the Catskills in 1974. It changed my life completely.
IBT: After this current book and TV series, then what?
Pépin: Maybe a book on my artwork. A web series on technique. The “Essential Pépin” [tutorial] DVD was very good. Things change. I don’t cook the same way I did four years ago. But technique doesn’t change. When you see it done, you say, "That’s the way it is."
A Rich Chicken Stew For The Holidays
This is a hearty chicken stew that’s warming this time of year and, thanks to the pancetta and wine, it could be an excellent, full-flavored course at any holiday meal. A dry Riesling would complement the rich, comforting flavor of this easy one-pot wonder. Serve the stew with fresh mixed greens, a balsamic vinaigrette and crusty bread; end the meal with fresh apple slices sautéed briefly with a little butter, brown sugar, fresh lemon juice and a pinch of salt.
Tip: To make the stew gluten-free, substitute potato starch for the flour thickener or leave out a thickener entirely. Potato is naturally gluten-free.
Jacques Pépin’s Chicken Jardinière:
Pépin says his mother made this type of stew from the carcass of a raw chicken and its gizzards; he uses pancetta instead of gizzards for additional flavor and chicken legs, which stay moist during the cooking. “Jardinière” means “gardener” in French, and the vegetables change according to what is in season or in the garden. The stew is easy to put together, and it gets better every time you reheat it.
2 ½ ounces lean pancetta, cut into lardons (strips about 1 inch long and ½ inch thick)
1 ½ tablespoons peanut oil
4 chicken legs (about 2 ¾ pounds), left whole or cut into 2 pieces each, ends of the drumsticks and skin removed (about 2 ¼ pounds trimmed)
1 ½ tablespoons all-purpose flour (or potato starch to be gluten free)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup fruity dry white wine
¾ cup water
12 small red potatoes (about 8 ounces), peeled
8 small baby bella or cremini mushrooms (about 5 ounces), washed
12 small pearl onions (about 4 ounces)
1 ¼ cups diced (1-inch) carrots
1 ½ tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic
1 fresh thyme branch
1 cup frozen baby peas
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Sauté the lardons in the oil in a large saucepan or a Dutch oven (the pan should be wide enough to hold the chicken in a single layer) over high heat for 2 minutes. Add the chicken pieces and sauté them, turning once, for about 8 minutes, until lightly browned. Sprinkle with the flour, salt, and pepper and move the chicken around to distribute the flour evenly. Cook for 1 minute, then add the wine and water and mix well. Add the potatoes, mushrooms, onions, carrots, garlic, and thyme and mix well. Bring to a full boil, making sure that the stew is boiling throughout, then cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 45 minutes. (The stew can be prepared ahead to this point and reheated to serve.) At serving time, add the peas to the stew, bring to a boil, and boil for 2 minutes. Transfer the stew to individual plates or a large platter, sprinkle with the parsley, and serve.
Recipe excerpted from “Jacques Pépin Heart & Soul in the Kitchen,” copyright 2015 by Jacques Pépin. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.