Jacques Pepin is one of America's best-known chefs. He is the author of 24 books, including a best-selling memoir, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. He has also hosted nine public television cooking series, the most recent of which is called More Fast Food My Way. Pepin was born in rural France and his first exposure to cooking was in his parents' restaurant, Le Pelican. He began his formal apprenticeship at the age of thirteen and went on to work in Paris as the personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle. He moved to the United States in 1959 and studied at Columbia University. Pepin is a former columnist for The New York Times and now writes a quarterly column for Food & Wine. He received France's highest civilian honor, the French Legion of Honor, in 2004. He lives in Madison, Connecticut.
Question: What impact does your work have on the world?
Jacques Pepin: I love to teach, and I teach at Boston University in the culinary program for 24 years or so; and the French Culinary Institute as well. And before I did any television show, I would crisscross the country doing like 30 to 40 weeks of class a year. And that’s when cooking kind of exploded in this country in the ‘70s. So cooking is certainly something that I enjoy to do, and that I enjoy teaching. So I hope that some of the people that I taught would remember me at least for a little while. And when I start doing television – and I’ve been doing television on PBS for 20 years now – so I reach a larger spectrum. Certainly a larger audience, and that’s very exciting. And if I . . . If I can only teach one woman how to teach . . . how to feed her child properly, or how to sit down on the table and enjoy a meal with her husband, then I feel I would have contributed something, you know, to society maybe.
Question: Can you teach someone to cook?
Jacques Pepin: Usually at the kitchen you start with a glass of wine. It helps, you know? Sometimes two. But there are people who are slightly allergic to the process of cooking, but not many really. Frankly everyone eats. It’s a condition that people are . . . Contrary to what people believe, there is many people who are not interested in cooking in France, as well as in Italy and so forth. And there are people who are totally passionate about it here, you know? So if you like cooking, you can always learn certainly with . . . You always have a friend who cook, and you can always say, “Look. If I come for dinner next week, can I come an hour earlier? And I’ll bring a bottle of wine, and I’ll do the dishes or whatever you want. I want to see how you do this.” And by the time you learn that you can put a chicken in the oven with a bit of salt and pepper on top of it, and forget it for an hour, and it is pretty good providing the oven is on, of course, at like 400 degrees, you will be kind of astonished. You’ll say, “Wow! That’s not . . .” And then you get confident. You know you have to get into confidence doing one dish after another. And the best way to do that is really to feed your friend, or your family, or your parents or whatever. And let’s say you give a lot of yourself when you cook, and it’s a good thing to do.
Question: What is your proudest achievement?
Jacques Pepin: Probably my daughter. I would say I don’t know. I . . . I always think that maybe . . . I think it was John Paul Sartre who said that . . . Someone asked him what is his best book. He said the one that he’s going to write. And to a certain extent, you know, if people remember me a little bit, I may be remembered through book called La Technique, a __________ that I did in the early ‘70s because they were kind of groundbreaking and different, certainly. The best book that I think I have done is a book called The Art of Cooking. It’s a book which sold the least of all and which has been out of print for a long time, but I still think probably the best thing I ever did in terms of book I combined what I show in La Technique . . . those were in color . . . by showing people from the beginning that I went fishing for skate to show them that you cannot buy a whole skate; you buy only the wing of skate . I wanted to show you how to take the wing out of the skate. Or I had a whole baby lamb . . . to bring out the whole baby lamb so that I could use the leg in one way, the breast in another way and so forth. So really starting at the beginning. Or a leg of veal, for example, which I break down into the top round, and bottom round, and eye round, and top knuckle and so forth. And with those different muscles do different dishes, and explain why you would use that cut for that particular dish. Now if you’re not interested in doing all that work, you can go directly to one of the recipes and directly do THAT recipe. And go buy a piece of... So I think it was very complete, and it kind of satisfied my very Cartesian mind. I like things organized.
Question: What was your greatest culinary adventure?
Jacques Pepin: Life itself, you know, has been the greatest culinary adventure because it change every day. Because you want to feed your kid or your wife. The excitement, and maybe because I’m always hungry. So I’m always . . . want to cook. You know if I stay three, four, five days without cooking . . . I came back from a cruise here recently, and one of the things that was frustrating for me was to go to market and not be able to buy the food, come back and cook it you know? So if I didn’t cook for a few days, I cannot feel . . . I feel a bit unstable, you know? So I need to cook. It’s a part of what I do and who I am.
Question: What is the most memorable meal you’ve ever served?
Jacques Pepin: I think that in my case, we probably remember the catastrophe that you have more than the great success that you have. And otherwise, you know, one goes into the other. There is never a dish which is absolutely perfect, you know? There can always . . . Sometimes you get close enough that you are very satisfied with yourself; but again it has to do with your own palate. Without any question if you decide on the 10 best restaurants in New York, or the 10 best restaurants in France, and if I go to those 10 restaurants, five . . . maybe five, six of them I’m going to think are absolutely extraordinary. Two or three of them I’m going to think they are quite good; and a couple of them I’m going to say, “I don’t understand why those people are three star.” And what I’m saying there is that you cannot escape yourself. So those four or five that I absolutely adore just happen to coincide exactly with my sense of taste, with my sense of aesthetic. So it’s purely a narcissistic reflection, if you want, on my own taste because that coincides with what I like. And the other one I’m not as familiar with it. So as I said to a certain extent, you can work with many different people, but you cannot escape yourself. At some point you are who you are, and that will be expressed in the food. That’s what I tried to tell the students at BU for example. I have a class of 10, 12 students, hands-on. And I do a class of two hours. I say, “I am going to do the perfect meal for you today – a roast chicken, I boil potato, and a salad.” But it has to be done exactly the right way – basting the right way. The salad has to be cleaned up the right way, set at the right temperature, with the right dressing, with the right oil, with the right amount . . . the right temperature. The potato has to be done “this” way, and so forth. Fine. So they do that, they taste it, then they go to the store and do it. Now they have two hours to duplicate my dish . . . my three dish. And I always say, “Don’t try to be original. Don’t try to outdo one another, too. Don’t try to be different than someone else because you are different. And whether you like or not, for the better or for the worst, I’m going to have 10 different chicken. A couple of them practically perfect. A couple cold. A couple undercooked. A couple overcooked. A couple . . . whatever. They will be different because you are different, and you cannot escape yourself. So you don’t have to torture yourself to find that dish to make sure that people know you’ve done it, because it will be different anyway.”
Recorded on: 09/04/2007