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: How do you prepare a meal?
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: How do you transmit that in your cookbooks?
Jacques Pepin: Well 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: How has cooking changed in your lifetime?
Jacques Pepin: Like I have a series now – Jacques Pepin: Fast Food My Way – it’s to show people how to cook good, simple, healthy food in a very minimal amount of time. And it’s a question of thinking about it, whether I want to go through the process of doing everything myself in term of technique. Or certainly in a few years – because it has become easier and easier to do – use a supermarket or the prep cook, which is what I do in Fast Food My Way. I can go to the supermarket, get a skinless, boneless breast of chicken, pre-sliced mushrooms, pre-washed spinach. I have a non-stick pan. I put it on the stove. I put that in it, and in five, six, eight minutes I have a dish. And that’s cooking from scratch. When I was an apprentice, cooking from scratch was to light the stove, to start with, with paper and wood and then coal. And to keep that stove hot, which was the responsibility of the _________ was a very difficult thing in the kitchen. And the chef would get out of his mind by the time the people start sitting down and the stove kept getting lukewarm. So to keep that thing really hot, hot, red on top and in the oven was a situation. And then that whole apprenticeship within itself doesn’t exist anymore. And then if you didn’t have to catch the chicken, you at least had to pluck it, eviscerate it. You cook it in a pot where everything sticks, in an oven where you didn’t have any calibration, or temperature, or whatever. You had to turn it. You had to baste it. This was a big deal, as I say, to cook a chicken . . . roast chicken from scratch. Now as I say, to do a roast chicken from scratch with the skinless, boneless breast of chicken, sliced mushrooms takes five minutes. But you see the world is entirely different.
Question: How has technology changed cooking in the last 50 years?
Jacques Pelin: Well technology certainly has changed a great deal of the cooking. And it’s changing maybe even more so now. There is good and there is bad. Certainly things like the food processor, saran wrap and plastic . . . or rubber spatula are, for me, great innovation of the last 30 years. But it is like this, you know. We always manipulate food. And our ancestors, you know, didn’t have anything to eat. And what we call wheat now was actually a wild . . . a wild weed which through cross-breeding, and changing, and manipulation we end up now with this. I mean not that long ago when I was a child, you could not eat string beans. _________ on one side, and the other side which I tried to do . . . And I had to do a couple of _________ or whatever it was that my mother wanted me to do. My brother and I tried to cut the end of it with a scissor, too, which of course those beans were absolutely uneatable. So now there have always been some manipulation to make it better without the string; or to make the animal fatter, or not as fat, or more tender, or this and that. So those manipulations have existed all the time. Now bio-engineered food is something else, you know, that we get into other areas which have to be controlled. I am not, by definition, opposed to anything. Because I think to feed the world we need that type of improvement. But it has to be extremely controlled, you know? But without any question, if you can do an egg which tastes like an egg for me – as good as an egg – and it has half the amount of cholesterol, why not? You know if you can have a tomato, that because of some manipulation, doesn’t need to be sprayed with an insecticide or pesticide or anything, being resistant to this, why not? That may be a plus. But as I say you have to do that with circumspection. You really have to control it.
Recorded on: 09/04/2007