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 explains the profusion young star chefs?
Jacques Pepin: It’s not always easy for a young chef who fights for the clientele with other young chefs in the same town, and everyone wants to create something new, something different, something and that. And very often that’s where some very complicated cuisine comes from. And the fact that we are now able to get product from all over the world, and there is less and less border, and we’re exposed to all kind of cuisine. Certainly in a place like New York where there are over 20,000 restaurants, the multiplicity of ethnicity that there is is absolutely amazing for exposing to those other cuisines. It opens a whole world, you know, especially with young American chef who haven’t been trained necessarily only in classical French cuisine, or Italian cuisine. So they take a little bit from everybody, and that kind of fusion cooking can be very exciting. It can also open, of course, a Pandora’s Box. And that’s often why you end up with maybe a bowl of Roquefort with a slice of . . . with a bowl of ice cream on top of it. As I say, who would ever have thought of that, you know?
Question: Can New York restaurants compete with French restaurants?
Jacques Pepin: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. Even better in some way now, because you know for a European, very often they will look at American cuisine...Well it’s changing a great deal, but certainly 30, 40 years ago at Americans eating like four things: hot dogs . . . I mean frankfurters, hamburger, fried chicken, and maybe canned macaroni and one of those things. And you do have people – what you may call the ___________ – who will eat those type of dish and repeat over, and over, and over, and over again. So in that context, that type of culinary spectrum, if you want, is very limited compared to what you have in Europe for a European. Conversely, however, if you’re in a place like New York and one night you eat Turkish, and another night you eat Taiwanese, and another night you eat Chinese, and French, and Italian and so forth, your spectrum of taste is going to be much larger than most Europeans. Because even though there are Chinese restaurants in another kind of different type of cuisine restaurant in France, it might be a good restaurant, but yet 99.9% of French people eat French; 99.9% of Italian eat Italian, and so it goes in Germany and so forth, and in Belgium because that’s part of the tradition. That’s part of an almost . . . something that you’re born with; something which is visceral; something which . . . and part of us sitting down at the table with the family for all of those years. So it built up that type of culinary culture as I have, you know?
Question: Do you think Americans are fickle about food trends?
Jacques Pepin: I don’t think Americans are fickle about food trend. You’re talking about New York to a certain extent. And New York 20,000 restaurants and San Francisco in those place . . . It used to be that 30 years ago you used to go to a restaurant before going to the theater. Now the restaurant has become the theater. You know you go there to be seen, to see people, to discuss new food trend. And that extends way beyond the food itself, you know?
Recorded on: 09/04/2007