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.
Topic: A New Phenomenon
Jacques Pepin: Well there is great cook and great chef. Certainly the cook itself or a great chef in some restaurants very often don’t have that much to do with the cooking anymore. You go to the Waldorf Astoria for example, then the chef will have to contend with several banquets of 1,000 . . . 1,500 people. So he will go organize, of course work out his menu, taste here and there, but that’s about it. So that’s what . . . If you wanna make a distinction between, in a sense, a pencil chef and a skillet chef, you know – and the skillet chef being someone who will have a small restaurant . . . someone like Thomas Keller here, and will be behind the stove cooking day after day, you know morning after morning. So that’s really someone who is involved in the cooking itself. Both of those are chefs. But by definition I am not a chef unless I work in a professional kitchen with other people who are working for me. Then I am called a chef – which is the “chief” in France – to run that kitchen. When I go back at home I am the cook there. My wife is the chef. You know it’s different.
When I was a child, the chef or the cook was at the bottom of the social scale, and any good mother would have wanted her child to marry a doctor, a lawyer, or an architect but not a cook. Now we are a genius. A lot has happened in the last 30 years so it’s totally different. And now the young chef contends with publicity, with PR people, with having their name all over the newspaper and so forth. And this is good in some way, not too good in other way because a lot of young chefs will go into the business to “become Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay”, or of course to become famous, which probably will never happen. When in fact you should go in that business only for one reason, and the reason is because you love it and you feel verified by it. But if you don’t you will sweat a lot. You’ll still work Saturday, Sunday. You’ll still work 16 hours a day. You’ll still probably have varicose veins by the time you are 40 years old, and you don’t really make much money. However if you’re verified by it, and if you love it, then it’s worth all of this.
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: What advice can you give young chefs?
Jacques Pepin: I would tell them do it for love, absolutely. Don’t do it for anything else. Because ultimately that’s what that will amount to. You have to be gratified with what you do. I mean I have the best of all possible worlds. I make a living out of something I love to do, and probably would do for free, you know? And people pay me for it, so I’m very lucky. I never regretted to be in my business; but don’t do it, as I said . . . You could become famous and all that, because it may happen; but it’s likely that it may not.
Recorded on: 09/04/2007