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: Do you have a creative process?
Jacques Pepin: I suppose that I do. I don’t know whether I could define it. I mean the creative process, again, will start at the market with the ingredient. And then when you do recipe . . . When you do recipe for a book or whatever, you can really taste the recipe in your head, I mean for me. I can visualize a recipe and taste it in my head by adding this, this and that and so forth. I get pretty close to it by the time I actually do the recipe; but I may not, you know, hit the nail on the head exactly; but with a couple of corrections, I am there. So I can really transgress the recipe by thinking about it, and that would be the type of creative process that I do, which comes with years of practice to a certain extent, you know? Practice, practice. Then you can think about the food and visualize it. But certainly the ingredient itself will define whether the dish comes out good or not.
Question: Where do you look for inspiration?
Jacques Pepin: First usually when I determine what to cook, it’s usually going to be determined by the market, what’s there. And I go to the market because I think, “Maybe I’ll do a roast duck,” and I come back with a leg of lamb and artichokes because they were on sale, they looked good, and fine I’m buying it. So the market will determine various times what I’m cooking. Throughout the year, however, your taste changes. Your metabolism change. And as I get older, I tend to take away from the plate rather than add to the plate. That being said, 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 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 __________ with a slice of . . . with a bowl of ice cream on top of it. (Chuckles) As I say, who would ever have thought of that, you know?
Question: Is there a book you find particularly inspiring?
Jacques Pepin: Well I would like at the La Ruse Gastronomic . . . you know the Gastronomic La Ruse coming in France, which _________ encyclopedia which is extraordinary. I look at The Joy of Cooking that my wife had when I married her, and which I find always very useful. There are other recipes which specialize maybe in other type of cuisine that I looked at as well, you know? Whether it’s Chinese or whatever, the beauty of it is that my wife does some . . . My wife being born in New York from a Puerto Rican father . . . a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father, so we have some Caribbean background there. And in addition she always loved Oriental food, so she does Chinese as well as Japanese food that I do myself occasionally. So we can vary our palate quite a lot at our house.
Recorded on: 09/04/2007