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 makes a great dish?
Jacques Pepin: Well certainly what defines a great dish is your own taste to start with, and your own palate, and how discernable you are, and if you like that type of dishes, you know? Ingredient may be the most important part of a dish for me. Too much has been said about chef; not enough has been shared about farmer to grow the ingredient, because we are absolutely nothing without the farmer, you know? And he doesn’t get the credit for it. So if you have extraordinary ingredients, and if you don’t mess it up by doing too much with it or overcooking it and all that . . . if you are pretty calm about it, then you probably will have a great dish. I mean it can be just an extraordinary tomato at the right temperature with the best possible oil, best possible onion with it. And that’s what we look for. You know and very often, people think in terms of great dish in the context of complicated dish, when in fact I often discuss with a young chef and I say, “Okay. I will test you by doing a lobster roll, maybe a hamburger, maybe a hot dog, maybe a BLT. Any of those which are very, very modern and very simple. You can always have a bettera bread, a better mustard, a better piece of meat, a better way of cooking it. You can always work in depth rather than otherwise . . . and get something better. And you do . . . We have a place next to me in Connecticut where I go and have lobster roll – where I have a friend of mine, Jean Claude, who is my dearest friend and who was with me when I worked for the French President. So we’ve been cooking together 51 years. He’ll come and he’ll say, “Let’s go and have a lobster roll.” He’ll remember that lobster roll where the guy takes those Philadelphia flat roll that we started at Howard Johnson actually when I lived there, and brown them on each side properly, and add just plain lobster that he poached himself or steamed himself with butter on top, salt, pepper, and he put it, and that’s it; but it’s good quality. And you’ll remember it and you go back to it.
Recorded on: 09/04/2007