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 restaurant?
Jacques Pepin: The world of great restaurant very often are difficult to define. You know you will have a restaurant which opens, and everyone goes, and it’s fantastic, and you’ll go back and everything is great – from the food, to the service from the first moment you’re there. Someone will say, “I want to do the same thing.” You open another restaurant. You go there and everything is fine, but somehow it doesn’t click exactly. And you’ll tell people, “Did you like it?” And they’ll say, “Yes, it was excellent.” “How was the service?” “The service was very good, too.” “Would you go back?” “Yeah, I probably will go back,” but there is none of that excitement that you may have in that first restaurant. And sometimes it is something which is very, very difficult to define exactly. But certainly the quality of the food, the quality of the service, because you have to be felt welcome without people being condescending to you. So those are what make great restaurants, yes.
Question: What is the most memorable meal you’ve ever served?
Jacques Pepin: There is never a dish which is absolutely perfect, you know? There can always . . . Sometimes you get close enough that you are very satisfied with yourself; but again it has to do with your own palate. Without any question if you decide on the 10 best restaurants in New York, or the 10 best restaurants in France, and if I go to those 10 restaurants, five . . . maybe five, six of them I’m going to think are absolutely extraordinary. Two or three of them I’m going to think they are quite good; and a couple of them I’m going to say, “I don’t understand why those people are three star.” And what I’m saying there is that you cannot escape yourself. So those four or five that I absolutely adore just happen to coincide exactly with my sense of taste, with my sense of aesthetic. So it’s purely a narcissistic reflection, if you want, on my own taste because that coincides with what I like. And the other one I’m not as familiar with it. So, as I said, to a certain extent, you can work with many different people, but you cannot escape yourself. At some point you are who you are, and that will be expressed in the food. That’s what I tried to tell the students at BU for example. I have a class of 10, 12 students, hands-on. And I do a class of two hours. I say, “I am going to do the perfect meal for you today – a roast chicken, I boil potato, and a salad.” But it has to be done exactly the right way – basting the right way. The salad has to be cleaned up the right way, set at the right temperature, with the right dressing, with the right oil, with the right amount . . . the right temperature. The potato has to be done “this” way, and so forth. Fine. So they do that, they taste it, then they go to the store and do it. Now they have two hours to duplicate my dish . . . my three dish. And I always say, “Don’t try to be original. Don’t try to outdo one another, too. Don’t try to be different than someone else because you are different. And whether you like or not, for the better or for the worst, I’m going to have 10 different chicken. A couple of them practically perfect. A couple cold. A couple undercooked. A couple overcooked. A couple . . . whatever. They will be different because you are different, and you cannot escape yourself. So you don’t have to torture yourself to find that dish to make sure that people know you’ve done it, because it will be different anyway.”
Question: What is your favorite restaurant?
Jacques Pepin: Home is the best. Home is always the best restaurant around. Yeah there are many others. As I said, I mentioned Jean Georges in New York as well as Daniel . . . you know, Keller . . . you know Thomas Keller is extraordinary. Those are extraordinary restaurants, and there is only a few that I mentioned there. There is many, many more in New York and all over the country I mean.
Recorded on: 09/04/2007