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: When you read the newspaper or watch the news, what issues stand out for you?
Jacques Pepin: Certainly for me, going back to my world of cooking, it’s how to feed the people in the world. And the feeling is . . . You know it’s so different from one country to the other when we have so much, and we waste so much you know in America and in most of Europe for that matter, and you see two-thirds of the world who are dying of hunger. And then sometimes we are working in a kitchen, putting twelve ingredients on a dish – a young chef – to make it exciting just to titillate the palate of someone who is not hungry at all, and you know you are there to titillate that palate. You have to go through that torture of the food, when in fact as I say over half the world has died of hunger. So as I say at that point when you start thinking about that, there is something morally disturbing in that other declaration of the food and that type of stuff, you know?
Question: How has globalization changed the way we eat?
Jacques Pepin: Well it has changed it for both – you know, worse and better. I mean everything at the fingertip of your hand. Now you can get, you know, raspberry from Peru in January. When your eyes tell you they are raspberries, often you palate doesn’t believe it because it is not the time of the year for raspberry. But it is true that now we are . . . And the process of ________, for example, or other process of handling the food will make it better and better so that we can have fresher and better product as new innovation and technology happen. So this is a plus. On the other hand, it seems that that globalization has taken a great deal out of . . . out of individual cooking; out of ethnicity; out of expression. And the food will be . . . or people would express themselves with the food of their own not only country, but their own village or their own small place in France where they live, you know? And that has kind of been damaged by this to a certain extent. I am positive, and I am an optimist in life. So I think that we are moving to a better thing; yet what we have to do more than anything else is to try to feed other people in the world. We have enough food in the world to feed the whole world. But it has to be distributed. It has to be taken there without lord or bandit in Africa and all of that, take a hold of that food and bargain with it while children are dying of hunger, you know?
Question: Is genetically modified food a welcome improvement, or a risk?
Jacques Pepin: It could be an improvement, and it is an improvement in certain part of the world. Certainly in Africa where you can feed more people in much larger yield in what you may do. But it has to be done with an extremely, extremely serious control so that we don’t get out of whack and we end up using fish to put into vegetable, or all kind of genetic manipulation which may destroy the, you know, the world in many ways. So I think you’re . . . I am not an expert on this. And when people talk to me about it, I may be convinced because I have a Nobel Prize of ________. And the day after I will have another Nobel Prize which may know about it, and I will be just as convinced, you know? So I think there is good and bad in those things. What I said is it has to be done with the assent of the public to start with; with the knowledge of the public so they know about it. You cannot change a product in the supermarket without telling people, so we should know about it. And we should . . . and it has to be done under very, very strict control, you know?
Question: What do you make of the inversion of the “fat is good” paradigm?
Jacques Pepin: Well the perspective on that . . . I mean it’s a deplorable situation. I mean we add close to 2,000 book published this year in America – cooking book, diet book. We didn’t have any diet book published 25 years ago. And since 20 or so years ago, I would venture to say there has been over 10,000 or 15,000 book on dieting with the net result that we are 35% fatter than we were 20 years ago. So obviously it doesn’t work. So you have to go back to the beginning. You have to go back . . . It’s very important to start with the children when they are small. There is no place more secure than the kitchen for a child who come back from school. You know because the noise of the kitchen, the smell of the kitchen, the voice of the mother or the father, all of that are going to create memories, you know – effective memories which will stay with you for the rest of your life without any question. I think it was a Chinese philosopher who said, “What is patriotism but the taste of the dish that you had as a child?” And that is very, very true. Because you see those young kids in Iraq now. They go back to mother’s apple pie, or ice cream, or something that brings them . . . There is something secure in this. There is something comforting to do this. So we are going back to those tastes of our youth. And certainly that’s what Proust discussed in the effect of memory. And so certainly for me as a cook, the memory of the senses, the effective memory that is the eye, the nose, the smell, you know, the taste as well as the touching of the food is much more important than the memory of the intellect. If you asked me, you know, to try to remember where I was eight years ago at a certain time by working my brain a lot I can remember where I was. But it’s a different type of recall, a different type of memory that when I walk in the wood, and all of a sudden I smell something and I am six years old, or I am seven years old smelling that mushroom or whatever, that memory of the senses is very immediate. It’s very powerful. You know it overrides any other type of emotion that you have at that point. And those memories, that’s what you create with a child, you know, in the kitchen when that child is an infant. From the beginning that’s where a child should be doing his homework – in the kitchen next to his parents. And after sitting down around the table . . . And it’s not . . . I remember when my daughter was small, you know, to sit down every night and recall what happened in school, and eat. It’s not necessarily pleasant. Sometimes it’s not. But yet unless you do that, you don’t communicate with your children, you know? So you have to do that. It’s absolutely necessary.
Question: Are Americans 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? And this is why when people get into the food world, I tell people at Boston University for example . . . They say, “I don’t know what to do in the food world.” I say, “The food world represents over $700 billion now.” But most of it is . . . Maybe it’s import, export, or general food, or enormous advertising company and so forth. But they . . . But the core of it is still the food. So if you don’t know where to go to start with, you jump into the kitchen. And then after you may move somewhere else. Then if you become a food stylist or a food writer, whatever you learn in that kitchen is going to be useful. So this is the core of it still, and . . .
Question: Is there an obesity epidemic in America?
Jacques Pepin: Well there is absolutely an obesity in this country. And if you people started having a garden enough to plow the garden, it would limit the obesity. You know often people reach at the end of the food chain to eat something that they don’t know where it comes from. For most people, you know, a chicken now for the kid are . . . first it’s rectangular. It doesn’t have any head. It doesn’t have any feet. It doesn’t have anything. You know you have to go back to nature and show them how it’s done, and get them involved into plowing the ground a little bit and working the earth, you know, to make . . . And in addition, if you get enough diversity, if you follow the season, there is very good things in the seasons that we don’t even know. You know the whole pharmacy of vegetables that we are talking about now, we know a few. But we really don’t know that much about what they call the phytochemical, or the certain chemical that you have in vegetable. I’m sure that in this century, we are going to discover much more of what’s good and what’s no good in those vegetables. And that will be very important in term of dieting, in term of following the season. The worst thing you can have is to have packaged food . . . pre-packaged food because there is so much fat . . . and bad fat in it, you know, that you don’t know. So that’s . . . and if you get rid of that and get back to seasonal food, to fresh food and all that, you would right away do a great service for people who are obese. They would lose a great deal of weight, I think. But it’s a natural process.
Question: Is sustainable, organic farming feasible in a country of 300 million?
Jacques Pepin: Oh it’s absolutely feasible because, as I said, my mother was an organic gardener without even knowing the word because we didn’t have any of the other, you know, chemical fertilizers and so forth. So we know how to do it. We know what’s sustainable. We know how to vary crops so that we don’t, you know, diminish the quality of the earth and so forth. So we know how to do that. We know how to use natural fertilizer and all that. So it’s not that we don’t know. It’s a little more work. And the food is cheap . . . The food is too cheap in this country. If it was a little more expensive, people would come in droves and the . . . the organic market is working 20% up every year now. So it’s been moving at incredible speed, but it’s still very expensive for certain people. By the time that it will be only 30% or 40% more than regular products, people are going to move in droves to organic products. And we should.
Question: Can healthy, organic food be mass-produced?
Jacques Pepin: I believe so. Even when I worked at Howard Johnson, there are things that you can produce well, especially now with new techniques of ________ and other innovations in technology that come about. If it’s done with the best product to start with, it will cost money . . . I mean there are great products now that come from Spain, for example – canned products with new way of canning which don’t have to be retorted, that is cooked so long that it diminish a great deal of the taste in those. So there is all kind of new innovation, yes. I absolutely believe that technically we will be able . . . we are already able to do food which tastes great, and are healthy, and are good for you, and are absolutely delicious, which is what’s happened for me.
Recorded on: 09/04/2007