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 forces have shaped humanity most?
Jacques Pepin: As I think I mentioned, Levi-Strauss before who said that cooking is the process by which, you know, nature is transformed into culture. That very important. And European civilization, you know, certainly you can go back. And anything can be filtered through the food itself. I mean anthropology, history, sociology, even politic you know? You have political decision like the tax on la gabelle in France in the 17th century which put a tax on salt. Those are political decision who decide where the food goes, or how the food is going to be consumed; or the embargo of Carter in the ‘70s. Again the grand embargo against certain country in Europe. This political decision as we see in Africa and other parts of the world will determine where the food goes, who dies, and who starves. And who dies and who lives. So those are . . . Whether it’s political . . . Religion. You know food can be a . . . The Bible is an enormous source for food, or for history of food if you want, you know. So whether it’s sociology, there is no part of social science which cannot be really filtered through food. And to a certain extent now, it becomes a subject which is more not only relevant, but more respected. I mean at Boston University, we’re offering our Master of Liberal Arts with a concentration on Gastronomy. I mean that would have been totally unthinkable 20, 30 years ago and even less than that. When I came to America and I worked at the Pavillion, which was considered the greatest French restaurant here. I was part of Local 89, and Local 89 was the dishwasher, the chef, the cook, to everybody in the same basket. There was no difference. And at that point, you know, I have to say that after . . . after the Pavillion I worked for Howard Johnson. I worked with a lot of black people. Black chef behind the stove. That’s where I _______ most into the kitchen. And now that the cooking had exploded and had become very glamorous, and inspired, and even genius-like, you know, then you, for some reason – and I think it’s a loss for the country – don’t have many black who are into cooking now. A couple, you know, but not many. But many young American chefs are in that business now, which as I say years ago they would not even . . . that was considered a low, uninspired type of job which now it’s exactly the opposite. So we have the peregrination of the chef. It’s quite interesting because something happened in the same way in the 17th, 18th century in France. In fact there was a book written by Meneau in the first half of the 18th century which is called Le Nouvelle Cuisine France – the new French cooking. So you see the nouvelle cuisine which erupted here in the ‘70s, but already existing in the 18th century. And it went down and up. Cuisine was at an apex again during the . . . during the end of the 19th century at the time of the belle epoque. Then it went down and up again. So it’s an interesting take, again, to look at this story of cooking.
Question: How has technology changed cooking in the last 50 years?
Jacques Pepin: Well technology certainly has changed a great deal of the cooking. And it’s changing maybe even more so now. There is good and there is bad. Certainly things like the food processor, saran wrap and plastic . . . or rubber spatula are, for me, great innovation of the last 30 years. But it is like this, you know. We always manipulate food. And our ancestors, you know, didn’t have anything to eat. And what we call wheat now was actually a wild . . . a wild weed which through cross-breeding, and changing, and manipulation we end up now with this. I mean not that long ago when I was a child, you could not eat string beans. _________ on one side, and the other side which I tried to do . . . And I had to do a couple of _________ or whatever it was that my mother wanted me to do. My brother and I tried to cut the end of it with a scissor, too, which of course those beans were absolutely uneatable. So now there have always been some manipulation to make it better without the string; or to make the animal fatter, or not as fat, or more tender, or this and that. So those manipulations have existed all the time. Now bio-engineered food is something else, you know, that we get into other areas which have to be controlled. I am not, by definition, opposed to anything. Because I think to feed the world we need that type of improvement. But it has to be extremely controlled, you know? But without any question, if you can do an egg which tastes like an egg for me – as good as an egg – and it has half the amount of cholesterol, why not? You know if you can have a tomato, that because of some manipulation, doesn’t need to be sprayed with an insecticide or pesticide or anything, being resistant to this, why not? That may be a plus. But as I say you have to do that with circumspection. You really have to control it, you know?
Recorded on: 09/04/2007