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: Who are you?
Jacques Pepin: My name is Jacques Pepin and I am a cook.
Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?
Jacques Pepin: I was born in Bourg-en-Bresse, which is a small town between Lyon and Geneva in France, many years ago. It had a great deal to do with who I am today. It had to do with my mother, of course, with the restaurant. I left home when I was 13 years old to go into apprenticeship. But home was actually a restaurant. So as far back as I can go – from age five or six – I was in a restaurant. And even though my brother became an engineer, I was excited by the world of the kitchen, and the noise, and the excitement, and all this, and I always wanted to do that. I had an aunt who had a restaurant in ________, another town in France; another aunt who had a restaurant in Valance, again another town; my mother who had a restaurant in Lyon. And nowadays actually I have two cousins, female, who have a restaurant in Bourg-en-Bresse , and a niece who has a restaurant next to my mother. So I’m still the only male who went into that business in the whole family. So much for the great French chef being only male, right?
Question: Who was your greatest influence when you were young?
Jacques Pepin: As a young person, certainly my mother, aunt. But maybe the war as well. My brother and a lifestyle that we are, I mean it was . . . I am very miserly in the kitchen because my mother was very miserly in the kitchen because food was kind of sacred for us and you didn’t waste any. So the making of the garden as well. You know my father had a garden. Everyone had a garden in France at that time, and my mother was an organic gardener and so was my father. Of course they didn’t know the word “organic”. It’s just that chemical fertilizers didn’t exist, and fungicide, insecticide, pesticide and all that stuff did not exist. So we just did a garden, you know, the old, normal way using cow, or chicken, or horse manure and so forth, and I think that’s what we should back to now.
Question: What did you think you would be doing professionally when you were growing up?
Jacques Pepin: I had a kind of blinder. You know we didn’t have any televisions, so I didn’t know that I could be a great doctor, or surgeon in 30 minutes _______ television. So having those blinder, and my mother was in the restaurant business. My father was a cabinet maker by trade, and so were his brothers, and so were their father and grandfather. So it was either one or the other. I still inherited some of that desire from my father because I do build furniture and do that type of thing. I do a lot of repair myself at home. But the world of the kitchen beckoned me and I liked it. So as I said, you know, it was a world where we . . . I didn’t know, you know, in the class system that I could ever be a doctor or a lawyer. I never even think this way. I never thought this way. I went into that direction, which was the cooking.
Recorded on: 09/04/2007