Taste Is a Narcissistic Reflection
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.
Topic: Food and Identity
Jacques Pepin: I cook. That’s what I do. And certainly for many people . . . for most people who know me, whether it’s on television, through book and so forth, I’m defined by my culinary identity. That’s who I am. And that . . . my culinary culture certainly. And that culture is expressed in the ritual. Like I go mushrooming in the wood, or fishing for frog, or playing lawn bowling which is “petanque” or “bol” in France. And those rituals in term of express very often in tradition, traditional recipes – like certain types of dishes that go with the occupation and all that. So it’s a kind of down the line culinary culture for me. And certainly that’s what I try to instill in my daughter because cooking is extremely important for us. It defines, as I say, ourselves. And I could quote Levi-Strauss there who said that the process of cooking is the process by which nature is transformed into culture. And I think, for me, it’s a very profound statement because that’s what we are. And so many of the deals . . . so many of what we do happens around the table.
When I am at home with my wife, we sit down together . . . I’ve been married 41 years, and it’s a ritual that we’ve done for 41 years where we sit down and share a bottle of wine and eat at night. But then I may do a simple roast chicken, a salad, and so forth. Now that’s what you may call “country cooking”, you know? And then if she calls me and I’m at the market, and she says, “Oh I just saw such-and-such and I told them to come over for lunch or dinner,” so I may add a garnish to that or two garnish to my menu. I may put another bottle of wine on the table, and maybe a napkin. And the chicken I may deglaze with a little bit of white wine and some mushroom, and that becomes bourgeois cooking. And by the time I deglaze it with cognac and I add truffle with it, and we put flowers on the table, and we put champagne, it’s still the same chicken, but that’s haute cuisine, you know? So very often the definition of cuisine is marginal to the cooking itself.
I think that in my case, we probably remember the catastrophe that you have more than the great success that you have. And otherwise, you know, one goes into the other. 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: How are American eating habits different from those of Europe?
Jacques Pepin: Well it’s changing a great deal, but certainly 30, 40 years ago at Americans eating like four things: hot dogs . . . I mean frankfurters, hamburger, fried chicken, and maybe canned macaroni and one of those things. And you do have people – what you may call the ___________ – who will eat those type of dish and repeat over, and over, and over, and over again. So in that context, that type of culinary spectrum, if you want, is very limited compared to what you have in Europe for a European. Conversely, however, if you’re in a place like New York and one night you eat Turkish, and another night you eat Taiwanese, and another night you eat Chinese, and French, and Italian and so forth, your spectrum of taste is going to be much larger than most Europeans. Because even though there are Chinese restaurants in another kind of different type of cuisine restaurant in France, it might be a good restaurant, but yet 99.9% of French people eat French; 99.9% of Italian eat Italian, and so it goes in Germany and so forth, and in Belgium because that’s part of the tradition. That’s part of an almost . . . something that you’re born with; something which is visceral; something which . . . and part of us sitting down at the table with the family for all of those years. So it built up that type of culinary culture as I have, you know?
Recorded on: 09/04/2007
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