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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[…]

Jacques Pepin talks about transforming nature into culture.

Question: Beyond a simple title, how would you describe what you do for a living?

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 who said that the process of cooking is the process by which nature is transformed into culture.  And I think, for me, that 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.

Question: What makes a great chef?

Jacques Pepin: Well there is great cook and great chef.  Certainly the cook itself or a great chef in some restaurants very often don’t have that much to do with the cooking anymore.  You go to the Waldorf Astoria for example, then the chef will have to contend with several banquets of 1,000     . . . 1,500 people.  So he will go organize, of course work out his menu, taste here and there, but that’s about it.  So that’s what . . .  If you wanna make a distinction between, in a sense, a pencil chef and a skillet chef, you know – and the skillet chef being someone who will have a small restaurant . . . someone like Thomas Keller here, and will be behind the stove cooking day after day, you know morning after morning.  So that’s really someone who is involved in the cooking itself.  Both of those are chefs.  But by definition I am not a chef unless I work in a professional kitchen with other people who are working for me.  Then I am called a chef – which is the “chief” in France – to run that kitchen.  When I go back at home I am the cook there.  My wife is the chef.  You know it’s different.

Question: What goes into running a restaurant?

Jacques Pepin: Running a restaurant is a very, very complex thing.  Very complicated and very uncomplicated because the quality of our restaurants is always based on the quality of the food versus the price.  And that’s a sample of that.  But to get there is not that easy.  Now when you are the cook there, and you have the owner, and you can kind of cook, and express yourself, and work in the kitchen, follow certain ideas that you have, it’s probably easier than when you become the owner when you have to start thinking about the food costs, about hiring people, about firing people, about all kind of other things that as a chef, you would not like to have to deal with.  But certainly in our world today . . .  When I was a child, the chef or the cook was at the bottom of the social scale, and any good mother would have wanted her child to marry a doctor, a lawyer, or an architect but not a cook.  Now we are a genius.  Look what happened in the last 30 years so it’s totally different.  And now the young chef contends with publicity, with PR people, with having their name all over the newspaper and so forth.  And this is good in some way, not too good in other way because a lot of young chefs will go into the business to “become Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay”, or of course to become famous, which probably will never happen.  When in fact you should go in that business only for one reason, and the reason is because you love it and you feel gratified by it.  But if you don’t you will sweat a lot.  You’ll still work Saturday, Sunday.  You’ll still work 16 hours a day.  You’ll still probably have varicose veins by the time you are 40 years old, and you don’t really make much money.  However if you’re verified by it, and if you love it, then it’s worth all of this.

Jacques Pepin: What is the joy in what you do?

Jacques Pepin: The joy is to please people.  The joy, you always cook for the other.  And maybe cooking is maybe the purest expression of love in the sense that you always, as a I said, cook for the other – whether that other is your girlfriend, or your wife, or your husband, or your child, or your grandmother, or a friend coming over.  You have that type of expressing that you do through cooking.  And certainly 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 rose 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.  You know it involves other things.

Question: What goes into a menu?

Jacques Pepin: Well for me, I would detail what goes into a restaurant by the season, you know?  I mean there is no other way for me to . . .  I believe very strongly that we should go back to organic ingredient.  We use as much as we can local product.  You don’t have to pay for the transport, so it’s less expensive.  Usually when you use something in season . . . when you have that tomato which is in full season, it is probably one of the best in terms of taste, which is what I’m the most interested in.  But certainly on a nutritional point of you, it’s reached its peak, and that’s one of the best.  And in terms of money it’s probably one of the least expensive.  So now, even though now the seasons are kind of blurred at the supermarket by the profusion of product that will come from all over the world, you know, but I still like to go . . .  Like I’m going this weekend to get corn and get tomato when I have a lot of tomato in my garden myself, and salad; but I like to go to the farm.  I mean it’s part of a ritual where you get ideas as well.

Question: What are the milestones of your career?

Jacques Pepin: Well certainly when I was young and when I lived in France, and at some point between 1956 and 1959 I worked for the French President . . . actually under three French Presidents because under the fourth republic the government was changing at a quite rapid pace when I finished with General De Gaulle.  At that point, however, I dealt with the lady of the house.  In that case it was Madame De Gaulle, where I would set up the menu for the week.  And there was a kind of security in the kitchen which may not be there anymore.  By this I mean that there is so much fame with the chef now, that he goes into the dining room and get the kudos, and get all the criticism or whatever.  So you have that whole part of cooking which did not exist then.  We never went into the dining room.  We were never accepted or asked to go there.  It was a totally different type of world.  So you had a certain security in the kitchen doing your thing the way you thought it would be without having to wonder too much, or worry about what they would say in the dining room or whatever.  Certainly when I did head of state at that time like Eisenhower, and McMillan, or Tito, or Nehru, I would discuss with the protocol as well as with Madame De Gaulle, and often only with the protocol, the dinner of the head of state coming, whether it has to be long or short; whether one or two meat, the number of course, the number of wines.  Certainly there is some limitations that you may have, you know, with religion or other type of taboo.  I mean you’re not going to serve, you know, a pork chop to the king of Morocco or something like this.  So I mean there are . . .  I don’t think the protocol will tell you to be careful and to stay . . .  Or maybe the President may have been invited already three times, and they plan the menu.  So you don’t want to have like striped bass maybe three times in a row or whatever.  So those types of limitations within this, you would try to show what you know how to do the best, and show the season.  And certainly in the case of me when I was at the President’s, show your country as well, which is what you should do.  If I were at the White House, that’s what I would do.

Question: Whose work are you watching most closely?

Jacques Pepin: There are a plethora of young chefs, I mean from ________, for example in California . . .  I mean there is so many young chef coming now, and are exciting with what they are doing.  I mean even at the French Culinary Institute where I teach here in New York, I am amazed by those young chefs, what they can do in six months of the program, which is 600 and something odd hours . . . what they can do at the end of those 600 hours, I would never have been able to do that after three years of apprenticeship.  Even after five years.  We learned in a totally different way.  When I was a child, we stole the trade with . . .  That is, you would ask the chef, “What is this?”  And he would answer some type of stupidity.  You say, “What is that sauce called?”  And you would say, “A sauce non not,” which means nothing at all.  He would never tell you how to do anything.  And one day he would tell you.  Tomorrow, you start at the stove.  So you learn through a type of osmosis, looking, and eventually you know how to do it.  You become very proficient with your hands, because there was a lot of technique and a lot of manual work to do – shopping, slicing, mincing and so forth . . . cleaning of the kitchen and so forth.  Now in a place like, for example, the French Culinary Institute and most of the school, it costs first a fortune.  So you cater to the people.  You show them.  You explain and all that, meaning that they learn much, much faster.  However they are not quite as proficient with their hands as we would have been . . . as we were.  You know when I was an apprentice, it was a different type of learning way, you know?

Question: Why is the apprenticeship process important?

Jacques Pepin: It’s absolutely, extremely important, yes.  Because like any type of manual trade, you have to learn the technique.  You have to be a good technician, and this is what I concentrate on in my teaching, in the technique.  You know and things which are very often difficult to explain in word that are very visual . . .  I mean from shucking an oyster, to doing a caramel cage, or boning a chicken, or doing an omelet and so forth – this is technique that you have to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat so much that by the time you absorb them, then you cannot afford to forget them.  And then you can afford to think in terms of what the vegetable . . .  I’ll do maybe the texture will go well with that.  The color will go well with that.  Maybe I’ll sauté that.  You think in term of the future, the dish in your hand, work automatically and prepare those things.  As long as you are totally obligated . . .  You know if you ________ by the slicing of an onion, and someone comes around and says, “Do you have any parsley here?” and you say, “Don’t disturb me,” because you are working on that kind of menial task of slicing the onion, you cannot move forward.  You have to get rid of that.  And by getting rid of that you have to practice, practice, practice it enough so that you cannot afford to forget it.  Just like if you’re a painter, you know, you work two or three years in a studio, and you learn how to . . . the law of perspective.  And you learn how to mix yellow and blue to do green.  And you know you can do “that” with your thumb and with a spatula and all that.  So you kind of learn the trick of the trade, meaning that after three years you can stand outside and you can do one painting after another.  Does that make you a great artist?  No.  You’re a good technician.  That’s what you are.  Well in the kitchen, likewise.  You know you have to become a good technician.  And I’m sure a surgeon as well as a mason first have to become good technicians before they move forward, you know?

Question: What makes a great artist?

Jacques Pepin: Well behind the technique itself – that is, the knowledge of whatever trade it is – then there is, of course, talent.  And there is . . .  There is also someone . . . the willingness of doing this, and you have to keep at it.  And there is a certain discipline involved in that.  So the discipline . . . as long as with the talent, with the proper technique, with a certain openness to learn with other people, eventually you reach to a certain level where you can express yourself.  Because in the kitchen, certainly all you have to say is “Yes chef” as an apprentice.  That’s all you have to learn, you know.  Because a chef is not going to ask you your opinion.  You go work at Daniel or Jean Georges in New York, or any of the great restaurants and you are going to do what the chef wants there.  Because the kitchen has been set up by someone with a great chef and has a vision of the way the food should be.  So you are there to learn.  So you absorb and you learn, and you change a year later and work with someone else who may not do exactly . . . probably who will not do the same thing in the same manner.  So you learn another way, another point of view, another way of looking at things.  And after you do that for a number of years . . . seven, eight, 10 years, then you have absorbed that enormous amount of material which you kind of regurgitate if you want __________.  You get that through your own sense of aesthetic, through your own sense of idea.  And then you start creating your own kind of cuisine with your own ideas at that point.

Question: How do you write about food?

Jacques Pepin: I had a column in the New York Times for a number of years, yes.  And interestingly enough, column I had in the New York Times was called “The Purposeful Cook”.  The idea there was to cook for a family of six for the least amount of money.  Well I did a book . . .   So there was a focus there.  I did a book for the Cleveland Clinic for cardiac patient weight loss.  That’s another focus.  I did a book once     . . .  An editor asked me, “Can you do a book with the least amount of cooking, the least amount of cleaning, the least amount of whatever, you know, for . . . ?”  So I did that book called The Shortcut Cook.  Then I did a book of technique.  So those are all . . .  Whether it’s dieting, or whether it’s a technique, or whether it’s to do . . .  Like I have a series now – Jacques Pepin: Fast Food My Way – it’s to show people how to cook good, simple, healthy food in a very minimal amount of time.  And it’s a question of thinking about it, whether I want to go through the process of doing everything myself in term of technique.  Or certainly in a few years – because it has become easier and easier to do – use a supermarket or the prep cook, which is what I do in Fast Food My Way.  I can go to the supermarket, get a skinless, boneless breast of chicken, pre-sliced mushrooms, pre-washed spinach.  I have a non-stick pan.  I put it on the stove.  I put that in it, and in five, six, eight minutes I have a dish.  And that’s cooking from scratch.

Question: How has cooking changed in your lifetime?

Jacques Pepin: When I was an apprentice, cooking from scratch was to light the stove, to start with, with paper and wood and then coal.  And to keep that stove hot, which was the responsibility of the commis was a very difficult thing in the kitchen.  And the chef would get out of his mind by the time the people start sitting down and the stove kept getting lukewarm.  So to keep that thing really hot, hot, red on top and in the oven was a situation.  And then that whole apprenticeship within itself doesn’t exist anymore.  And then if you didn’t have to catch the chicken, you at least had to pluck it, eviscerate it.  You cook it in a pot where everything sticks, in an oven where you didn’t have any calibration, or temperature, or whatever.  You had to turn it.  You had to baste it.  This was a big deal, as I say, to cook a chicken . . . roast chicken from scratch.  Now as I say, to do a roast chicken from scratch with the skinless, boneless breast of chicken, sliced mushrooms takes five minutes.  But you see the world is entirely different.

Question: What makes a great dish?

Jacques Pepin: Well certainly what defines a great dish is your own taste to start with, and your own palate, and your how discernable are, and how you like that type of dishes, you know?  Ingredient may be the most important part of a dish for me.  Too much has been said about chef; not enough has been shared about farmer to grow the ingredient, because we are absolutely nothing without the farmer, you know?  And he doesn’t get the credit for it.  So if you have extraordinary ingredients, and if you don’t mess it up by doing too much with it or overcooking it and all that . . . if you are pretty calm about it, then you probably will have a great dish.  I mean it can be just an extraordinary tomato at the right temperature with the best possible oil, best possible onion with it.  And that’s what we look for.  You know and very often, people think in terms of great dish in the context of complicated dish, when in fact I often discuss with a young chef and I say, “Okay.  I would test you by doing a lobster roll, maybe a hamburger, maybe a hot dog, maybe a BLT.  Any of those which are very, very modern and very simple.  You can have a better bread , a better mustard, a better piece of meat, a better way of cooking it.  You can always work in depth rather than otherwise . . . and get something better.  And you do . . .  We have a place next to me in Connecticut where I go and have lobster roll – where I have a friend of mine, Jean Claude, who is my dearest friend and who was with me when I worked for the French President.  So we’ve been cooking together 51 years.  He’ll come and he’ll say, “Let’s go and have a lobster roll.”  He’ll remember that lobster roll where the guy takes those Philadelphia flat roll that we started at Howard Johnson actually when I lived there, and brown them on each side properly, and add just plain lobster that he poached himself or steamed himself with butter on top, salt, pepper, and he put it, and that’s it; but it’s good quality.  And you’ll remember it and you go back to it.

Question: What ingredients do you always have on hand?

Jacques Pepin: Well, if I open the refrigerator, I’m going to have eggs.  I’m going to have onion.  I’m going to have certainly a shallot.  Probably two or three type of vegetable or salad.  I always have plenty in my refrigerator along with beer, and milk, and probably some cream as well.  So those are ingredients that are in the refrigerator.  And in the pantry. I have a fair amount of cans . . . from canned tuna . . .  But again they are quality – from extraordinary tuna in cans from Portugal or somewhere else.  I had not long ago some apricot in can from Morocco.  They were just fantastic, you know?  And so again . . .  Or beans.  I mean different types of beans.  And there is nothing wrong with canned beans, because if I cook beans I will take beans, water and salt and basically that’s what I’m going to have in that can.  There is nothing foreign in that can that I wouldn’t want to have in term of chemical product or whatever.

Question: What utensils do you always have on hand?

Jacques Pepin: Most important tool are your hands without any question.  And then after you need a knife; you need a board to shuck on; you need a pad, and that’s basically what you need.  That being said of course, I have about 150 knives at my house; but you need basically three knives – a chopping knife; and then a utility knife, about seven inch; and a paring knife, you know?  So  . . .  And preferably sharp one, too.

Question: What are the world’s greatest restaurants?

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 someone 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 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.

Question: Can New York restaurants compete with French restaurants?

Jacques Pepin: Oh absolutely.  Absolutely.  Even better in some way now, because you know for a European, very often they will look at American cuisine . . .  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 mall crowd– 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