Jacques Pepin is one of the chefs that definitely piqued my interest in cooking. I watched Jacques and Julia’s cooking show before I even knew that they were the founding chefs of cooking in America. Julia would state how she wanted to do a recipe, and then Jacque would disagree and explain the truly classical way to doing that recipe. Then Julia would respond with a “yes, but we’re doing a show for home cooks.” Then Jacque would acquiesce, and a brilliant, inspiring meal would come together in the remaining 20 minutes of the show. There were times that I would be so inspired to cook an item, and I would rush to the kitchen hoping to find a whole salmon and roll of parchment to try make Salmon en Papillote or ground lamb to make sausage. Alas, my parents’ refrigerator wasn’t stocked the way a French chef might stock her refrigerator. Nonetheless, the desire to cook those items stayed with me, and the passion is the chief reason that I enrolled in culinary classes.
Jacques Pepin was born in Bourg-en-Bresse, a small town outside of Lyon, France, and he grew up working in his parents’ restaurant, Le Pelican. Lyon is at the heart of the Burgundy region, and is famous for sausages, frog legs, and fish quenelles. Fish quenelles are composed of puffed up egg and chopped fish, according to Herve This. According to the Guardian, Lyon is the food capital of the world, because “of what’s not in Lyon but nearby. The food makers, like Regis Marcon and his son, or Alain Chapel, 15 miles east,…or Le Pyramide 15 miles south… and because of what is grown in the dirt itself… Beaujolais. Macon, where the white grapes start.” The proximity to the wealth of some of the most notable restaurants and food growers in the world would definitely have a profound effect on a young, food-loving boy. What Jacques reminisced about were the markets. “What I see and remember more than anything else were markets. The Marche St. Antoine, along the Saone in Lyon, or the market in Antibes…I realize my travels are always associated with local roducts and restaurants.” As far back as he can remember, he remembers the food and family in the kitchen. “I have been defined by food all my life.”
During the World War, Jacques was sent by his parents to live on a farm where he ate farm-fresh produce and drank milk fresh from the cows. During an NPR interview, he said that milk “is probably one of my first memories of food.” Because France was torn by war, Jacque’s mother worked hard to create nutritious meals with practically nothing. Because his father was away in the French Resistance, Jacques’ mother would scavenge supplies from farms up to 50 miles away. Her resourcefulness was something that many French homes were forced to do during the war, and the determination to survive and succeed influenced Jacques’ career development. He also learned to save everything, and even today apple peelings are saved for drying.
At thirteen, he dropped out of school to cook full time by working in some of the most famous kitchens in Paris. He trained under Chef Lucien Diat at the Plaza Athenee, at Maxim’s, at Fouquets, and eventually worked as a private chef for the secretary of the treasury. The early years were challenging; food was still being rationed in post-war France. He told the NPR interviewer that he loved the structure and repetition of apprenticeship, a training route for chefs that existed long before culinary arts programs. Including the private chef position for the secretary of the treasury, who was eventually elected as a Prime Minister, he cooked for three heads of state in France, including Charles de Gaulle.
He moved to the US in the 1960s, worked at Le Pavillon, and was offered the opportunity to cook for President John F. Kennedy. He didn’t; instead he became the director of Research and Development for the Howard Johnson hotel chain, and he worked in R&D for 10 years. While at LE Pavillon in New York, Jacques developed friendships with titans of food, including food critic Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and Helen McCully. He credits McCully as being a mentor and “surrogate mother” for him. Apparently, working at the greatest French restaurant in America had its benefits.
Also in the 1960s, at McCully’s suggestion, Jacques reviewed a new cookbook written by an American woman and two friends that sought to encapsulate most of the cooking techniques and knowledge of French cooking and give it to the housewives and home cooks of America. This, as history shows, was the start of a very long and dear friendship. As Julia gained fame as a television cook, Jacques was close behind. They taught together at the famous Boston University Food Studies program. They also collaborated on the television program Julia and Jacque Cooking at Home. This program earned a Daytime Emmy in 2001. Jacques is now 75 years old, and he is still cooking on PBS. Now he has a show called Fast Food My Way.
He has published 26 cookbooks and hosted twelve public television shows, including Essential Pepin, in 2011. Two of his earlier books include La Technique and La Methods are even used as culinary text books. Jacques also wrote for Food & Wine and continues to attend the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Co. In addition to his cooking shows and books, he also helped to cofound and remains the Dean of Special Programs at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. From that school, famous chefs including Bobby Flay can claim to have learned from some of the best chefs.
Jacques Pepin may portray a cozy chef for home cooks, but he is still the chef of the heads of state and a professional. New York Times writer Sarah Rosenberg found that the chef is still particular about techniques and methods. When he entered into the culinary field, chef work wasn’t the glamorous, television-quality career that it is portrayed as now. He observes that the modern chef hopefuls completely different than his peers – he said that one of the two students has dreams of writing a book or being on television. Culinary schools certainly shorten the time that an apprentice cook spends learning his craft, but Jacques fears that they rush through the basics and try move to fancy, creative cookery before they’re ready. He says that it comes back to repeating those skills until the skill becomes part of your body and your instinct. Still, culinary schools are packed with young (and not so young) hopefuls at making a go in the culinary world.
“Any mother would have wanted their child to marry a doctor, a lawyer…not a cook,” he is quoted for telling Rosenberg. The food industry in general has changed, from the supermarkets to the farmers markets, and it is related to how consumers have become more educated and more worldly about their food. With the advent of pop food culture, Jacques is generally optimistic, but he definitely turns the view back to technique first.
“All the great chefs I know – they are technicians first,” he told New York Times writer Jeff Gordinier. Some of these great chefs actually studied under Jacques, like Tom Colicchio from Craft who used La Technique to learn some of the methods of the trade. The first and most important lesson for being a good cook: have a sharp knife. The rest of the techniques follow when you have the right tools.
Jacques’ influence on French cuisine is most obvious in the American experience of French cuisine as defined by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. From techniques he learned in war-torn France as a child to being a famous chef at a French restaurant in New York City to being a celebrity of his own right, Jacques seeks to interpret technique for home cooks and hopes to instill tried and true methods into young chefs. As with the modern application of classical technique in popular restaurants today, it comes down to apply ancient technique to new foods. Jacques Pepin definitely had a strong influence on chefs like Thomas Keller and other modern-day kings and queens of chefdom. He’s not the father of professional cooking, but he’s certainly a duke or earl of the foundations of food. His cooking show with his daughter, Claudine, showed me that cooking was something that was both a useful skill and a community adventure. His recipes for squid and oysters were actually the first times I ever saw those sea creatures in a European application – the Chinese have a completely different way of serving seafood and my parents aren’t big on it. I can’t directly credit him for my eventual decision to go to culinary school, but the seed had been planted when I watched his cooking shows and read his cookbooks as a young girl.