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Jacques Pépin

"Part of [Jacques] Pépin's appeal is that he is not a man who does things by the book," Eve Zibart concluded in Time Out New York. "This may also explain why—when just about every other food personality has already cranked out a kitchen memoir or two—Pépin, the author of twenty-one cookbooks, waited until now to tell one of the liveliest stories of them all."

Jacques and Claudine Pépin Twenty-one cookbooks. Also, Pépin has starred in thirteen PBS cooking shows. But Jacques didn't begin writing or performing for cameras until the mid-seventies, and most of his new memoir deals with the years prior to that remarkably successful, if unforeseen, career makeover.

The Apprentice follows young Jacques from his mother's modest restaurants near Lyon, France, into some of the finest kitchens in the world. As a boy of thirteen, he left home and school to begin his apprenticeship, still too small to reach cookware and ingredients on the highest shelves. By age twenty-three, he was the personal chef to General Charles de Gaulle.

"Lest any reader think this is another saga of sex and drugs in the kitchen, it definitely is not," Judith Weinraub recently assured readers of the Washington Post. "Instead, it's the story of just what it takes to turn a talented young Frenchman into one of the most admired figures in the culinary world."

(Jacques is pictured above with his daughter, Claudine.)

Dave: You included recipes in The Apprentice according to the stories you tell in each chapter.

Jacques Pépin: Yes. Actually I was not supposed to do any recipes in the book. I've done twenty-one books of cookery, and frankly, I really didn't want to do any recipes, but I agreed to do a recipe per chapter to exemplify that period in my life. From the clam chowder at Howard Johnson's to my mother's eggs, things like that.

Dave: There's a great picture of you and your brothers behind the bar —

Pépin: — at Le Pélican in Lyon, where my mother had a small restaurant.

Dave: It looks like a place with a lot of character. What do you remember about it?

Pépin: Le Pélican was a fascinating place. Certainly the memory of helping my mother going to the market—le Marché St. Antoine, which was not too far, maybe eight or ten blocks—walking there and carrying the stuff back before we went to school.

It may sound very romantic now, but at the time it was our chore that we had to do. As kids... Well, even when Claudine was small, coming back from school, she'd say, "I'm bored." Those words never crossed our lips. My brother and I would kind of hide when we came back from school. Otherwise we were volunteered right away to clean up in the cellar or peel potatoes. One thing or another. The life of a restaurant, it's always the same—there is always something to do.

Dave: You left home and school at thirteen to start your apprenticeship. These days, that's almost an inconceivable notion, dedicating yourself to a vocation at such a young age. You began working seven days a week.

Pépin: Yes, but I don't want to make it sound like a horrendous experience because it wasn't at all. And it wasn't that special, actually. The other kids, maybe a year more or less, were about the same age in apprenticeship. This is the way things were.

We had to go to school at that time until age fourteen to finish primary school. Certificate étude. I was doing fine in school. I'm saying that only in that I didn't have to leave school. My brother didn't, and he became an engineer. But I didn't want to do that. I wanted to go into the kitchen and cook.

I liked the hustle, bustle, excitement, the sweating and yelling of the kitchen. I liked it very much; my brother didn't. The other choice I would have had maybe was to become a cabinetmaker because my father was a cabinetmaker, doing fancy furniture, which we call ébéniste in France. And I still like to work wood. I was in Claudine's house yesterday, looking at a table I did a few years ago. Pretty rough, but it's still there.

I like to work with my hands, and I feel that anyone involved in food has to become a craftsman first. A technician. That doesn't mean you have talent. It just means that you are able to move very fast and do things properly in an orderly manner, in a miserly manner. Certainly if you're a jeweler or a carpenter or a surgeon, you first and foremost have to become a technician, to have the manual dexterity to dominate that trade. If you happen to have talent, now you have the know-how in your hand; you have the means to express this and bring it to a higher level.

If you look at the reverse: I know young chefs who have a lot of talent, but they're technically very bad. The food doesn't come out the way it should. I can do an analogy with my painting. I've been painting for thirty years. I do illustrations in my books. But I have never spent, like a professional painter, five hours every day in a studio, working, working, working, so I don't really have much technique. I start a painting and sometimes it comes out halfway good, and I'm the first one astonished. Often I get disgusted because whatever I have in my head, my hand is not able to express it the way I want. I'm not good enough technically.

Dave: You describe your experience at le Plaza Athenée in Paris, rotating through the various stations of the kitchen.

Pépin: It was extremely technical in structure, yes.

Something which is very different now is that you have a lot of chefs who want to express themselves just like a painter. They'll talk a great deal about expression, personal expression, about creativity and inventiveness, which wasn't the case then. A young chef that wants to get into the business might be particularly interested in the aesthetic of the food or in that type of expression. When I worked at le Plaza Athenée, it wasn't the expression of a person; it was the toil of the many. That is, we were fifty of us in the kitchen, and I bet you that after a few years the fifty of us would have been able to do the lobster soufflé the way we did it there so that no one would know who had made it— and that was the goal.

Each house had a signature dish that would taste like that only at that particular house. You go anywhere else, it won't taste the same way. Now, still, if my eye is blinded and you serve me the striped bass we did at le Pavillion or the lobster at le Plaza Athenée, I could say, "That is the lobster from le Plaza Athenée." That's the way it was done.

The idea for us was to form our knowledge, to structure it, to mold it into that particular taste. It was very disciplined. If you do that for two or three years in a place like le Plaza Athenée, then you move to another place and do the same thing, after fifteen or twenty years you have the accumulated knowledge of all those places and now you can filter it through your own taste, do something with it and put some more of yourself into it. But it takes that amount of time, or at least it did. Now, people want to express themselves much faster.

I don't do a lobster soufflé the way I did it at le Plaza Athenée anymore. I'm improving it, from my point of view, at least. I'm cooking it a little less. The sauce will still have the same taste, but I work other things, my particular way of looking at it, into the recipe.

Dave: Moving from one kitchen to another, being tested differently according to each environment—that seemed to allow you to accumulate many skills.

Pépin: It's not only a question of accumulation. It's a question of broadening your experience. My experience at Howard Johnson's, for example, was not an accumulation on top of what I knew; it was more of a broadening in another direction. That's what happened in the kitchen, too.

I worked in Paris at la Société des cuisiniers de Paris, which is a great organization. You come in the morning at eight o'clock, you give your name, and they have on file where you are and what you do. They give you a number and call you, tell you where to go to work for the day in one restaurant or another, from the soupe populaire—that is, you know, a soup kitchen —to the highest restaurant. Again, the learning is not cumulative. It's more that you're really spread in another direction and looking at it from another point of view. That's what makes it fascinating.

Dave: Cooking for heads of state in Paris certainly offered a unique opportunity to broaden your skills in the kitchen. There's a great passage in The Apprentice:

Matignon was a terrific training ground for our palates. Preparing the dishes that our bosses demanded was fascinating, time consuming, costly, and practically never done in a restaurant. No one whose livelihood depended upon turning a profit at the end of the month could have afforded the time and expense such dishes required. We were delighted to be in the service of connoisseurs. Once a foreign attaché came back from Russia with two five-pound cans of the best and largest beluga caviar I had ever seen. For several days, we not only served it in a variety of ways but consumed a great amount ourselves, spooning it into our mouths like two kids set loose on a container of ice cream.

Pépin: That was under the government of Gaillard and Aicardi, who was the director of the cabinet. I don't know whether I'd call Aicardi an epicure, a gourmet, a glutton, or a bit of the three. I think I describe in the book a time when he had an attack of gout, and I was cooking for him a bowl of foie gras rolled in truffle—amazing stuff.

At the time, we didn't have any books. We never cooked from recipes. He told me to bring him books, and I didn't have any, so I bought of course Curnonsky's Cuisine et vins de France and Pellaprat's L'Art culinaire moderne. Classic books. He would open those books to the big color pictures and say, "I want this." Well, that type of dish we'd never done, so that's where we used our training.

Those dishes would have been impossible to make in a restaurant in terms of the work involved and in terms of return. You couldn't sell those dishes. It was to be done in private house like that. Certainly, for us, it was a great experience to be able to do that.

Dave: You began to read more literature when you found yourself cooking for famous authors in Paris: Beckett and Camus and Simone de Beauvoir.

Pépin: Yes. One of the greatest things that happened to me? In Paris, at that time, the price to play four or five recordings on the jukebox at the brasserie was the same as going to the national theater, which is one of the most extraordinary theaters in the world. It was funded by the government. Not in the best place, but it basically cost nothing, not even half the price of what it cost to go to a movie house. Being broke, we started going. We saw the entire repertoire of Moliere, then we went from one to the other. I was an autodidact, if you want, in that sense, and started reading more.

Another beautiful thing: At le Plaza Athenée, they had a great library for the employees. I still have at home a book from there! The Inferno. I still remember that passage in purgatory when they cross the river Styx, the river of hell. So yes, we started reading.

I have to say that I, as well as many of my friends, had a bit of a complex about being a cook at the time. Thirty years ago, chefs were at the bottom of the social scale. It wasn't like now. At the time, any good mother would have wanted her child to be a doctor or a lawyer or a professor. Not a cook. When you went out, met a beautiful young woman, and she says, "What do you do?" I say, "I'm a cook." Hmm...

As you say, I left school when I was thirteen. When I came to the United States I had the chance to learn more academically in a more structured way. If at some point during my career I thought I would teach literature or other things, that is because it was very attractive to be a professor, very prestigious. I stayed long enough in academia to realize there is a lot of bickering and other things behind the scenes which are not too noble. I went back to cooking, but at another level. That is, the education I gave myself prevented me from having a complex about not having an education. That was very important psychologically.

Dave: When you came to America in 1959, you planned to stay for just a year.

Pépin: I stayed because, contrary to most immigrants, who come to have a better life or because of race or religious reasons, I didn't have any of this. I came because I wanted to see America. It was the El Dorado for a young man. We said, "We'll stay for a couple years and learn the language." I loved it in New York from the beginning. I never looked back. I'm still the only person in my family who left France.

Dave: I'm going to throw some names out. You tell me what comes to mind.

Pépin: Okay.

Dave: Pierre Franey.

Pépin: A gentleman. A great professional. A good friend. And certainly one of my mentors here.

Dave: Howard Johnson.

Pépin: A charismatic man. There are three charismatic men in my life that I can remember, people who came into a room and others would gravitate around. That would be Lucien Diat, the executive chef at le Plaza Athenée, brother of Louis Diat, who did the cuisine of the Ritz in the thirties or so. De Gaulle, certainly, when he came into a room. And Howard Johnson. He was a very soft spoken man, but very powerful in that sense. He turned a little bit into a father figure for me, too. He was very open-minded. He came to our wedding—I have a picture of him at my wedding in the book—and to the Christening of Claudine. He was a great man.

Dave: Craig Claiborne.

Pépin: Craig Claiborne opened my mind to what America was. I learned a great deal from Craig in the way he received people. I mean, I did my wedding at Craig's house.

First, he was extremely generous. Secondly, for me, being French, being used to having guests at our house, or even family, the day was very structured: we're going to have lunch, and we're going to have dinner, and by the time you finish the weekend, you are totally exhausted. I met Craig, and I saw another way of entertaining people. There was no breakfast. Coffee was there, but you got up whenever you wanted. Lunch was about the same. You might make a sandwich and go out. We only got together in the afternoon to start cooking. It was a much more open way of entertaining, much more to my liking. It was a kind of revelation for me.

Dave: Julia Child.

Pépin: Indomitable. Her spirit is what's exciting. I spoke to her three days ago, and at ninety-one she's ready to go start something else. Her open-mindedness in terms of new cuisine or young chefs... she's always ready to help someone and make suggestions. Let's try this. That kind of appetite for life, that spirit, is what strikes me with her.

Dave: James Beard.

Pépin: James Beard was a bear of a man. Gentleness, you think of, and an extraordinary memory of food. I remember talking with James about a dinner he had in the forties with Curnonsky, the "prince of gastronomy" in France, and he would remember the dishes exactly, and the wine. That memory of food was amazing.

Dave: Many readers of The Apprentice will be surprised that you learned to cook without ever using recipes.

Pépin: Going back to what we said before, going to le Plaza Athenée was to learn the taste of those dishes, which get embedded in your brain. We knew the technique, so to achieve them was no problem, provided you remember those tastes. Likewise, in New York. And when I did the show with Julia, we had no recipe. That was the first time we did a show without recipes, which was terrific. We had an idea, of course, that we were going to do a stew or this or that, but then we started cooking with some give and take, like when you cook with your spouse. You say, "Why do you put more scallion in that?" Why? Because we just happen to have a bunch of scallion hanging around and it would be good in it. That's how we cooked, which drove the cameramen crazy because they had no idea where we were going, but for us it was fun. That's how you should be cooking. If to get there you have to start with a recipe, then start with a recipe.

The normal progress is that if you use a recipe, mine or any recipe, you should be fair enough to whoever created that recipe to follow it exactly to the letter. If it happens to come out pretty good and you're happy with it, then you're likely to do it again. The second time you probably are not going to scrutinize it like you did the first time; you'll still take a look at it. By the third time, you may not even look at the recipe at all; now you know what it looks like and how it tastes. By the fourth time, you "improve" the recipe. You decide, I think I should put a bit more tomato in there. I like it a bit more liquid than that. A year and a half later, you don't even remember where that recipe came from. It's become your recipe; you've put your imprint on it. This is the progression people should have, following a recipe. We did it in the same way, but through osmosis, if you want, next to a chef who said, "Do this. Do that." Finally we got those tastes, but without the typewritten word.

Dave: You write in The Apprentice: "Nouvelle cuisine was, and would remain, the biggest revolution in my culinary life, bringing sweeping changes to my way of cooking and my approach to food."

Pépin: The biggest thing was the openness. I mean, at le Plaza Athenée, we sliced tomato in one direction for the salad or whatever. I would never, never even have thought of cutting the tomato in the other direction. We never thought of it. It was so structured. For us, nouvelle cuisine swept away all kinds of rules and opened our mind to all we could do.

It was particularly good for people like me because we already had the technique. I had been in the kitchen twenty years. All of a sudden we were able to express our own taste. Most young chefs who talk about nouvelle cuisine don't know what it is for the simple reason that it started in the early or middle seventies, almost thirty years ago. For anyone who hasn't worked more than thirty years in the kitchen, it cannot be nouvelle.

For a young chef to start mixing one thing and another only for the sake of the mighty god of novelty, to do it to be new or to be shocking, that's when you end up with a bowl of raspberry ice cream and a slice of Roquefort on top —because no one else has done it. There's probably a good reason why no one else has done it. For people my age, it was something totally new and exhilarating.

Dave: I want to add another name to the earlier list: Alice Waters.

Pépin: Alice Waters represents for me what she represents for many Americans: the incredible search for the product and her work with the farmers. For most people my age who had worked in small towns in France, we would say, "What's the big deal? This is how we've always done it." My mother was an organic gardener. She didn't know about chemical fertilizer, didn't know it exists. If we had had it, it would have been way too expensive to use, anyway. Everyone was organic. It became a revolution here, and it was very attractive for us, certainly. I cooked with Alice several times at Chez Panisse. She is still a very good friend.

[Jacques's daughter—and former TV co-star—sits down.]

Dave: Claudine, what does your father never tell anyone?

Claudine Pépin: I don't know. My father talks a lot.

I guess he probably doesn't tell anyone about the foods he doesn't like. There are two that I know of: cinnamon and coconut. I give him Big Red every once in a while. "No!" he says.

Pépin: When you go to a restaurant and the chef gives you something to eat, you're not going to tell them you don't like it. Of course not. It's like when you get to someone's house and they tell you, "Consider yourself at home." Do you lower the heat and open the window? You can only tell them the truth if you're really friends. Or if you can't stand them! But in the middle, you don't.

Usually, people want to please you. There is also a difference. I'll go to a Marriott or something in a small town, and the chef is going to prepare dinner. After I go into the kitchen and take some pictures, the chef will say, "How did you like the meal?" I'll say, "It was fine." He might say, "I only have two people in the kitchen. I cannot get fresh tomatoes" or this and that. He is apologetic, knowing that it could be better. With someone like this, there is hope. They realize that it could be better. But I'll go to the same Marriott two days later in another town, and the chef will come and give you something which is basically inedible. He gave it to his mother, his fiancée, three of his friends, and they thought it was extraordinary. If you tell him the truth, he will say, "Look at that big chef. I gave him an incredible meal and the guy's a real snob."

Of course you're not going to tell that person the truth. That person has reached the limit of his taste, and there is no way for him to get past that. We all have limits of taste, and that's very difficult for a chef to find out from a food critic, to find out that the food is no good. He'll say, "Look, that guy cannot even cut an egg!" Yes, but he can go further in terms of taste.

If I can't see the difference, no one can see the difference. It's a funny attitude. For a chef, often, reaching the limit of his taste is difficult to admit. For a chef who sees his deficiencies, there is hope. To the other one who is really satisfied, there is no hope, so you don't tell him what you think. When he comes and asks, you say, "You know what? You'll never be better than today." [laughs]

Claudine: I cooked for my dad, and it came out really bad.

Dave: Was this before or after the television show?

Claudine: Before.

Pépin: It never came out bad, Titine.

Claudine: Papa, I roasted you a hen!

Pépin: I know, but it never came out bad.

Claudine: [laughing] I didn't know you're not supposed to roast a hen. I was in college.

Pépin: Oh, the hen. The hen was tough. But that other time when you did the chicken...

Claudine: And that was dried out. But I'll ask my father, "What did you think?" And he'll say, "As a chef or as a father?"

I think that what chefs need to learn is to detach themselves from the food. You're not a bad person if the food isn't perfect. It's not a personal affront. My husband, who is a chef, will make something, and I'll say, "That's a little too salty." And he'll agree. Or I'll make something, and I'll know that I didn't quite get it right, and I'll ask, "What did I miss?" It's not a personal thing.

Pépin: There is another thing, too. You have a taste, and you cannot get away from that taste. You can become more knowledgeable about food— which a food critic should be, as knowledgeable as possible about food— but still, you cannot escape your own taste.

What I'm saying is that if you look at the Impressionist painters, do you think that Pissarro is better than Monet? Better than Renoir? They all have reached a level of extraordinary quality. Some you're going to be pulled toward more than others. Likewise, if I go to the ten best restaurants in New York, I'm sure that four of them, I'm going to say, "Those are extraordinary." Another four of them, I'm going to say, "Those are really very good." And two of them, I'll say, "I don't even know why we came here."

It's purely a narcissistic reflection on my own taste. I can't coincide my taste with another person exactly. It's a reflection of me, not the food. But if I'm a critic, you will pay for it, unfortunately!

Jacques Pépin visited Powell's Books for Cooks and Gardeners on May 20, 2003. Susan said it was the biggest crowd there in twelve years. Pastaworks and the J. Christopher winery poured samples of a pinot noir (2000 Pavillon Vineyard) and a chardonnay (2000 "Couvee Lunatique"). Cheryl Walkerhouser, owner of Pix Patisserie, prepared Maman's Apple Tart (from page 132 of The Apprentice). All for free, of course. And if you weren't there, well, that's awfully unlucky for you.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  2. Jacques Pépin's Kitchen: Cooking... Used Trade Paper $4.95

  3. Jacques Pepin Celebrates Used Hardcover $8.50
  4. Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques Used Trade Paper $12.50
  5. The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen Used Hardcover $12.50
  6. The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen Used Hardcover $12.50

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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