Jacques PÃ©pin at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic 2006
December 18, 1935 |
|Education||Columbia University School of General Studies (B.A., 1970)
Columbia University (M.A., 1972)
I say: If you don't know how to cook, I'm sure you have at least one friend who knows how to cook. Well, call that friend and say, 'Can I come next time and can I bring some food and can I come an hour or two hours ahead and watch you and help you?'
I was born on the eighteenth of December, 1935, in the town Bourg-en-Bresse, about thirty miles northeast of Lyon, the second of three sons of Jeanne and Jean-Victor Pepin. Weighing only two and one half pounds, I nearly died at birth.
This June, I'll travel once again to the Food and Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen, Colorado. For many years, my dear friend Julia Child and I have teamed up to teach classes together at the event; for the past seven years, my daughter, Claudine, has been my cooking partner on stage.
I taped my first series for PBS in 1982 at WJCT-TV in Jacksonville, Florida. The show, called 'Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pepin,' was about saving time and money in the kitchen – and it was a celebration of simple and unpretentious food.
Probably a mistake, you know, that people make in America, to think that all great chefs are a male… I'm still the only male in the family who went into that business.
Just because I am a chef doesn't mean I don't rely on fast recipes. Indeed, we all have moments when, pressed for time, we'll use a can of tuna and a tomato for a first course. It's a question of choosing the right recipes for the rest of the menu.
When I was a child, we always had wine on the table, no matter how simple the meal. The wine had no special identity; it was just 'the wine,' from the cellar cask. The rules were general: white with the first course, red with the main course.
I am a glutton. I'll eat whatever is there. Pizza. I love hot dogs anywhere. I've got nothing against any of that. If I feel like eating, I eat. I don't feel guilty about it at all.
I have an immigrant story. Most people come here for economic reasons, or religious reasons, or racial reasons, or gender reasons, or one of those things. I had a good job in Paris, but America was, and still is, the golden fleece. And I've done very well!
All the great chefs I know – Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten – they are technicians first.
Basically, I go to the local farmer's market and decide to what to cook then, depending on what I find. Either my wife or I cook, and we usually finish a bottle or two of wine by the time we are done cooking and eating.
You can't escape the taste of the food you had as a child. In times of stress, what do you dream about? Your mother's clam chowder. It's security, comfort. It brings you home.
When I pair food and wine, I start with the food. If I have a beautiful roasted bird, I might choose a Cabernet or Pinot Noir, or maybe a Syrah, depending on the sauce and what is in my cellar.
I was chef to the French Presidents between '56 and '59, finished with de Gaulle, and during de Gaulle I remember serving Eisenhower, Nehru, Tito, Macmillan; those were the heads of state at the time. I never saw anyone. No one would ever, ever, ever come to the kitchen. You couldn't even see them.
After 45 years of marriage, when I have an argument with my wife, if we don't agree, we do what she wants. But, when we agree, we do what I want!
You know, my parents had a restaurant. And I left home, actually, in 1949, when I was 13 years old, to go into apprenticeship. And actually when I left home, home was a restaurant – like I said, my mother was a chef. So I can't remember any time in my life, from age 5, 6, that I wasn't in a kitchen.
If you have extraordinary bread and extraordinary butter, it's hard to beat bread and butter.
I cooked at the White House for Easter, last year, with Michelle Obama. But it more had to do with cooking from the organic garden, and her message. I took my daughter and granddaughter there, and they were really charming, it was great.
The idea of old was to conform yourself to a style of cooking, it was not to create a style of cooking. Now the chef is so much into 'I want to sign that dish and say I am the one who made that dish.'
Thirty, 40 years ago, more than that now, even, the cook was certainly at the bottom of the social scale. And any mother would've wanted their child to marry a doctor, a lawyer, an architect, not a cook. Now, we are genius, it's different.
When you are at home, even if the chicken is a little burnt, what's the big deal? Relax.
When I left to go into apprenticeship in 1949, it was only four years after the war, and people don't realize, we still had tickets for butter, meat and so forth in France until 1947. It's not like the end of the war, everything was plentiful – it wasn't.
Most people who came here came for economic reasons or sometimes for religious or political reasons. I didn't have any of this. I came here, I liked it, I stayed. So I'm a pure American – even more than people who are born here – because I did it by choice as an adult.
When I wrote 'Fast Food My Way' in 2004, I hoped that my friends would prepare my recipes. Now, more people cook from that book than any other I've written in the past 30 years.
My palate is simpler than it used to be. A young chef adds and adds and adds to the plate. As you get older, you start to take away.
For everyday, we like Beaujolais, Grenache or Syrah, and we like a lot of it! It's a family tradition: We would never consider having a meal without wine.
My mother likes what I cook, but doesn't think it's French. My wife is Puerto Rican and Cuban, so I eat rice and beans. We have a place in Mexico, but people think I'm the quintessential French chef.
One of the biggest problems with young chefs is too much addition to the plate. You put cilantro and then tarragon and then olive oil and then walnut oil or whatever. It's too much.
This is what a family is all about – one another, sitting around the table at night. And it's very, very important, I think, for the kid to spend time not only around the table eating with their parents, but in the kitchen.
You have no choice as a professional chef: you have to repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat until it becomes part of yourself. I certainly don't cook the same way I did 40 years ago, but the technique remains. And that's what the student needs to learn: the technique.
I tell a student that the most important class you can take is technique. A great chef is first a great technician. 'If you are a jeweler, or a surgeon or a cook, you have to know the trade in your hand. You have to learn the process. You learn it through endless repetition until it belongs to you.