Mastering the art of easy elegance: Jacques Pépin’s latest cookbook highlights food, family, and friendship

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Photo: Edsel Little, Fabulous Food Show
Photo: Edsel Little, Fabulous Food Show

Jacques Pépin may be considered the quintessential French chef and Public Television star, but his tastes remain remarkably down to earth.

“You know a lot of times I just really want a couple of tacos and a beer,” he laughs.

From his beginnings in France as an apprentice, Jacques career spans an apprenticeship in Europe and cooking for the French President Charles de Gaulle to cooking and teaching an American audience. With over 25 cookbook and 13 series for public television, Jacques true métier has been teaching the novice as well as professional.

When first arrived in America, he worked at the famous Le Pavilion, immortalized by then New York Times Food Editor Craig Claiborne as one of the best French Restaurants of the time.

From there he worked for many years at Howard Johnsons along with fellow chef Pierre Franey. Howard Johnsons certainly did not have the reputation of Le Pavilion, and the move showed the independent and open minded nature of the iconic chef and his full embrace of American culture.

“When I landed in America I was overwhelmed with the feeling of possibility,” describes Jacques. “I have found Americans are more ready to be joyful than the French, they are more easily happy.”

Jacques was introduced to this easy American lifestyle through friend and mentor New York Times Food Editor Craig Claiborne at his summer home in Long Island. It was a perfect fit for the young Pépin who later writes in his biography, The Apprentice, “I want to eat food that I love, food that I can recognize. I want to drink copious amounts of wine with it, and I want to enjoy it with my friends.”

Jacques seaside with Craig Claiborn and fellow chefs
Jacques seaside with Craig Claiborn and fellow chefs | Photo: NY Times

His real-life attitude is reflected in his recent answers to the classic questions a French chef of his caliber would be asked: what are his favorite wines and most unforgettable meals?

Responding to the question of whether he might have a preference for French or California wines, his response was classic Jacques: “I don’t know, I have always had the attitude that the best wine is free wine.”

And further when asked what his favorite or dying meal might include, he responded, “nothing really can beat fresh warm bread out of the oven with some really good butter. That would really be all I would need.”

This unfussy attitude is deeply rooted in his wartime youth in France. Jacques describes his life in France and the wartime struggles felt worldwide in depth in his biography The Apprentice.

1973 Bastille Day celebration with Craig Claiborne
1973 Bastille Day celebration with Craig Claiborne | Photo: NY Times

It was a time that everything was handmade, down to their shoes. And a time when food was incredibly scarce. Jacques and is brothers spent summers in the country — it was a common situation for city children to be taken in by farmers, for whom they would work in exchange for food — returning home in the fall with full bellies, ready to return to school.

Jacques recalls his time working on a farm as a cow herder and milking for the first time. He was about six years old at the time and he remembers his first taste of that still-warm, rich and buttery milk laced with foam. In that one taste, Jacques recalls that that milk taught him one of the most important lessons of his lifetime: that food could be so much more than mere sustenance.

Jacques was born in 1935 in the French region Bourg-en-Bresse, now famous for its blue-footed chickens.  He was born to Jeanne and Jean-Victor Pépin. Jeanne was a restaurateur and he credits her for teaching him “how to live and how to cook.” She was left to fend for Jacques and his two brothers during the war when his father was drafted and while he was part of the French resistance. Jacques father, a big jovial character Jacques credits for teaching him the importance of being frugal, was a cabinet maker. Growing up back then, choosing career paths was simple: one chose between their mother’s or father’s career.

It was a simpler time when choices were few and nothing was wasted. “I remember my father kissing a crumb of moldy bread before he threw it out to our chickens. We never wasted even a crumb of bread.”

That sense of economy has held throughout his life and is reflected in many of his recipes, his Fromage Fort being a perfect example. “It’s basically what you call a strong cheese. I use whatever scraps I have in my refrigerator and add some garlic and white wine and then process it in the food processor. You can spread it on bread or bake it in the oven and it’s delicious.” Jacques goes on, “I use my soup pot instead of my trash can. I throw all the wilted vegetables into a pot, add some grated cheese, and serve it as a soup.”

That inspiration proved a remarkable and much talked-about television moment when, in 1995, while Jacques was filming an episode of his cooking show with his daughter Claudine, they found they had a few additional moments to film. “Claudine was in college at the time, and we had about 3 to 4 minutes left. I asked her, ‘What’s in your refrigerator?’ And she said, ‘Wilted lettuce. I’m going to throw it out.’ I said, “Let me show you what to do with it.’ It turned out to be one of our best shows.”

Indeed, Jacques’ sense of economy paired with a passion for technique has proven both his hallmark and genius.

That genius has only become more distilled. “I look back at recipes I did 15 or 20 years ago and I think, ‘Why did I do it that way?’ I am always trying to simplify and make things taste better.” That simplicity combined with an emphasis on perfect technique and plenty of chef tricks and tips are what he has conveyed over his lifetime of teaching and cooking — particularly through his many cooking shows with PBS.

Given his long career with public television, Jacques has often been asked why he chose that route rather then perhaps more lucrative options. Jacques cited the freedom he feels in creating his cooking shows, how he can maintain his integrity with public television in a way that is not possible via many other avenues.

Jacques cooking at Craig Claiborne's East Hampton kitchen  with chef friends 1965
Jacques cooking at Craig Claiborne’s East Hampton kitchen with chef friends 1965 | Photo: NY Times

Remarking on the glitzy world of chefs and the career’s popularity, Jacques laughs, “Chefs were never very glamorous, now they are like rock stars. I don’t know what happened.”

His latest book, Jacques Pépin: Heart & Soul in the Kitchen, and its 26-episode companion series, he claims will be his last. The book is his most personal, giving readers a rare glimpse into his life at home, welcoming them into his house, and showing them what he and his family and friends eat and what he might serve if they came for a visit.

Heart & Soul in the Kitchen is really an extension of my autobiography. It picks up where The Apprentice leaves off,” explains Jacques.

The publication was timed to coordinate with Jacques’ 80th birthday celebration. “I’ve been celebrating my birthday for so long,” laughs Jacques. At a recent signing and dinner at Larkspur’s Left Bank, good friend and co-proprietor of the restaurant, Roland Passot, led everyone in a raucous rendition of “‘Happy Birthday” and then ended the evening with a bang, literally, by sabering the top off a magnum of Champagne in his honor. Jacques went along with the theatrics but later commented, “but it’s really not my birthday, my birthday is December 18. I think he just wanted to drink some champagne.”

Jacques also confided that although he will most likely not host another 26-episode cooking show or publish another cookbook — “This one took me four years to finish;” he explains, “I am looking forward to slowing down.” — his fans can look forward to something smaller that may be in the works. “I would love to do some little videos with my granddaughter Shorey, something like a grandfather teaching his granddaughter how to cook some simple recipes — perhaps a little cookbook to go with it.”

In the meantime, we can all celebrate the publication Heart & Soul in the Kitchen, a collection of recipes that Jacques loves to cook and that highlight his gracious attitude and open armed attitude towards life. The recipes that he has gathered are all eclectic, delicious, simple, and economical. And they are all meant to be enjoyed with friends, family and copious amounts of wine.

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