Sample chapter from The Lives of the Chefs
MASTER CHEF, ACADEMICIAN, cooking teacher, and author of a dozen best-selling cookbooks, Jacques Pepin is a man who turned down an offer to cook for Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy in the White House to fry hamburgers at the Howard Johnson's on Queens Boulevard. At the time -- 1959 -- the 23-year-old immigrant, fresh from commanding Charles de Gaulle's kitchen, wanted most to become immersed in "the real" America, to learn about American food and American eating habits. Today, he is one of the most popular chefs on American television. And he is equally respected in the loftiest culinary circles. Like professors who fill lecture halls because they make history come alive-never patronizing, never dull-Jacques talks about food and demonstrates techniques in a way that makes you want to get right to work on that omelette souffle. His wealth of gastronomic knowledge is dazzling, his enthusiasm genuine. At first glance, the title of his public television series, "Today's Gourmet," sounds uninspired. But watch him in action for a few minutes and you'll realize that he is a "gourmet" in its most neglected sense: a lover of good food without snobbism or pretension. And "today's" is the right word, too, because it refers to 1990's-style fresh, healthy eating. When, for example, he demonstrates how to present poached red snapper surrounded by batons of buttered, cooked cucumber, and says, "If you have never had cucumbers this way, try them, they are really excellent," you vow to do it. When he encourages you to "Try this menu for your friends for a special occasion. You'll love making it," you know this is not mere TV hype but a privileged opportunity to have one of the great teachers show you how to do it right.
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I spoke with Jacques in the dining room of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan's SoHo district, where he is Dean.
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Ellen Shapiro: You have said that before chefs became celebrities they were relegated to the basement. To what do you attribute the emergence of the celebrity chef?
Jacques Pepin: Twenty years ago you wouldn't have wanted your son or daughter to be a chef. It was demeaning, low class, considered part of the hospitality industry. When I first came to the United States, we belonged to Local 89, the dishwashers' union. At the time Americans had only Fannie Farmer, The Joy of Cooking, and James Beard to teach them how to cook. Now over a thousand cookbooks are published every year. Now all the daily papers have food pages. Former gastronomic wastelands have excellent restaurants. Even in academia, food is more respected. In the late '60s I proposed a Ph.D. thesis on gastronomy at Columbia and they looked at me as if I were crazy. It was unthinkable. Food, a doctoral dissertation? Now I teach at Boston University where we offer a Master of Liberal Arts degree with a concentration in gastronomy. But the celebrity chef is not a new idea. Respect for the chef goes up and down. In France it reached a pinnacle at the end of the 17th century with LaVarenne; then chefs were relatively obscure again until Escoffier in the late 19th century. In this country the radicalism of the 1960's led to all kinds of social changes ranging from women's liberation to alternative gardening to the proliferation of health food stores. Then the narcissism of the '80s set in motion a whole new awareness, a cooking explosion. Today, lawyers and producers who want to become chefs are studying here. It has become very trendy, very fashionable. To a certain extent too fashionable, but I'm not complaining because this situation has been terrific for me. Yet after more than 43 years in the kitchen I can't take myself too seriously. We're no great geniuses. We're still soup merchants. The problem is that there are chefs 23 or 25 years old who really think they are geniuses, and that's dangerous.
ES: You were born into a family of restaurateurs. Tell me about your parents and their restaurant.
JP: Le Pelican was what you would call a typical village bistro. My brother and I worked there whether we liked it or not: washing the bottles, drawing the wine, cleaning. We'd walk a mile to the market every morning with my mother, and as we carried the groceries home she would talk about dishes she was going to make and chefs that she had met. Then we'd go off to school. During the war we had almost nothing to eat, but we were very happy. My mother could make memorable things from old bread and potatoes. When she had some flour and water and maybe an egg she made a type of crepe. She would use sliced leftover bread as filling. Or she would dip bread in thick batter and cook it in a skillet. I remember a kind of yellow turnip, boiled in water, and sunchokes, also called Jerusalem artichokes, topinambours in French. The sunchoke has a very distinctive smell, which I had forgotten until about ten years ago when they were being marketed as a new vegetable. My mother pointed out some at the greengrocer's and said, "Do you remember how we ate those during the war?" I couldn't remember, but we bought some. Just smelling them cooking was like being back in France and three years old again. I vividly remember my mother on her bicycle, going sixty kilometers -- some forty miles -- through farms to get provisions for us, passing messages to the Resistance through the handlebars. And she had an infant, my younger brother, to take care of. When food became plentiful again, she did tarte tatin, apple tart, chicken with cream sauce. I remember braised vegetables, jardiniere aux legumes, stews, boned stuffed breast of veal. Eventually my family had several restaurants in Lyon. My father was a cabinet maker by trade. My mother was the chef and ran the restaurants. She was the strong one. She's 78 now and still active in cooking. We did a big dinner at the Beard House in her honor last summer, which was cooked only by women chefs and featured women bread makers, women wine makers.
ES: Didn't Paul Bocuse gain another kind of fame by saying, "There are no great women chefs"?
JP: You have to know Bocuse. I know him very well, and he finished that sentence by saying, "The place of the woman is in the bedroom." You can't take him too seriously because he did his apprenticeship at La Mere Bravieuse in Lyon, which is the only woman-owned restaurant in France to attain the honor of Michelin three stars. There were a lot of great women chefs in Lyon, and no one knew it better than he. My mother is a typical example.
ES: You entered your own formal apprenticeship at age thirteen. Was that typical, also?
JP: It wasn't unusual. In certain ways life in those days was much easier for young people. We had no television, so we didn't think it was possible to become a great surgeon or a great whatever in thirty minutes. You tended to do what your parents did. And I loved what they did so much I wanted to go into formal apprenticeship when I was twelve years old. You had to be fourteen to finish certificate d'etudes for primary school, so I asked for a dispensation. I passed the final exam at thirteen and went to Bourg-en-Bresse, some sixty kilometers from Lyon, to do my apprenticeship at the Grand Hotel de l'Europe. In those days we weren't paid, and we thought we were luckier than the people before us who had to pay for the privilege of learning something! We worked seven days a week from eight in the morning until eleven at night. No day off. And at the end of the month we had four days to go home; to wash the sheet off the bed and our towel and aprons.
ES: And from your apprenticeship you went to other hotel kitchens?
JP: First I went for the season -- three summer months -- to work at the spa at Aix les Bains. First you are a third commis (assistant), then a second commis, then a first commis, and eventually you get to be a chef du partie, a head of a department, such as chef saucier, chef rotissier. It was just like the scenes George Orwell described in Down and Out in London and Paris. We worked in a black hole. We slept in rooms behind the kitchen. The owners terrorized us. Actually, we can all be indebted to Bocuse for bringing the chef out of the dungeon into the dining room.
ES: From there, how does one become personal chef to Charles de Gaulle?
JP: When I turned seventeen I told my mother that I wanted to go to Paris, where I'd never been, and that a job was waiting for me, which wasn't exactly true. I arrived at the Gare du Lyon with my suitcase. I slept in a friend's room and went to the Societe des Cuisinieres and found a job at the Hotel Meurice. There I started really learning, eventually ending up at the Plaza Athenee, where I worked for six years. I got my big break in the military service. France was at war with Algeria. They couldn't send me to the front because my brother was already there, so I was sent to Navy headquarters in Paris, where I was assigned to the admirals' mess. There I met a friend from Lyon who was chef to the Secretary of the Treasury, Felix Galliard. He was supposed to do a banquet, which was a little bit over his head, and asked me to give him a hand. I organized the menu and dinner, and it was a big success. I started doing all the dinners for him and got to know the whole cabinet. The government changed under the Fourth Republic and Galliard became Prime Minister. I was moved right along and became chef at the Prime Minister's residence. His government lasted six months ten days exactly. This was a time of great upheaval in France, but the word was General de Gaulle was going to return to Paris. The next government lasted six weeks, and de Gaulle came to power. I stayed with him from 1956 to 1958. I cooked for de Gaulle three times a day. He liked simple food, good food. On Sunday after church the whole family, children and grandchildren, ten, twelve people, would come over and I would do a classic dinner, starting with maybe a leek and potato soup, a roast leg of lamb, potatoes, salad, cheese and an apple tart or a creme caramel. Every day I would submit three menus to Mme. de Gaulle and she would choose one and we'd discuss it. State dinners were a different story altogether. I cooked for Eisenhower, Nehru, Tito, Macmillan.
ES: Why did you come to the United States?
JP: It was the promised land. It was the eldorado. When my tour of duty was over they asked me to stay on at La Presidence, but I had already started to do the papers to come to this country. Not many French people emigrated, so I got a Green Card fairly easily. I went back to the Plaza Athenee for a few months while waiting for my departure and arrived in New York in September 1959.
ES: You introduce a recipe in Cuisine Economique with the words, "Like most Americans, I like to serve a turkey on Thanksgiving." You don't think of yourself as a Frenchman any more?
JP: I've been an American longer than a Frenchman. When I came here I was 23 or 24, and after five years I became an American citizen. So it's a been a quarter of a century.
ES: Do the French view you as an American?
JP: They don't even know me. There are hundreds of thousands of chefs in France. They don't need me in addition to that. And all my books were written in English and would have to be translated. I'm well known in Australia, New Zealand, and England because I'm on BBC.
ES: Was it extraordinary for a 21-year-old to cook for heads of state?
JP: I was lucky, and compared to working at Maxim's, Tour d'Argent, and so forth, working for the President wasn't so prestigious. Let me explain: on Wednesday afternoons, most of the chefs in Paris -- five hundred, six hundred chefs -- went to a small street, rue St. Roc, which was like a big market for jobs and sharing cooking stories. People would ask, "What do you do?" and I would say, "I'm with the President." They would say, "Oh, that's interesting." It was more interesting than prestigious. That's probably the reason why when I came to this country and had an offer to work for President Kennedy, I turned it down and went to Howard Johnson's.
ES: You must realize that most people would find that pretty amazing. In John and Karen Hess's book, The Taste of America, they attack Pierre Franey and you, saying in effect, "How can these guys call themselves great chefs when they work at Howard Johnson's?" How did you come to make that decision?
JP: Working at Howard Johnson's was exciting! Howard Johnson had been a regular guest at Le Pavillion, where I worked with Pierre Franey until May 1960, when he quit after having an argument about money with Henri Soule. I was making $83 a week. Pierre wasn't making that much more, and he'd been at Le Pavillion forever, since he was sixteen. In Paris, when the chef quits, we say, "The brigade explodes." Everyone quits to support him. It didn't quite work out that way at Le Pavillion because of the union, but they had to close the restaurant. So Howard Johnson asked Pierre, "Are you going to work for me now?" He hired Pierre as executive chef, who of course asked me to go with him. So I started at the Howard Johnson's on Queens Boulevard.
ES: Making hamburgers and fried clams?
JP: Oh yes. I learned a great deal from it. Then I moved on to the commissary in Queens. I stayed ten years as director of research and development. Not only testing new equipment but developing recipes. We did great stuff. I had two chemists working with me and I learned about the chemistry of food, marketing, production. After that, I opened a restaurant called La Potagerie on Fifth Avenue, which I would never have been able to do without that knowledge.
ES: Yet your mother and many others were able to open restaurants without it...
JP: I wanted to do something totally American in concept. I wanted to stay and immerse myself in the American language, American eating habits.
ES: And what did you think of American eating habits?
JP: An incredible roller coaster, totally up and down. I would meet people who had great knowledge and others who knew nothing about what even simple good food should taste like. As for the quality of the bread, the butter, the cheese, there was absolutely no comparison with what we had in France. But I was a young guy who was happy to be here and it didn't disturb me. On the other hand, I did miss certain things. I remember going to a nice supermarket on First Avenue and asking for mushrooms and the clerk said, "Aisle five," and there were the canned mushrooms. There were two types of salad greens, iceberg and romaine. There were no leeks, no shallots, no oriental vegetables. It is amazing how this has changed in twenty years.
ES: You have written about how you and your brother picked wild asparagus as children. It seems like most American children wouldn't touch a green pea or bean, much less a stalk of wild asparagus. What, in your opinion, is wrong with the way we are raising kids who seem to want to eat only pizza and hot dogs?
JP: That is a big problem in this country. Before she learned to walk, my daughter, who is now at Boston University, ate everything my wife and I ate. Not fancy French food but a mix of dishes from my background and my wife's, who was born in New York of Puerto Rican parents. Whatever we made, we pureed and fed to her. Consequently, among her favorite foods are spinach, artichokes, and Brussels sprouts. American parents not only spoil their kids, they give them the wrong messages. They give spinach to a kid six years old and if that child eats it, the mother goes practically into convulsions as if it's the most incredible achievement. What is that child going to think about spinach? Going to do the next time? When you're in France or China or most other countries, that attitude doesn't exist. Not at our house, either. Children need to learn about good cooking just like they learn about art and music. Give a child good food and eventually he'll choose; hopefully the right way.
ES: Can you comment on the technique of today's young chefs? Do you think that most chefs who work in restaurants are properly schooled in the basics?
JP: Most of them are not. It's a matter of time. They want to learn everything in three months and then go out and do it. That's not possible, so they don't learn to work with their hands and become efficient and fast. A lot of chefs, even well-known ones, can't turn an artichoke properly or even clean a leek or peel a carrot. It's also a matter of economy. Today a young chef gets $400, $500 a week. No one is going to pay someone that much to do these chores, so the dishwasher does them, and he doesn't know how. He takes the center out of the lettuce and throws the rest away. You could probably feed half of New York with what's in the garbage can. There are two levels to cooking. First there is craftsmanship, which trains your hand. Then there is the talent to create a great dish. You can't do the great dish without the craftsmanship. People tell me, "When I see you on television you are talking all the time you are cooking." Yes, my head is free. I have enough technique that has been repeated so many times it is automatic.
ES: The jacket copy of one of your books reads, "He shares his techniques..." At what point do techniques and recipes stop being "classic" and become one's own invention?
JP: Everything I do I must have learned somewhere else, but I probably didn't learn it in exactly the same form. I bone out a chicken in a minute or two, but I probably didn't do it the same way twenty years ago or ten years ago. As you become more proficient you improve upon what you've learned and start developing your own ideas. I get ideas for recipes and presentations going to a restaurant, looking at a menu, traveling. I may get an idea that I will transform into something totally different. A few years after I wrote La Technique there were all kinds of fights and news stories about plagiarism and food. One chef accuses another of stealing a recipe. Who knows? Maybe the idea was in the air. Professional chefs cook with all the ingredients on the table in front of them, not by looking at a book.
ES: You've written, "I am always more impressed with those who produce good, well-cooked food with speed, organization, cleanliness, and economy than those who create elaborate 'food art' at the expense of thrift, order, and taste." Can you comment on the proliferation of 'food art'?
JP: You mean mortician food. Those little Japanese gardens. That is very static for me. It has lost its spontaneity. There is only one thing that is important -- besides the physical function of food to sustain you -- and that's whether it's good or not. I will give students a much lesser grade if they have made a perfectly beautiful plate but the soup is lukewarm. I want the soup hot and I don't want it over-manipulated. When you see the excesses of some of those creations, made to titillate the palate, it can be morally disturbing when you know that more then half the world is going hungry.
ES: What do you teach at Boston University? Can you describe the Masters in Gastronomy program?
JP: The world over, there is nothing that brings people together like food. But food can be seen through the filters of social science, from anthropology to ethnography to history and politics. We talk in class about how political decisions going on in Washington will influence what people will be eating in other parts of the world. We talk about how the salt tax in France led to the French Revolution. Another topic is religion, the taboos in the Bible and other restrictions. Psychology is also important, and related to that is food as semantics, as a way of communicating values. It carries one message if I do a cocktail party with Dom Perignon and fresh Beluga and another if I serve meatballs. In that way, food can be used to express power. We talk about the current conflicts between taste and health. Of course we look at who's doing what, what's going on in restaurants, and so forth.
ES: Your life today sounds like a far cry from Down and Out in London and Paris.
JP: When I got my masters' degree I could have changed directions, taught literature, but I chose to stay in cooking. Even though in certain ways I'm still washing bottles and chopping onions, I know I could do other things, which to a great extent I do. If I had to live in academia all the time, a closed world with a lot of internal dissent, I would go out of my mind. In addition to my books I write a column for The New York Times, but I couldn't tolerate constantly being on deadline. I do television, but I couldn't deal with television all the time, it's so artificial. Now I can tape 26 shows in nine days and be out of the studio for two years. I enjoy academia. I enjoy writing, television, consulting, anything that has to do with food. I take part in all of those different venues because I don't have to do any of them all the time. That diversity makes what I do so interesting.
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