Jacques Pépin. A name that rolls off the tongue with the memories of watching the celebrated French chef on television from your own kitchen. The quintessentially classic culinary master has been a household name for decades as one of television’s first celebrity chefs. Even now, he finds new ways to become inspired by food every day.
“Creating new dishes, that’s a difficult thing to do,” said Pépin, who was born in 1935 in Bourg-en-Bresse, France. “I go to the market every day and get inspired by eating with friends and reading. I always give the example, you may have one chicken, but you could make 20,000 recipes with chicken, whether it is southern fried, French or Chinese.”
Although cooking is in his blood (his parents owned the restaurant Le Pelican), Pépin’s experience with food began at the age of 6, when he would help his mother in the kitchen. He left school when he was 13 and worked as an apprentice before moving to Paris at 17 to train as a chef.
“As an apprentice you did a lot of cleaning and cutting vegetables. We were not allowed to go to the stove for a year, so you pluck poultry, clean fish and prepare vegetables and back then I had already done that with my mother,” said Pépin. “When I cook, I like to follow the seasons and I always see what the market has.”
In 1959, Pépin moved to the United States. One year later, he met Julia Child, a fellow chef who would not only influence his professional career, but grow to become a true lifelong friend as well.
“I met Julia in New York through a friend,” said Pépin of his beloved late friend. “We mostly spoke French because she just came back from France.”
Pépin and Child’s culinary partnership proved to be one of the most successful pairings of the time. In 1999, they starred in the series Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home on PBS, which later won an Emmy.
“Julia lightened me up on television. We had fun,” he said. “People want to teach you and there’s a lot of shows that don’t have that as priority. I see chefs cooking and feel like I don’t know anything about cooking. I don’t think food has ever been as exciting as it is now.”
On PBS, Pépin is the subject of the film special American Masters – Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craft. The internationally recognized chef said the honor “blew his mind” and that to be “in the company of Einstein and Hemingway is crazy.”
“They have not done many things on food so it’s very exciting,” said Pépin, who has done 13 series for the station. “This honor is going to the top of the list, but next month I’m getting a PhD from Columbia University,” he added, having received a BA and MA from the prestigious university.
When asked how he felt about chefs gaining celebrity status, Pépin said it was fantastic to see, as chefs were once at the bottom of the scale.
“Any good mother would want her child to marry a doctor, not a cook,” he said. “It’s terrific, and we enjoy the flight.”
Of his personal favorite dishes, Pépin is a lover of soups, stews and foie gras, but said that as he gets older, his tastes have changed, reflecting more simple cuisine.
“When you’re a young chef, you tend to add more to the dish and when you get to an age like me, you take away more and embellish less,” he said. “A recipe is like a sheet of music: you give it to five different people to perform and you hear five different songs.”
Pépin is currently working on a cookbook with his granddaughter, Shorey, as well as a show including recipes from the book. He currently writes a food column for Food & Wine magazine and has written more than two dozen cookbooks. The chef continues to host his show on PBS and will never stop sharing his love of food and passion for his craft, from his kitchen to yours.
Jacques Pépin will be appearing at the Gold Coast Arts Center for an event which will include a tasting of his recipes, a preview screening of the upcoming PBS film, American Masters – Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craft and a Q-and-A with Chef Pépin himself, on Thursday, May 4. The Gold Coast Arts Center is located at 113 Middle Neck Rd., in Great Neck.
The film premieres nationally Friday, May 26, at 9 p.m. on PBS.