The icon shares his secrets to living a good life and his funniest Julia Child story.
“I need to change clothes,” Jacques Pépin says, unbuttoning his starched white chef’s coat. Pépin has just finished delivering a lecture called “Food and Memories” to a packed auditorium at the International Culinary Center (ICC) in downtown Manhattan, where Pépin, 81, is the Dean of Special Programs.
“Come with me,” Pépin says, darting through a hallway to race up two flights of stairs. I gently suggest we might be able to find an elevator. He politely declines. “Well, I always take the stairs.”
Good luck keeping up with Pépin. When it comes to home cooking, Jacques Pépin is probably the most impactful living chef in America. He has authored dozens of cookbooks and starred in hundreds of hours of television, all designed to make cooking easier. Your foodie grandparents ate Jacques’ food five decades ago in Paris at La Plaza Athénée or in New York at Le Pavillon. Your parents watched him popularize cooking at home on PBS with his dear friend Julia Child. And you (like me) may have unknowingly eaten Jacques’ food as a kid at a Howard Johnson’s, where he was the corporate chef for many years while he took evening classes at Columbia University (he received an M.A. in French Literature in 1972). Pépin has received France’s highest civilian honor, the Légion d’honneur, and won a cabinet full of James Beard Awards. (Actually, Pépin was close friends with James Beard.)
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The Chef Who Saved My Life
Two years ago, Pépin filmed what was billed as his final PBS series, but he hasn’t slowed down. He still has a signature line of housewares with Sur La Table; in May, PBS’s American Masters series will air a Pépin episode; and in September he’ll release A Grandfather’s Lessons, a cookbook with his granddaughter, Shorey.
Pépin lives in Madison, Connecticut, with his wife of 40 years, Gloria, but still regularly travels into Manhattan for business obligations. On a recent night on the Lower East Side, GQ sat down with Chef Pépin over Vietnamese food (this spot, specifically) and a few bottles of wine.
GQ: Do you think in your lifetime you’ve drunk more wine than water?
Jacques Pépin: That’s a good question. Certainly, the last twenty years, yes. [laughs] I don’t drink that much water, you know? It’s an interesting thing, because now there is an obsession with water. I mean, we go 20 feet, we go walking, and we have to have water. When I was a kid, I left in the morning to go to the woods with my brother, and we never had water. Granted, we stopped in a village, there was a fountain, you drank the water. But even now, I go play boulé or I go mushrooming for two hours, someone says, “Do you want some water?” No! I can go two hours without a bottle of water.
Do you cook dinner at home every night?
Yeah, usually. Occasionally my wife cooks if I ask her to make arroz con pollo or something like that. Last night I did an oyster chowder. I had a guy next door, he brought a big basket of oysters—they were enormous oysters. So I had some leek, I sautéed, finished with a bit of half and half. At the end I added corn and the oysters, and I put the oyster juice in it. We some mashed potatoes with garlic I had done, so we did a gratin with that, and some sausage. And usually we have salad and a piece of cheese. I still do a fair amount of headcheese—which my granddaughter doesn’t like—or pâté, stuff like this.
Do you plan out what you’re going to cook each week? Or do you see something in the market and get inspired?
It’s usually the market, unless I have some stuff at home that people brought me. Like two weeks ago, a guy killed some partridge. My friend Jean-Claude brought me two trout that he smoked. In the summer you have lobster and clams. I have a little woman where I get my eggs from, and I have another woman who has a commercial boat, so I ordered 100 oysters and 100 clams from her—I can get them really, really cheap. So for two, three days we’ll have oyster or clams. My friend Jean-Claude was there, and my wife does the best linguine with clam sauce, so we did that with French bread. It’s that type of thing. Nothing that complicated, but it’s important to us. Food is something we gravitate around. We don’t eat much for lunch—a couple of eggs, or maybe I don’t eat breakfast. But dinner is when we have a bottle of wine, start cooking maybe around four, five in the afternoon. It’s still an important thing.
In your memoir The Apprentice, you talk about the importance of having dinner as a family, having everyone together to discuss the issues of the day.
For me, the kitchen is the center of the house. When a kid comes back from school, you sit down in that kitchen and you do your homework. You hear the voice of your mother, your father, you hear the clink of pots and pans, you see the ingredients, the smells. All of that will stay with you the rest of your life. You know, that becomes very important. For a child just home from school, the kitchen is a great place to be.
“I don’t drink that much water, you know? It’s an interesting thing, because now there is an obsession with water.”
My son just turned 4 and I can’t convince him to stay at the table. Right now I let him run around, but at some point I’m going to have to force him to sit there.
When [my daughter] Claudine was 2, 3 years old, I would hold her and she cooked with me. Well, she ”cooked”—she stirred the pot, and I would say, “Oh wow! You stirred it! That was very good! You did it!” They have to get involved. You have one kid?
Four is a great age.
Yeah, it’s fun. He doesn’t really care about food much at all.
Yeah, but the food comes after. You have to push it. You have to get him involved in the kitchen with you, having fun, tasting. It has to relate to fun, it has to relate to smell, too, and it comes. Sometimes it comes back later. My father wasn’t a good cook, but I remember things—the wine, mushrooming—that are associated with food. Very often I go to three-star restaurants, I don’t remember one thing.
Food touches you in different ways, and that’s depending on who you are, too. Even when you learn from different chefs, eventually you go back to who you are. If your roots are in Ethiopia or Vietnam, maybe yes, you can cook like an American, but there will be some of that in there, too. There is no escaping it, anyway.
One thing I love about your TV shows is how simple you make cooking. There’s never any need to brine things overnight or source obscure stuff from the internet.
When you’re the chef in a restaurant, you have the prep guy who comes in the morning. They bone out the chicken, they clean the fish, slice the mushroom, wash the spinach, chop the shallot. It’s all ready. Nothing is cooked, but it’s all ready. I come there, I get behind the stove, first order is filet of sole, it’s all there. I grab shallot, a dash of white wine, the fish, I boil it one minute, take it out, finish with piece of butter, it’s all done, five minutes. Why? Because I have all the prep. So now, with the supermarkets the way they are, I use the supermarket as a prep cook. I have a boneless, skinless breast of chicken, I have a non-stick pan, pre-sliced mushroom. I think Fast Food My Way may be the book people use the most. It’s fresh food. It’s a good thing to do.
And that runs counter to some of what you see out there, how some people totally transform ingredients into something different.
Well, there is that thing in cooking where the taste has to be what it is. So in the summer when I have tomato in the garden or I can get fresh tomato—at the right temperature, not too cold—just with a bit of sea salt on top and olive oil? There’s nothing better than that. It has the taste of what it is. But if I have ground up pork, and I put white wine in it, and cognac and shallot, and I add all of those ingredients together, eventually it tastes like pâté. So it’s like the whole orchestra playing and you have the taste of all of this.
To me, just being confidence is such a huge part of being a good cook.
If you’ve never cooked and you start learning about it, you start feeling good about yourself. And suddenly cooking is not such an incredible job to do. You say, “Fine, I’ll pick up a couple of things.” I did a short piece for WNET about pears. The idea is that paradox: that when I do a recipe, I have a great freedom. But when I type the recipe and give it to someone, it’s totally strict and organized. It’s exactly the opposite of the freedom I had when I started the recipe.
When people do one of my recipes, you should always follow it exactly the first time you do it, and if it comes out good and you like it, you can do it again. The second time, maybe you take a fast look. The third time you don’t look at it. By the fourth time, you can probably improve the recipe—you think, “I’m going to put more tomato, and less of that.” And a year later, you don’t even know where it comes from—it has become your recipe. You massage it enough so that it fits your sense of aesthetic. If someone does that with my recipe, that is fine. They’ve taken it, they’ve done something. So that’s good.
And to me that’s what’s fun about cooking. I mean, I’m terrible at math, I can’t do long division, but I can cook—I can feel.
You want to get to the point where you trust your cooking, where you cook and someone says, “Oh my god! You cook just like my grandmother! You throw in a little bit of this, you throw in a little bit of that! My grandmother used to cook like this!” Well, this is controlled by 50 years of technique. It’s not like I throw a banana peel in there or something. I seem like I can throw anything in there, when in fact it’s pretty strict, you know?
Again this is a paradox, but when I do a dish, there’s absolutely no way I can do that dish again with exactly the same taste, exactly the same way, because it won’t work. There is no chicken with exactly the same amount of fat, you know? I cook on gas, I cook on electric, I cook with cast iron, I cook with copper, I’m in a good mood, I’m in a bad mood… all of that counts.
This is the problem of a chef. You go to that restaurant, you order that filet of sole with butter, and it’s always perfect. You know that for this to be perfect, it changes each time. It changes consciously as well as unconsciously. If you are near the stove when the chef does it and you take note exactly, then he has an order, and 15 minutes later he has another order, it’s not going to be exactly the same.
Is there one particular skill you think a home chef needs to master?
I have seen people do a whole recipe without ever tasting once: waiting one minute, adding that; waiting two minutes, adding this; waiting two minutes, adding that. And at the end of the dish they taste and say, “Eh, not that great.” [laughs] You can’t cook like that! You taste, you adjust, you taste, you adjust. So at first you have to have that love of cooking, and every so often, be a bit bold.
People tell me, “I don’t cook. I would like to, but…” Well, do you have any friends who cook? “Yeah, I have a friend.” Well, fine. Next time you go to his house or her house, say, “Can I cook with you? I’ll come a bit earlier, I’ll bring a bottle of wine, I want to look at you cooking.” So you come, you open your bottle of wine, you have a glass, two glasses, you put a chicken in the oven. After the third glass, who cares anyway? [laughs] Even if the chicken is a bit burned, who cares? You’re having fun, a good time! So you have to learn how to relax.
And start with a couple of simple things. People start and say, “I have guests coming and I’m doing a soufflé I’ve never made before.” Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi! Don’t do it when you have guests, something very complicated. Be comfortable with your guests. Make something you know how to do and that they will like. That is not the time to try something.
“Be comfortable with your guests. Make something you know how to do and that they will like. That is not the time to try something.”
When you came to the United States in 1959, America had not really embraced food culture. What is it like now for you to see where it’s gone?
It just kind of blows your mind, and that’s why I think I’m so lucky. Not even 30 years ago, any good mother would have wanted her child to marry a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, not a cook. Now we are geniuses. I mean, how long is it going to last? I don’t know, but for the time being…[laughs] I see the people on television—you know, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay—they are big stars! And for me, people looking at me, one woman started to cry! So, it’s just amazing. On the social scale, the cook has moved. It’s very fine—certainly I’m happy about it—but we are not geniuses. It’s not brain surgery. But it’s nice to be recognized.
What’s your funniest Julia Child story?
I think people loved Julia because she was exactly the same off camera as she was on camera. Julia loved to be on PBS, and I do too, because we didn’t have to kowtow to any sponsor. Now it’s not as stringent, but in the beginning you had to cover the name on any labels, all that stuff. But Julia kind of pushed it farther. We were doing this show together, and Kendall Jackson was one of the sponsors. I end up knowing Jess Jackson—he’s a delightful guy. So he came one day to be in the control room. Toward the end of the show we were going to serve a glass of wine, and I said, “Julia, you want a bit of merlot with that? Or a cab?” And she said, [in Julia Child’s voice] “I want beer!” [laughs] Beer?
We never had beer before. But she had a beer under the counter! Ay yi yi yi yi! She said, [Julia voice] “You don’t have to kowtow to the sponsor.” She also did that with a second sponsor, Land-O-Lakes. She was making a dough, and I say, “How much butter do you want?” She says, “I want Crisco!” [laughs] I mean, the president of Land-O-Lakes is there, and she wants Crisco! We never used Crisco, anywhere. And she had a can of Crisco underneath! Ay yi yi yi yi! So we did half Crisco, half butter. She was funny.