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Jacques Pépin

      . . . master chef. After serving as personal chef for Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Pépin came to the U.S., where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in 18th century French literature at Columbia University. In addition to his current duties at Boston University and as the Dean of Special Programs at the French Culinary Institute in New York, M. Pépin has hosted an number of television cooking series, including "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home" and "Jacques Pépin Celebrates." He has written and co-authored many cookbooks.

Excerpts3:54 secs

      When Master Chef Jacques Pépin says "I eat, therefore I am" and "Great cooks have direct access to people's soul," he's only half kidding. He's completely serious when he insists technique and craft are the required foundations on which great cooking is founded. In fact, he says he's downright Cartesian. Why call on René Descartes when talking about a great meal? Because both, according to M. Pépin, are focused on structure, organization, discipline and order. And paradox. French. Very French.

      After serving as personal chef for Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Pépin came to the U.S., where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in 18th century French literature at Columbia University. In addition to his current duties at Boston University and as the Dean of Special Programs at the French Culinary Institute in New York, M. Pépin has hosted a number of television cooking series and has written many cookbooks.

      Recipes represent a basic paradox, M. Pépin muses. He knows when he writes one, he's structuring something that cannot be structured. But, like the television shows he hosts, he knows people want instruction so he gives it to them. So he thinks of his recipes as free-form. He says he approaches a recipe as he would a sheet of music. Learn the basics, then improvise. Make a recipe your own, he says. Besides. If you give the same recipe to ten different people, ten different dishes will result. Paradox.

      M. Pépin focuses instead on teaching technique. Technique allows people to have freer hands, to experiment with their own ideas. He assures his students at all levels that talent is fine, but there's no way to express that talent unless one has become a craftsman first. Then it's up to the person to take that talent to another level.

      M. Pépin worries that we've lost the way great food was once integrated into cultural life, bemoans our tendency to approach food as strictly a physiological function for nourishing the body. Enter into food with a certain abandon, he counters.

      In much the same vein, he says when we talk about great food, not enough is said about the farmer, too much said of the chef. Most of the time, when you have perfect oil or quality of ingredient, you will find the farmer behind it. That's especially true in France, where one can get closer to real gardens and farmers and still feel part of their ingredients. This personal relationship may not make the products cheap, but it makes them good, grown with love and in small quantities.

      What's the greatest meal Jacques Pépin has ever had? One with family and friends. He can't remember what was on the menu.

[This Program was recorded October 2, 2001 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Jacques Pépin, Paula Gordon and Bill Russell look back into humantime and at M. Pépin's own academic interests in the history of food, cooking and human celebrations.

Conversation 2

Noting how dramatically American grocery stores have changed in the past quarter century, M. Pépin describes what he sees as the differences between American and European palates. He compares French, Italian, Chinese and Thai chefs to chefs from those countries who have emigrated to the U.S. He applauds the fusion of tastes and cuisines that have resulted. He clears up stereotypical confusion about the gender of chefs. M. Pépin reminds us that classic French cooking came from homes and farms before being incorporated into regional specialties and centralized in Paris. He compares some of the world's top restaurants, confident what one considers "the best" reflects only one's own taste.

Conversation 3

Cooking-show-as-entertainment is discussed. M. Pépin talks about the Technique for which he is known. It is vital to develop one's craft if one ever hopes to be a culinary artist, he assures us. M. Pépin talks about the variety of ways he has combined the craftsmanship of his cabinet-maker father and his mother, the chef. The "abandon" with which one needs to enter into food sparks a conversation about how important the social component is to having a great meal. M. Pépin shows how a roast chicken can be as simple as a family supper or as elaborate as a feastday. He explains how his Cartesian mind relates to the discipline and order of great cooking.

Conversation 4

M. Pépin describes the double edged sword of American cuisine and compares it to how French cuisine developed over centuries. He contrasts both to the Italian experience. He traces the relative obscurity of mid-twentieth century chefs, remembering his time as Charles de Gaulle's chef, and declining an offer to become Chef for the Kennedy White House. From a culinary perspective, M. Pépin describes major shifts in America in the past decades, then tries to put his own paintings into perspective. The improvisational nature of cooking is explored.

Conversation 5

Recipes are important if one does not know how to cook, says M. Pépin, who goes on to demonstrate how to turn someone else's idea into one's own style -- his idea of how recipes should be approached. Try to cook for yourself, he urges, then expands on how readily things can go either well or badly. He distinguishes between what one can and cannot do, and describes the range of cooking for 4 to serving 1,500. He de-emphasizes what he calls the aesthetic of food and explains why. A general sense of chefs' social responsibility is encouraged and applauded, with "America's Second Harvest," as one example.

Conversation 6

Cooking for family and friends is always an act of love, says M. Pépin, who offers examples from his own life. He talks about the intangibles that go into how one responds to a restaurant experience. He tells why he thinks cooks have direct access to people's souls. He assures us that usually in talking about great food, too little is said about the farmer, too much about the chef.


Mr. Pépin's courtesies extend far beyond the kitchen. We are delighted to know him.

Norma Galehouse, M. Pépin's able assistant, went well out of her way to be helpful. We are grateful.

The publicity folks at Knopf are always extra helpful. We thank them for connecting us with M. Pépin.

Related Links:
Jacques Pépin Celebrates is published by Alfred A. Knopf
M. Pépin's website offers recipes, upcoming appearances and a variety of features. It also includes samples of M. Pépin's artwork.
America's Second Harvest" is the largest domestic hunger relief organization in the U.S.. Their network of over 200 food banks and food-rescue programs distribute food to 26 million hungry Americans each year, eight million of whom are children. You can learn more at their website
M. Pépin is regularly featured in "Gourmet" magazine

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