Culinary icon Jacques Pépin has been cooking since before he was legal.
He left home at 13 to light up kitchen stoves and master poulet à l’Estragon (chicken stewed in white wine with tarragon and cream sauce) during his three-year apprenticeship at Grand Hôtel De L’Europe. A few years later, he moved to Paris to work in legendary kitchens at spots such as La Rotonde for customers like Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Simone de Beauvoir. At Plaza Athénée, he learned how to master dinner service that evoked the grand banquets of the 19th century.
During his French military service, Pépin became personal chef to three heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle. After moving to the US to cook at Le Pavillion in New York, he turned down a gig as John F. Kennedy’s personal chef to work for Howard Johnson.
For those of us who grew up on a diet of PBS cooking shows, we recognize Pépin for his efforts in redefining the American palate by way of his culinary TV identity along with heavyweights Julia Child and James Beard.
At 80 years young, the culinary master is one of the last living legends to have pulled off the challenges that come with Michelin-starred kitchens, presidential palates, and culinary television shows. He’s also been cooking for 60 years longer than most chefs today. I sat down with the kitchen guru to discuss his memoir, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, get his thoughts on what it takes to become a great chef, and to find out what he thinks of the changing culinary landscape that we live in today.
A: I started my apprenticeship in 1949, which was a long, long time ago. As a kid, we didn’t have telephones, televisions, the internet, or computers, so there were slight differences in cooking between me, my father, and my grandfather’s generations without question, but not much. My 12-year-old granddaughter actually read my book, and to her, it’s like reading about the Middle Ages. Just within the last generation, there’s been a great deal of difference in cooking more than ever before.
A: Yes, you’re absolutely right here. Since I was 13 years old, the best way to learn was to do it. If I asked the chef “why?” he would have told me, “because I just told you.” That was the end of it. And that’s why we learned with that type of osmosis. It’s totally different now, whether we teach culinary students at Boston University or at the French Culinary Institute in New York. Most of them are older, college-educated, and they want to know “why am I doing this?” or “why is that like that?”
The whole idea back then was to conform your taste to the restaurant. Nowadays, young chefs want to sign their dishes and make sure that it’s different.
A: That’s another good point. It’s true: I can close my eyes and you can serve me [a dish from] when I came to the US, and I can say,”That’s the striped bass that we served at Le Pavillion.” Or that’s the lobster soufflé of the Plaza Athénée in Paris. Taste memory is where we kept the recipes. I didn’t have any recipes or cookbooks until I came to the United States and after that, I worked for Howard Johnson and started establishing and cataloguing recipes, which was a totally different world. I didn’t have any before. In order to work well in a restaurant, you have to acquire a certain “taste memory” so that you can visualize a taste exactly. When you are cooking behind the stove, you are looking for a certain taste. And in order for that taste to be the same every night when you’re cooking in a big restaurant, you have to change it each night. Those changes are very insidious, very small. They are subconscious, but as you taste, you adjust. You taste, you adjust. You taste, you adjust, until it’s exactly the way it should taste because there is no way that you can have the same chicken with the exact same amount of fat as last night’s service. Or today, you’re cooking with gas or electric, or copper or aluminum, or it’s very humid, or very dry, or you’re in a good mood or a bad mood. With all of those tiny changes, you have to adjust so that the recipe always comes out the same. This is the hardest part for a chef, really.
A: Well, it is quite different, as you mentioned, and there’s certainly a lot more pressure on the chefs now, and as I said before, the idea back then was to conform. If I work with Thomas Keller, one of the greatest chefs in the country, you’re not there to teach him. You’re there to look, listen, and to try to understand his vision of taste and aesthetic and try to replicate it. You’re not there to give him a lesson, but there to learn from him.
You try to do that with one chef for a couple of years, and then another chef for a couple of years, and you do it a couple of times, and by then, you have an enormous amount of knowledge you’ve just absorbed, whether or not you agree with those chefs and their sense of taste or aesthetic. By the time you have done it for a number of years, you’re now going to give it back, but filter it through your sense of taste. That’s when you start doing your own cooking. It’s not after two months that you’ve been in the kitchen. I’ve see a lot of young chefs who say things like “I’ve got a great idea for a book” or “I’ve got an idea for a television show,” because of the chefs who are greatly celebrated. It puts a great deal of pressure on them to be different. Before at the Plaza Athénée in Paris, when we made that lobster soufflé, you couldn’t tell who had made it amongst the 45 chefs or so who were in the kitchen. That was the whole idea: to conform your taste to that place. Nowadays, young chefs want to sign their dishes and make sure that it’s different. We didn’t have that kind of pressure before because it didn’t exist. Growing up, the chef was considered very low on the social scale, and any good mother would’ve wanted their kid to marry a doctor or a lawyer; certainly not a cook. Now, we are considered geniuses, so it’s quite different.
A: Make sure that you go into cooking for the right reasons. People call me for advice about their kids who want to go into cooking, and I always tell them, “You know, the kid should work in a restaurant as a dishwasher, waiter, cook, whatever, to get the taste and essence of that thing that may seem glorious from the outside,” but after they’ve been in there for a couple of months, they can realize whether it’s the love of their life or something that they don’t want to do at all. If you do it because it gratifies you, it makes you happy to cook for people, and it fills up your life, then go ahead with it. And you may become famous, but it may not happen, which is more likely. So it’s in that case when you’ve done it for the right reasons that you’ll have a good life. But if you’re getting into the business to become famous or whatever, it’s not the right reason because it probably won’t happen.
A: Oh yes. I’m pretty much a glutton otherwise. You can put anything else in front of me and I will eat it.
A: Yes, but there was more than one meal. I remember this one time when the New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne was directing a cookbook series (Time Life: Foods of the World series), and he asked me to help for the classic French cooking section along with Pierre Franey. I would go into the studio and make the food, but I had no recipes; I was just cooking. They wanted to make pommes soufflées, and I didn’t know what they were. It’s a dish of sliced potatoes that are about a quarter—no, two eighths of an inch—thick actually. You cook them in oil that’s not too hot and they start inflating. Then, you drop them into very hot oil, and the two sides of the potato inflate like a balloon. So when you make the dish, you do 50 slices or so, and maybe 30 to 40 of the pieces are the only ones that turn out OK. That’s normal. On that day, I did close to 100 pommes soufflées and every single one was perfect. That had never happened in my life before. There were no other chefs around, only the people taking notes, and they didn’t even notice it because they thought, it’s normal for this big chef to do this. It’s when things like this happen that you wish another chef were there to witness it because it will never happen again.
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