Published August 04, 2011
MADISON, Conn. – Back in the woods, behind the kitchen, French and American flags fly over Jacques Pepin's petanque court. He launches his heavy, metallic ball toward a visitor's, popping it off course with a sharp, expert crack.
"That is how you play petanque," he says, smiling at his pupil.
Whether it's lawn bowling or making an omelet as bright and unblemished as the noontime sun, Pepin is, above all things, a teacher. A trim, elegant 75, the greatest cooking instructor America has ever known has entered a genteel upper middle age. His hair is thinner, the limp from the car accident that turned him from chef to professor is a bit more pronounced. But the man who taught two generations of home cooks — and many of today's celebrity chefs — how to hold a knife can still out-chop a food processor and make boning a chicken look like magic.
"I tell a student that the most important class you can take is technique," Pepin says while chopping chives beneath a decorative tile that reads: "A great chef is first a great technician." ''If you are a jeweler, or a surgeon or a cook, you have to know the trade in your hand. You have to learn the process. You learn it through endless repetition until it belongs to you."
And nobody owns technique like Pepin. Born in the eastern French town of Bourg-en-Bresse just before World War II, he peeled, diced, whisked and braised in his mother's restaurants from the time he was tall enough to reach the counter until he left home at 13 for a formal apprenticeship. In the decades that followed, he served as the personal chef to French president Charles De Gaulle, helped introduce Americans to French cuisine as a chef at the iconic New York restaurant Le Pavillon, turned down the Kennedy White House to pioneer mass produced restaurant food for the Howard Johnson's chain, and ran with James Beard, Craig Claiborne and the rest of the culinary Rat Pack that transformed the way Americans think about food.
"He was very much part of this group," says David Kamp, author of "The United States of Arugula." ''He's the last living representative of that wonderful group that elevated the game for Americans."
But it is Pepin's message of craftsmanship that is likely to be his legacy. In more than two dozen books and 11 public television series, Pepin has stressed the importance of basic skills in mastering the art of any cooking. His 1970s classic "La Technique" and its sister volume "La Methode" used hundreds of black-and-white photos to illustrate every procedure from cracking an egg to making puff pastry. They remain the standard references of any serious home cook, and the basis for what happens in professional kitchens from New York to Los Angeles.
"Jacques stressed that cooking is not about recipes, it's about techniques and methods," says Tom Colicchio, New York restaurateur and co-host of Bravo's "Top Chef," who discovered "La Technique" as a teenager. "That really spoke to me and really cut through all the gibberish. I realized that you don't need recipes. You can approach anything as long as you know how to cook. It really unlocked the door for me."
Boston super-chef Jamie Bissonnette — young enough at 33 to be Pepin's son — even admits to stealing "La Technique" from the public library as a kid. "As a teenager who wanted to cook you'd look at it and say, 'Wow, I can do that,'" says Bissonnette, who recently won Food & Wine magazine's People's Best New Chef award. "I've never stolen anything else in my entire life." Last Christmas, he gave each of his chefs a copy of the book (which he purchased).
But Pepin's newest book, "Essential Pepin," is the story of the man today: a French chef turned quintessential American cook whose formidable skills and affable manner make him the ultimate culinary teacher. More than 700 recipes trace the history of his palate from his mother's mustardy les oeufs Jeannette to the light, fresh taste of salmon in basil sauce. The book's accompanying three-hour, searchable DVD promises to demonstrate "every technique a cook will ever need," some of which he'll perform on the companion TV series.
"I don't cook the way I cooked 35 years ago," Pepin says, "but the way you make an omelet, the way you bone a chicken, that doesn't change."
So what has changed? "My palate is simpler than it used to be," he says. "A young chef adds and adds and adds to the plate. As you get older, you start to take away."
When he arrived in the United States in 1959, Pepin carried with him the rigid French view of food: that if you add carrots to boeuf bourguignon it ceases to be boeuf bourguignon. But he immediately embraced his adopted country's flexibility and its diverse people, foods and ingredients, including an alluring herb called "cilantro," which he learned about from his wife Gloria, who has Puerto Rican roots.
"Five years after I was here, my mother would say, 'This is really good, but it's not French,'" he says. "I'm not trying to be French. But I'm also not trying not to be French. I think more in terms of 'It's a good idea.' Or 'It's fresh.'"
If Pepin's good friend and long-time cooking cohort Julia Child introduced Americans to classical French cooking — the intricate, time-consuming recipes created in Michelin-starred restaurants — Pepin brought a much earthier understanding to the genre. His food was born of war and privation, of the days when his mother biked through the countryside scavenging bread, eggs and butter, boiled beets to make sweetener, and later, in her restaurants, offered hearty plates of rabbit stew or creamed chicken to patrons who were friends and neighbors.
"Jacques is fundamental," says Rux Martin, Pepin's editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishing. "When he writes a cookbook, it's for a home cook. He's not a synthesizer of restaurant classical French cooking. And Jacques's heart is fundamentally like his mother's, who came out of that country French cooking."
"Julia and Jacques" were perhaps the most beloved duo ever to cook on television, their easy banter and clear devotion to food capturing hearts and stomachs across the country. And though these programs, as well as Pepin's solo shows, helped usher in the era of food television — and, by default, laid the groundwork for the celebrity chef phenomenon — Pepin has little patience with the fetishizing of food and the rock star status of today's chefs.
"The whole food world has changed," he says. "Any good mother would have wanted her child to be a doctor, a lawyer, not a cook. Now we are geniuses."
In reality, he says, chefs are basically "soup merchants." ''But," he adds with his trademark twinkle, "there is good soup and bad soup."
Pepin means no offense. And it is almost impossible to take any from him, so wry and sprite-like is his manner. But he is old school in the best sense of the phrase, from an era when cooking was a vocation not a profession, when chefs learned at the elbow of a mentor, not in a fancy cooking school. In fact, the culinary program he and Child helped found at Boston University still follows that model, offering only a single semester of basic skills before sending its charges into professional kitchens.
"It was his theory that people who want to learn about food and want to learn classical French technique do not have to go to school for two years or four years," says Rebecca Alssid, the university's director of food and wine studies. "They need an intensive schooling in the techniques that are important... He felt that when someone graduated after 14 weeks of working four days a week on technique they could go into a restaurant and perfect it."
Pepin takes the same no-frills approach on his cooking shows. "Essential Pepin," which begins airing in October, will have no giant clocks dangling over contestants' heads, no one yelling "Bam!" as they throw garlic into a pan, no beautiful woman telling chefs to pack their knives. There'll just be a guy with a smile chopping chives.
"I'm sure a lot of people say my shows are really boring," Pepin says. "But you can't escape yourself. I'm not an actor. I am who I am. And I'm still teaching cooking. Which is what I do. It's good for me, it's no good for someone else."
This sense of authenticity, his devotion not to his own stardom, but to the food and the food alone, is what has kept people watching Pepin. Even in this era of flash and glitz, his executives at San Francisco's KQED, which produces his shows, say his audience has remained steady and that he is more widely distributed and watched than Food Network peers.
"He's about sharing good food, demonstrating good technique and really educating the viewer," says Tina Salter, Pepin's producer at KQED, who notes that she usually has to drag him out of the kitchen to get him into makeup. "That's what separates him from everyone else. He's the consummate teacher."
So once again, Pepin is walking the line between two cultures, not French and American this time, but entertainment and education. And once again, say his supporters, he will bridge that gap. And secure a place with the next generation.
"He's a cook's cook," says Russ Parsons, food editor at The Los Angeles Times. "And that's not to belittle the Food Network because they're bringing people into the church. And when they become true believers, they'll find Jacques. And Jacques will be waiting."