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Pepin: It's about cooking, not stardom

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," says Pepin 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."

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," says Pepin, "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.' "