It’s not often that you get the chance to speak with a chef who has over 70 years experience in cooking. The phenomenal Jacques Pépin is one such man. Born in France, he worked in some of the finest kitchens in Paris (as well as working as the private chef to Charles de Galles) before moving to the USA in 1959. Here, he met culinary greats such as James Beard, Julia Child and Helen McCulley, and famously turned down an offer to be the Kennedys head chef at The White House. From the 70’s onwards, he went on to have a career hosting TV shows, writing books and spreading his knowledge through the newly-founded French Culinary Academy in New York City. Looking back on his extraordinary life, Pépin talks to Luxeat about fleeting food trends, the importance of simplicity, and how the life of a chef has changed immeasurably over the decades.
What shaped you as a chef and what made you fall in love with cooking?
My father was a cabinet maker and my mother was a chef in Lyon, and they were both very much my idols. At that time we didn’t have television, we didn’t have a phone, and life was much simpler. I was going to be a cabinet maker or a cook. Cooking for me was more exciting, and so I went into that world and never regretted it. I finished primary school when I was 13 and that was it.
What was it like working in Paris and France in the early 50s? From everything I’ve read in your memoir and your interviews, you were telling that cooking at that time was very different from cooking in fine dining kitchens now.
Oh yes, absolutely, the whole thing was totally different. I was working at Fouquet’s in Paris, and it was like you were performing; you go to work and you do exactly what is written on the recipe. At Plaza Atelier we did a famous Lobster souffle. There were 48 chefs in the kitchen, 48 chefs could do it and you would never know who did that, which is different to now where everyone has their section. In addition to this, the chef was seen as very low on a social scale. Parents aspired for their child to be a lawyer or a doctor, but not a cook, so we were very low on the social scale. Now we are on TV like we’re some kind of geniuses.
As chefs, the trick is to know the basic technique and then to repeat and repeat and repeat it. That’s how I’m able to cook on television, looking at the camera and talking while I’m doing it, because my hands work by themselves. It becomes part of your DNA.
There was not much place for creativity, and tradition was very important too, right?
Yes, you’re right. I remember at Plaza Atelier we had to cut the tomato in one direction. To cut in a different direction would be crazy, we had a rule and we had to follow it. You could work in any restaurant and it would be the same, you just had to say “yes chef”, “yes chef”, and live with that for several years. But you get so much knowledge without even realising it. And at some point, by the time you get your own restaurant and have your own staff and you can pass that knowledge on, according to your own standards of aesthetics and taste. But when you work in someone else’s restaurant, your aesthetics and taste don’t count.
And what was the dining scene like in America at that time?
When I came to America it was 1959. It was a time when people were going on vacation to Europe after the war for the first time, tasting food they’d never tried before. That was my first time going on a plane. There was no wine in America at that time, no good bread. Now it’s all changed. When people build their homes they put the kitchen in the centre, perhaps add a wine cellar, but it wasn’t always like that.
What does it take to be a good chef, and what would you advise aspiring chefs in 2022?
Experience. Work in a cafeteria as a dishwasher, or in a dining area as a kitchen helper. If after that you are still interested in cooking, you can go to a cooking school, or if you find a chef to take you on you will learn as much as you can learn in school, without the need to pay so much money. The dilemma is simply how to get exposed to the best possible chef, the best possible restaurants, and then after a couple of years trying to get to another restaurant, trying to absorb all of that before you start creating your own stuff.
So you think it’s important to start washing plates, rather than take stages in top kitchens?
Yes, absolutely. If I work at a small restaurant, I have 3 other chefs working next to me. If one guy doesn’t come, we can still work it out, but if the dishwasher doesn’t come we are in big trouble. So to be a dishwasher is very fortunate to know all of that trade.
French gastronomy made a huge impact on world gastronomy, and many top chefs were trained in France. Do you think classical training is important for a good chef?
Yes, it is. I have been involved in a former French Culinary Institute for over 30 years, and have met great chefs there like Bobby Flay, Dan Barber, David Chang, Wylie Dufresne… None of these chefs are in French restaurants now, but they learned the basic principles which stick with them. These culinary techniques started in France in the 17th and 18th centuries, where there was a consensus for doing certain things a certain way. To have these golden rules in the way you scale up for extra volume, the way you separate egg white properly, the way you slice bread, is vital. After that you go out on your own, but with the basic techniques you need. The food in Italy or Spain is undeniably great, but it’s done with less of a consensus – ways of doing things vary hugely from chef to chef. So classical French-style schools are still useful for ground rules, I think.
Culinary techniques started in France in the 17th and 18th centuries, where there was a consensus for doing certain things a certain way. To have these golden rules in the way you scale up for extra volume, the way you separate egg white properly, the way you slice bread, is vital. After that you go out on your own, but with the basic techniques you need.
I agree with you, because nowadays chefs think they can take shortcuts. You worked in some of the most prestigious restaurants in Paris and New York before going into TV. I think many chefs now prefer the fast way. The celebrity comes first and then cooking, don’t you think?
Yes, that’s true. Especially in America, where there are so many restaurants doing a mediocre job. You work with the owner somewhere and he tells you “you know, just mix a little bit of this and a bit of that, the guy next door does that.” They all want to do something different, but they all do the same thing.
Just to go back to 70 years ago when you started your career. What you were cooking in those days at Plaza Etienne, and when you were a chef for President Charles De Gaulle?
At that time dishes were totally different. My mum had a restaurant in Lyon, and she never served plates directly from the kitchen, but from platters placed in the middle of the table by the head waiter. We’d serve very inexpensive fish like mackerel on a silver platter, and you’d help yourself. “Nouvelle cuisine.” for me was nouvelle because I remember what it was like before. Those classical dishes rely a great deal on basic stocks, basic sauces, core principles like making a roux. When I came to America in 1959 there were almost no vegetables, or only a few basic ones, and no grilling. At Plaza Atelier we had two big grills, one for fish, another for meat, and for the side we’d do a garnish which was eight or ten different kinds of vegetables. When I came to New York, there was boiler and no griller. It’s interesting, because we were doing it at that time, and now most American chefs grill vegetables and it’s seen as totally American.
One very interesting thing I read about you is how you developed a fastfood line for Howard Johnson restaurants. Do you think that it would be possible to do the same nowadays?
I started with Howard Johnson purely because of their commitment to spend money on the best possible quality ingredients. This is where it all starts. If you want to cut corners and buy lower quality ingredients, you are not going to have great results, there is just no way. When I went to Howard Johnson as a visiting chef they were very open-minded, they say “you can do whatever you want.” So we started using butter to fry, serving salads and cooked vegetables rather than dehydrated beef. We started with the quality ingredients.
I always buy my food at the supermarket. For all the shows I did, I want people to relate that I can prepare meals from supermarket ingredients.
What would be your advice for home cooks, in terms of where to get the best ingredients, especially for anyone who doesn’t always have the biggest budget?
I always buy my food at the supermarket. For all the shows I did, I want people to relate that I can prepare meals from supermarket ingredients. Special restaurants buy special forms of food, and it’s fantastic because you want to attract people to your restaurant to try what they perhaps can’t at home. But for me I don’t have that kind of restaurant anymore. But still, I try to get the best possible. I’m not totally obsessed with organic, but if you can get it then you should.
Do you think great chefs cook differently at home and at restaurants?
Yes and no. The process is different, and at the restaurant the portions are smaller. At the restaurant you do one portion at a time, but at home you cook many. At home you might do a stewed veal in a nice way with a garnish for 8-10 people, but in a restaurant you need to do everything separately, so it takes lots of time and effort.
If you want to cut corners and buy lower quality ingredients, you are not going to have great results, there is just no way.
So what advice would you give to people trying to improve their home cooking skills?
There are so many books which tell you exactly what to do, giving exact temperatures and measurements and all the mechanics. This is one approach, but it’s not everything. For example in Italy, mothers and grandmothers cook food in the corner of the street and they go with their eye rather than following strict recipes and measurements. It’s just a different approach. As chefs, the trick is to know the basic technique and then to repeat and repeat and repeat it. That’s how I’m able to cook on television, looking at the camera and talking while I’m doing it, because my hands work by themselves. It becomes part of your DNA.
To go back to the fine dining restaurant and to gastronomy for a moment, what do you think about food trends? We had molecular cooking, we had Scandinavian cooking, and now we hear more and more chefs are coming back to traditional old-school cooking.
It’s true, a trend takes off and then people think it’s bizarre and move on to another trend. During the pandemic I did shows on Facebook with my daughter, such as one which was to show people how to use the french skillet with what you have in a pantry or in a freezer. It’s a question of age, too. Young chefs try to add this and that to the plate, but when you get older I notice you try to remove unnecessary things and leave the essential one. If I have a beautiful tomato from my garden at the correct temperature, I need just a bit of salt and olive oil on top and nothing more.
Young chefs try to add this and that to the plate, but when you get older I notice you try to remove unnecessary things and leave the essential one. If I have a beautiful tomato from my garden at the correct temperature, I need just a bit of salt and olive oil on top and nothing more.
And why do you think some dishes really stick in your mind and some don’t? What makes an extraordinary dish? What is real genius when it comes to cuisine?
Usually these dishes are relatively simple, with the most extraordinary ingredients possible, very skillful technique simplicity added to it, usually it strikes your mind. It doesn’t happen that often. Even a perfectly roasted chicken with the natural juice is not that easy to get. People usually cook it and cover it with foil, they don’t use a proper pan to cook it so you don’t have the right crystallisation of the juice. Sometimes, just occasionally, you go somewhere and you know that you’ll have an extraordinary roasted chicken and extraordinary mashed potatoes.
What is your favourite cuisine, other than French?
Oh boy… I like black bean soup and fried bananas, because my wife is partly cuban and puertorican, and then I like chirachi sushi, and then lobster rolls from Connecticut. I love Chinese food, and Japanese is great of course too. When I came to America I was very young. There were no great Italian restaurants, only the slow and boring type, with good but dull food, and there were no great Chinese or Japanese or Indian restaurants: all the fine dining was French. Now it’s very different. You have extraordinary food from all over the world.
What is your perfect meal?
If it were my last meal, I would have a really good hot dog and a lobster roll, squid with fresh peas and many other things too!