Restaurateur and chef Jacques Pepin is a culinary legend. He’s known for a great many things including his book La Technique (used as a textbook for mastering french cooking fundamentals, much like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking), his past PBS series like The Complete Pepin and Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home with Julia Child, being personal chef to three French heads of state, guest judge stints on Top Chef and his role as Dean of the International Culinary Center here in New York City (Ok, the list goes on and on).
Sure, Pepin’s no doubt a master when it comes to cooking fundamentals and French cuisine, but it was also no secret that there were life lessons to be learned from sitting down with him. We sat back and listened to everything from memories with Julia Child, to cooking for Charles de Gaulle all the way to explaining why ketchup’s actually not so bad…
What would your ideal food day be from start to finish?
No one ever has asked me this! My ideal day would be to stay in bed until 12pm and then maybe have a croissant and coffee. Lunch would be a bottle of champagne and caviar with my wife, and then we would go back to bed. That’s about it.
Is there one thing you wish you knew when you started that you know now?
Yes; I wish I knew what I know now when I started. I don’t know exactly what, but I know I would’ve done better. But, the world was very different then than it is now. When I was thirteen years old – that was sixty-five years ago – I left home to start an apprenticeship after working in my family’s restaurant kitchen with my mother.
When I went into the apprenticeship the chef would tell you, “Do this,” and you wouldn’t question and say, “Why?” If you did question, he would say, “It’s because I told you to. “ You look, you do, you repeat, you peel vegetables, you clean, and then one day the chef says, “Tomorrow you start at the stove.” You follow, you repeat, and eventually you’re there.
The learning process is totally different than what we do here [at International Culinary Center]. Here, the students come, pay a fortune, and in six months we teach them, and they know much more after six months here than I knew after three years of an apprenticeship – and even after five to six years in the kitchen. It is a different way of learning.
Do you think one learning style is better or worse?
I don’t think one is better than the other. This is what society and America is: instant gratification. You work with someone for three weeks, and all of the sudden you want to be a chef and do everything. It’s just a different world, and we now learn in different ways. In addition to this, around eighty percent of people who attend culinary school are college graduates. There are incredible people attending, ranging from lawyers and doctors to professional boxers. The age of students ranges from mid twenties to late sixties, which in itself creates a different learning experience.
In a kitchen, there’s only one person in charge: the chef. You have to try and see the food through his sense of aesthetic and taste. You don’t go work at Per Se and tell Thomas Keller what to do. You go there to see the food through his aesthetic and taste, and to learn. And then you work with someone else to learn again.
Do you have a first memory at your parents’ restaurant? One memory where you really fell in love with food?
I have many. When I was about six years old, during World War II, my mother took me to a farm for the summer. The farmer’s wife took me to the barn where I saw the cow. She showed me how to milk it, and then gave me a bowl of lukewarm fresh milk right out of the cow. That really set me up for life. It was warm and foamy, and tasted so delicious, especially because at that time we didn’t have that much to eat.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t think I have one piece of advice, but I would advise people to cook for the right reason: for love. That may sound corny, but it’s hard work. You work twelve to fourteen hours a day, you work Saturday, you work Sunday, and you don’t make that much money. So, if you get into the business to cook to become famous like Bobby Flay, then it’s very likely that it will not happen. But, if you go into it for the right reasons – that it gratifies you and makes you happy to cook for people – then whether it [the fame] happens or not, you’ll be happy and have a good life.
What did you find when you judged on Top Chef?
That often people overreach. They do things to impress. You taste a dish and they ask, “How is it?” You say, “ Pretty good,” but you have no idea what you’re eating. I want to be able, for example, to put my eyes on a dish, and clearly see and know that it’s chicken. I never eat anything I can’t recognize.
Is there one item that, if a chef cooked it for you, you would know right away whether or not he or she were a good chef?
Not really. However, I’ve been teaching at Boston University for thirty-one years, and in one of the classes, which is a group of twelve to fifteen people, my friend Jean Claude and I cook for three days with the group for around eighty-five people. As we create the menu and prepare the dishes, it doesn’t take long to see who has the right commitment, attitude, and sense of taste to make a great chef.
When I did one of the last Top Chef episodes, there was a thirty-minute challenge to replicate the artichoke bottom dish I had made. One of the guys won the challenge, and won immunity in the next day’s challenge. The next day’s challenge involved steamed fish, and he totally screwed up his fish. However, he knew he couldn’t be touched so didn’t care that he let his team down. I asked him in front of the camera (I haven’t seen the show, so I don’t know if they showed it), “Team work is team work. You work in a kitchen, and can’t work by yourself. You screwed up your team here, and your team lost because of you. Don’t you see you should resign?” I really put him on the spot there, and he said, “No.” (laughs). So, that was it, and someone else got eliminated. The other judges were like “He can’t leave,” but they did kind of agree with me. This is what it is: team work.
How has the foodscape in Paris changed over the years?
I don’t know now because I haven’t been there in quite a while. I’ve been here for over fifty years (I came here in 1959), and at that point America had some good restaurants, but basically even in Boston where I started thirty-three years ago, it was a gastronomic desert. Now, it’s another world, and in New York as well.
Years ago, I would tell people, if you go to France, go to two or three star restaurants because the type of service, attention to detail, and quality at those restaurants doesn’t exist in America. Now I tell people if you go to France, don’t go to a three star restaurant because we have just as good of restaurants here in America. I tell them to go eat farm-type food or eat in the country where they don’t have what the city has.
Do you think in France there’s still more of a premium on technique than there is in America?
To a certain extent, yes, but you have to realize that in France, though there are a fair amount of Chinese, Oriental, Mexican, and other cultural restaurants, 99.9% of French people eat French food. There are 24,000 restaurants here in New York alone. People can (and do) eat whatever type of food they want. There is not a strong enough indigenous cooking here in America to prevent culinary influences from different countries on the cuisine. It would be much more difficult for a different cuisine to go to France. Some do well, but it’s much harder than here. The best French chefs outside of France come here to America, as do most other top foreign chefs of different cuisines.