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Jacques Pepin: An American From Paris

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 13, 2011

A few weeks after he arrived in New York, Jacques Pepin was invited to the home of a new American friend. He was offered a sandwich — which he declined, not wanting to spoil his lunch.

“I didn’t realize that was lunch,” he says.

We know Jacques Pepin — or as I can’t help calling him, The Great Monsieur Pepin — as a master culinary technician, the cookbook author and public television personality who taught millions of American home cooks and scores of professional chefs how to sharpen a knife, break an egg and, just for fun, remove the bones from a whole chicken (a trick he performs in less than a minute).

But there’s another story, one that almost never gets told. It’s about coming to America with a centime in his pocket. (OK, maybe it wasn’t a centime). It’s about working harder than he ever worked, struggling to learn English in the few hours a day that he wasn’t sweating over a stove. It’s about turning down glitzy opportunities — like being President Kennedy’s White House chef — to discover the “real” America, a truth he sought as a line cook for Howard Johnson’s. It’s about meeting adversity head on, transforming himself from chef to teacher when a nearly fatal car accident left him unable to stand at a stove for hours on end. And like so many immigrants before him, it’s about becoming an American.

Pepin never intended to stay in the U.S. He’d worked for the president of France. He’d cooked in the best restaurants in Paris. But when he arrived in New York in 1959, he fell in love with America and its open-mindedness about food, culture and social class.

“Most people who came here came for economic reasons or sometimes for religious or political reasons,” he says. “I didn’t have any of this. I came here, I liked it, I stayed. So I’m a pure American — even more than people who are born here — because I did it by choice as an adult.”

Though the charming accent has never left him, it’s impossible these days to think of Pepin as “French.” Yes, he hosts a petanque party every summer on the court in his backyard. And yes, his dog is a well-coiffed miniature poodle (named Paco). But Pepin is a man who calls his recipes “the diary of my life.” And if you read that diary, collected in his new book The Essential Pepin, you find his journey from young Frenchman to seasoned American.

Recipes such as eggs Jeannette speak to his childhood in wartime France, when his mother pedaled her bike from farm to farm scavenging eggs, milk and scraps and somehow making them taste like actual food. Her simple apple tart, with its pliable crust and ruggedly sliced fruit, captures the French country cooking Pepin learned later in her family-run bistros. His recipes for a crystal clear consomme, for the fried potatoes Savonnettes — shaped like little oval soaps — reflect his classical training in Paris restaurants like Plaza Athenee. His cream-and-cognac-laced chicken — the specialty of New York’s legendary Le Pavillon — remind us that he helped introduce Americans to haute cuisine.

These early recipes are rigid and unyielding, often demanding multiple steps to achieve a single effect. They represent the way Pepin cooked when he was young — chronologically and spiritually — and yet the book doesn’t cast them into a bin labeled “early life.” Rather, they are jumbled among recipes that reflect the excitement his palate must have felt on discovering ingredients such as cilantro and Tabasco sauce, both elements of dishes that suggest his transition to more expanded notions of cuisine. Cilantro, introduced to him by his wife Gloria, who is of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent, mingles with herbs de Provence in a black bean and banana soup. Tabasco zips up a traditionally French stew of lamb and white beans.

Pepin also tries his hand at dishes inspired by other immigrants — think gazpacho and pita pizzas — and at American regional cuisine, like seafood gumbo and a grits-and-cheese souffle.

Today, Pepin calls himself “an American cook,” and it surely sticks. His grilled chicken with tarragon butter captures the essence of bearnaise without the fuss. His salmon fillet with basil sauce is a flavorful, brightly colored dish composed of little more than fish, basil and barely warmed tomatoes. In these and other dishes like them — pork chops with mustard and capers — Pepin combines what he brought here with what he learned here, completing his passage to a cuisine that is bold, informal, fresh and of his own creation. It is American.

“Five years after I was here, my mother would say, ‘This is really good, but it’s not French,’” he says. “The changes are very pernicious, very subtle, very insidious. … There will always be a French twist to what I do. But I don’t know where it is in the technique and in the food itself.”

As America changed Pepin, Pepin changed America. If Le Pavillon introduced Americans to fine dining, Pepin and his culinary Rat Pack — James Beard, Craig Claiborne, fellow Frenchman Pierre Franey — encouraged them to move beyond their culinary boundaries, to open their minds and mouths to the new flavors and ideas that characterize American food today. And not just the haute stuff. Pepin’s influence also extends to today’s chain restaurants, his early experiments in frozen food at HoJo’s paving the way for today’s mass-produced restaurant food.

But perhaps Pepin’s greatest influence, the one we know him best for, came from public television, where both alone and as Ricky to Julia Child’s warbling Lucy, he taught us how to cook. How to eat. And that food is home. No matter where home is.

“You can’t escape the taste of the food you had as a child,” he says. “In times of stress, what do you dream about? Your mother’s clam chowder. It’s security, comfort. It brings you home.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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