How to Cook Like Legendary Chef Jacques Pépin
At 81, the celebrity chef has just published his 32nd cookbook, as well as another book of hand-painted dinner-party menus.
I love that your latest cookbook, A Grandfather’s Lessons, was inspired by your 13-year-old granddaughter, Shorey. “We were not even supposed to do a book! Shorey and I started working together on [2015 TV series] Heart & Soul. It was a lot of fun to work together, so we decided to do a series of videos, and my daughter said, ‘You have to do a book!’ Thirty-six of the 75 recipes we taped in a video. We even did videos on table manners, how to fold napkins. The book covers everything from arctic char with fresh tomato to a hot dog cut so that it curls up when you cook it.”
How long have you been cooking with Shorey? “I started when she was a year and a half old. I put a spoon in her hand when I was holding her and helped her stir the pot. Since she was 4 or 5 years old, when she came to the house, she’d get involved. When she was small, she’d help hand me ingredients or stir the soup or wash vegetables. It’s also a question for someone at my age, over 80 years old: How do you communicate with a teenager? I’m much faster in the kitchen than her, but she’s much faster with her iPhone and her computer than I am. When we cook together, we spend time together around the table, talking. It’s a learning experience, too: There’s lots of science, math, geography in cooking.”
Did you enjoy making the shorter videos for A Grandfather’s Lessons? “We did [the filming] in my back house here in Connecticut, and we did it in the summer when Shorey was out of school. It was a less lavish production than we do usually on PBS. We worked with Tom Hopkins, the photographer who shot the photos for the book, who’s worked with me for 35 years. He was the producer as well. It was a lot of fun.”
As the co-founder of Boston University’s gastronomy program and a longtime dean at the International Culinary Center in New York, you’ve literally made a career out of teaching people to cook; was teaching your own granddaughter different? “When I’m giving a class for professionals, it’s different than when I give a class for home cooks. You try to massage the lessons a little bit for the person you’re teaching. With my granddaughter, it’s rewarding, because she’s my granddaughter! The memories of the kitchen—of your mother, your father, the smells, the tastes—they stay with you for the rest of your life.”
What are your favorite tips for teaching kids to cook (and eat)? “I think that there is not really one way of doing it. Certainly getting them exposed to cooking is important. People come to my house and they know we’re going to have some nice food, but they feed their kids something else beforehand: I don’t think that’s a good idea. What’s on the table is what’s on the table in our house, and we don’t discuss it. We never bought baby food; we took some of the food we ate and put it in the food processor. By the time my daughter was 8 or 9 years old and eating spaghetti and clam sauce, she already recognized the taste from even earlier.”
You also have another book out this month called My Menus featuring illustrated menus like the ones you create for your own dinner parties. Why are handwritten menus so important? “I’ve been married 51 years, and I have 12 large books of menus. I can see what we ate 50 years ago, and I can also see my mother, my two brothers who are gone, and those are great memories. I can see what my daughter had for dinner for her 15th birthday! In the book, you can fill in the menus with what you served, and your guests can sign the opposite page. It’s a great way of remembering.”
You’ve been an artist for almost as long as you’ve been a chef, with an online gallery of your paintings for sale. How did you get started painting? “I first came to America in 1959, and I think the next summer we rented a house with a friend in Woodstock, New York. I liked working with my hands, and we’d refinish and redo old furniture we’d find on the street. In Woodstock, there were a lot of artists—people painting and so forth—and we started painting. And then when I went to Columbia University [in the early 1960s], I took a class in drawing and sculpture, so I’ve been doing art a long time. I actually just finished a new painting half an hour ago!”
Your first cookbook came out in 1975; what’s changed the most in the food world since then, and what’s changed the least? “Good food is still good food. That will never change. But the diversity has changed a lot. When I came to America, there was only one lettuce in the supermarket, and it was iceberg. There were no shallots, no kale. The supermarket is better today than it’s ever been. I read somewhere that there are more than 5,000 farmers’ markets in America today. People say nobody cooks now, but all the food from those farmers’ markets has to be going somewhere. Back in the ’70s, all the best ‘continental’ restaurants in the U.S. were French. You couldn’t even get good Italian food in New York! Now, there are 24,000 restaurants in New York with food from all over the world.”
What does your home kitchen look like? “I have a very, very large counter—6 by 9 feet. I have two dishwashers. Functionality is the word for me. In professional kitchens in Paris, you’d think the chef is blind—he can grab things, open the oven, all without looking. It’s like a dance. A kitchen setup like that can really make things easy. Good equipment, easily accessible, is really important. I have a wall made of barn wood with probably 80 different pots and pans hanging from it. It looks nice, and it’s also useful.”
What do you cook when you’re cooking for fun? “I always cook for fun, frankly! We’ve had so much zucchini in the garden that lately I’ve been making zucchini bread, zucchini soup. That’s really how I cook. It’s determined by the market and the garden. What’s in season and what we’re in the mood for. Our taste has also changed; I don’t cook the same things now that I did 50 years ago.”
Do you watch any food TV shows today? “Not really. I do occasionally watch Rick Bayless or somebody on PBS. I watch Anthony Bourdain on CNN because he’s a good friend, but honestly, I don’t watch too much food TV. So many of them are reality shows with a lot of yelling that I don’t like so much anyway.”
In the late 1950s, before you ever came to America, you served as personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle; what was that like? “It was another world. It was another world of cooking; how many people there were in the kitchen. At a state dinner, you have to deal with protocols, how long the dinner is supposed to be, and all kinds of other little rules. It’s also different when you just cook for the president. Every Sunday after church, I would make a meal for the president and his whole family—children, grandchildren, everybody.”
If you could cook dinner with anybody, living or dead, who would it be, and what would you cook? “It would always be with family. For me, I would bring back my father or my mother and cook with them again. I know what they like and what they will be pleased with. I did enjoy cooking with Michelle Obama one time out of the organic garden at the White House, but I would probably go back to people I love who were close to me.”
Interview has been condensed and edited.