Jacques Pépin is a legendary chef well-known for his television shows, cookbooks, and iconic celebrity status. However, he'll tell that when he began is life of cooking at the young age of 13 in the kitchens of France, chefs were on the bottom rung of the social ladder. He learned countless lessons by fire - literally - and over the years he ended up working in some of the most unique kitchens in the world. Through cookbooks and television program, Jacques opened new doors for home cooks as he taught many of us new ways of looking at recipes and cooking techniques.
Jacques recently invited Francis Lam into his home-studio kitchen, where they talked at length about the different stages of Jacques's culinary career, from the highest caliber of French haute cuisine to flipping burgers at Howard Johnson's in the United States. They also discussed the changes in the world of food, food media, and the cult of personality that has been built up around chefs in the modern era.
Follwing their conversation, Francis and Jacques went into the kitchen to make one of Jacques's signature dishes, instant-cured gravlax. Follow this link to see the recipe and listen to their cooking segment. Also visit The Splendid Table Jacques Pépin Collection for more recipes and interviews with Jacques from over the years.
Francis Lam: Chef, thank you so much for having us in your home today. This is an extraordinary honor. I'm so excited to be here.
Jaques Pépin: Thank you for coming.
FL: We're sitting in your kitchen and I have to admit I'm sort of peeking around to see what Jacques Pépin cooks with. There’s a beautiful stove, and that reminds me of a remarkable moment when I read your memoir, of when you were first cooking in restaurants when you were thirteen or fourteen years old as an apprentice. You wrote a lot about the stove and how your role at the time was to mind the stove, and what that meant was to actually fire the stoves. The stoves were not powered by gas. You had to set fire to wood and how you did that fundamentally affected how that night was going to go in the restaurant. What is it like learning to cook on that kind of stove where you can't control the heat by just turning a knob?
JP: The point is we didn't have a choice; that’s where you started. It's a totally lost art, and it was a big part of the training, you know? And we had a stove – in apprenticeship – that was probably about fifteen foot long by about eight foot wide, a big rectangle with six holes. We started in the morning with a bit of paper and some wood and then coal. By the time it's 10:30 in the morning, then you start filling up the other stations so that everyone had a place to cook. You really push your stove full so that the side of the oven ought to be red when we start at 12:30 p.m. It was at five hundred degrees. There was no thermostat or anything at that time. On one side I'm cooking a fish and the other guy on the other side is making a soufflé. So, you really have to work with the food.
If you did not get that thing right, with the stove all ready at the time when the service would start and people were sitting down, that would screw up the whole dining room. That would push back the timing and the chef would be crazy. So, the stove was a big, big deal, you understand. When I worked at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, we had five stoves like this in the kitchen - still using coal in the 1950s.
FL: Do you think you were a better cook when you had to use that sort of technology to cook on?
JP: No. Now you have to do the same thing, but it's easier with all of the adjustment. But eventually to get to the same place, to get to the place to where my chef can go by the oven and say that the chicken is cooked. By hearing it. You see, that chicken, by the time it finished cooking in the oven, the fat clarified in the cooking liquid and it sings. It starts frying a little bit so the chef would say the chicken sings when it's cooked. Just by hearing it. That sort of thing happens with you repeat, repeat, repeat. It is small increments of tasting, adjusting, tasting, adjusting, tasting, adjusting. That can take years; in fact, it never stops.
Getting back to the stove, at the beginning when I was an apprentice it took me one year to go to the stove. For a year you clean, you scale fish, you kill and pluck chicken. Getting to the stove and learning, certainly at that age, it's not that the chef never explained to you, he said to do that and you would never had said, “Why?” If you had he would have said, “Because I just told you” and that would have been the end of it.
After doing things and helping at the stove, one day the chef says, “Tomorrow you start at the stove.” I said, “Me? At the stove?” So again, that's learning. In our time of instant gratification, people go to school for two months and, that's it, they're a chef and they want to do that, which wasn't the case at the time. You continue learning a certain way to get to the same point that you will get probably faster now by having all of that help with the equipment. You can tell it’s cooked by listening and seeing it. You get to the same point, it just takes longer.
FL: It takes longer, but your insistence on the importance of repetition is interesting because I think what you're saying is that it's not just repetition, it's also being open to what you're learning every time you repeat it. Being open to seeing or hearing the thing that you didn't see and hear before.
JP: Maybe the hardest part of being a chef is to be consistent, so that when you go to that restaurant, each time that you have that dish it's exactly the same. In order for it to be the same it actually has to be different. There is no way you can have a chicken exactly the same amount of fat or the same amount of anything. So, when you work at the stove, the irony is that in order for the dish to be the same each time; you have to make it differently each time. If you do it exactly the same each time it won't taste exactly the same.
FL: Let's go back to when you were young as an apprentice. Do you remember the first dish you cooked for guests at a restaurant?
JP: Well, I helped cook many dishes, but then I was allowed to go to the stove. The apprentice cooked upstairs. By then I was thirteen, which is basically seventy years ago, it was 1949. Another apprentice came after me and then a third. So, I was not the oldest in age but the oldest “apprentice” after a year and a half. We slept upstairs. One night, I remember, the waitress came to knock at my door. People came into the restaurant at ten o'clock at night. The chef had left already, and they wanted to eat. So, I was put in charge of that dinner. This was in Bouchon Bresse. We made the chicken of Bresse, which is the most famous chicken in France. Basically, most people who came in ordered chicken in one way or another. One of the famous ones was sautéed in cream and tarragon, and this is what I did that night. I was really excited to be doing this. And then after, the waitress said the customer wanted to see the chef. [laughing] They took me to the dining room, I was fourteen years old, they just looked at me – that was pretty weird.
FL: [laughing] Who's this kid? Is this the chef's kid?
JP: But from age six or seven my mother ran a restaurant, so I was cooking. It was during the war and I was very miserly in the kitchen, probably because during the war we didn't have that much to eat. Part of the tradition, as well, you never throw anything out. So, reuse became very important in my cooking.
FL: I’d like to jump ahead now. You were a cook at the Plaza Athénée, which at the time – and still is – one of the great restaurants of the world. From there you were cooking very classical French haute cuisine. Very Escoffier.
JP: I worked in probably 100 restaurants in Paris. Because going to La Societe de Cuisine in Paris – Society of the Chef of Paris, of which I was a member, and I don't even know why we don't have that type of thing in the U.S. – you can call in the morning and say I need a chef today and you get work for that day. You go there to work and it may be one day, two days, three days, because people call every day. So, on my day off usually I worked in another restaurant. I worked in probably, I'd say, close to a hundred restaurants in Paris from the Gallery Lafayette, kind of big production, to the soupe populaire, which was free food for poor people. It was a great experience.
FL: Let's talk about cooking for the president of France. And not just the president. You cooked for Charles De Gaulle at one point. Prior to that you cooked for one other heads of state.
JP: Yeah, two other heads of state. Under the Fourth Republic, the government was changing at a rapid pace and the president was actually the prime minister. The president of France didn't really have any power – like the Queen of England, if you want. So, it was the prime minister, or the president of the consulate of minister, who had the power and that's where I was there. And it happened that I was drafted in the Navy in France. At the time you were drafted; it was mandatory service with the war in Algeria. I did my boot camp and was to be sent to Algeria. At the last moment they sent me to Paris because my brother – who had a 16 months difference – was also drafted and serving in Algeria. So, they did not send two draftees at the same time. That's why they sent me back to Paris.
FL: It was a policy in the French military?
JP: Right. Not if you were enlisted, but if you were drafted because they had a story that there were like three or four brothers in the same family killed at the same time. They say the drafted would wait until the other one came back to go. So, I was sent back to Paris. I ended up at the admiralty cooking for the brass, doing big dinners. And a friend of mine I met was from Lyon as I was, and he was a chef to the Secretary of Treasury. He said, “I have special dinner to do. I have never been trained classically. Can you give me a hand?” I said, “Absolutely!” So, he arranged it and I ended up cooking there.
The government changed again, and he became the Prime Minister. He took me directly there and I stay with him six months before he was changed again. Then after the other one stayed a month and a half. And on May 12, 1958, de Gualle came to power; I stayed with them until basically I was released at the end of 1958 and I came here in 1959.
FL: When you're cooking for the French head of state and you're entertaining other heads of state - or you're just cooking for the French elite - obviously there was no official aristocracy but there was sort of the cultural aristocracy alive in the blood and veins of these people. You had to cook a cuisine that showed French cuisine to the utmost, tell me about the food you were cooking.
JP: Well, it started with Aicardi, who was the Directeur de Cabinet; he was a real gourmet or maybe I should say glutton.
FL: [laughing] I’ve always wanted to know the difference between the two.
JP: In any case, he'd say, “Chef, could you bring me a cookbook?” I'd say, “I don't have a cookbook.” I didn't have a cookbook at the time. He'd say, “Okay, get one.” So, I remember I bought a big book, Cuisine et Vins de France by Curnonsky; it was very classic 19th cetury cooking with those dishes that whole truffle went around, and everything went onto a platter of course, nothing on a plate at that time. He would take that book, open it, and say I want this or I want that.
FL: That was his menu?
JP: That was his menu. I remember doing for him les oeufs du périgord, the périgord eggs which were in a bowl of foie gras. I would take a fresh foie gras, cut it to make a bowl, cut it open, and put a dice of truffle in the center to imitate the pit of a fruit. Then you add shaved truffle to that bowl of foie, and roll them in there – they were black – and glaze them with aspic. We did a basket with potato – a long strip of potato – and put it on a slab of potato.
FL: The whole basket was made of potato?
JP: Yeah. A slab of potato. Then I put spaghetti, and then a strip of potato all around to make a basket, and then you fry that to do that. Eggs and a block of truffle. Which he would have two or three of those with his food – all while standing up because he had the gout. [laughs]
FL: I wonder why?
JP: It was a type of classic food that you would not be able to do even at the point in that time because we had all truffle or stuff around, you wouldn't be able to set in a restaurant; it would cost a fortune!
But when I served Eisenhower, Nehru, Tito, Macmillan – those were the heads of state at the time – usually those dinners were organized by the protocol. So, they will talk to you and say the dinner has to be this long with two or three meats, or it has to be short and done in an hour and a quarter. And then in addition, when Eisenhower came the French president ate already at the American embassy. And they had a dinner of salmon one day, they already had this and that, and so they give you all of that information so that you can create a menu. And, of course, you're not going to give ham to the Prime Minister of Israel – there are dietary considerations.
But the cook was really at the bottom of the social scale. At that time, you were in the kitchen; no one would ever call you to the dining room – that did not exist. We would try to open the door to see the famous people, but that was about it. Which was different from Madame De Gaulle, for example, when I did the dinner for them. On Monday, we would eat the dinner together. There was a different head of state or whatever doing the week – fine, there’d be a small dinner. But on Sunday, they were very devout Catholic so they went to church. After church, we had the dominical meal with the children, grandchildren, eight, ten, twelve people. Usually something simple: a leg of lamb, roasted, not too rare because it’s not good for the blood of the president.
But for that particular Sunday meal, I had to do special accounting that they would pay from their own pocket because it was a question of ethics I suppose with De Gaulle. I admired this because basically it was a drop of water in what we spent during the week, but that was the way it was.
I remember when the foreign minister went to Russia and he came back with three cans with about two kilo of fresh beluga. Or there was the presidential hunting ground in the forest. When guests would go hunting, I would end up with 15 or 20 pheasant or whatever they brought back for me. I would do pâté or other type of things with it.
FL: Three two-kilo tins of beluga caviar?
JP: Beluga, yes. It's an endangered species. We have the Ossetra, the most expensive. This past spring, the best of the Ossetra was 13,000 dollars a kilo.
FL: That's a very nice lunch!
JP: Even at that time the beluga was already very expensive. Or we’d have oysters for dinner and serve the highest quality of fresh cheeses.
FL: So, fast forward again. You go from a life where you are making eggs out of foie gras and truffles to a world where you are cooking for Howard Johnson's in the United States. Certainly, you could have continued that path of cuisine forever.
JP: When I came here I worked at Le Pavillon, which was really the best-known French restaurant in America. We had trouble with the owner and executive chef. We all left in the spring of 1960. Actually, at the time Kennedy was running for president and I was offered a job at the White House. But at the same time, one of the clients of Le Pavillon was Howard D. Johnson.
FL: The actual person: Howard Johnson.
JP: Oh yes. He has a picture in my book, The Apprentice. He came to my wedding with his wife. He had asked Pierre Franey [executive chef of Le Pavillon] to work with him and Pierre wanted me to come with and into another world all together – another world that I didn't know anything about. That is to work in production and with the chemistry of food.
FL: Mass marketing.
JP: Yes. The mass market, American eating habits, all kinds of different things that I had no knowledge of, but I learned. I stayed there for ten years, from 1960-1970.
FL: What excited you about that? Especially at the time when you could have continued the cuisine route. What about this made you want to learn here?
JP: As I said, it was things I didn't know about like different eating habits in this country, from the clam chowder to the clam strip to whatever we did there. It was another type of food. And also, I remember when I came to America all the chefs that I knew in New York – Italian, French, German, a lot of Swiss too – they were all white guys. I didn't know one black American chef until I worked at Howard Johnson's. Mr. Johnson said, “If Jacques wants to work for us, he's got to work in one of the restaurants.” I worked at a big Howard Johnson’s in Rego Park on Queens Boulevard. Behind the stove everyone was black, all the black kids working there. It was my first experience with an American chef. They've probably never heard probably of de Gualle and they definitely didn't know Le Pavillon. It didn't make any difference. Like in any kitchen you have to do your part. So, I end up flipping burgers; in a few weeks I was faster than anyone else. That was my first experience with the American chef and American cuisine.
Then I was transferred to the Commissary in Queens Village. It was another world of cooking altogether in terms of production, in terms of reading the food, visiting restaurants, and creating new recipes. I'd never created recipes before. That was the beginning for me. When I left Le Pavillon, I opened the restaurant on 5th Avenue in New York called La Potagerie, which was a soup place I opened with some investors; I did 200 gallons of soup a day. Then I opened the World Trade Center with Joe Baum. We could feed 30,000 people a day in the main commissary that I set up. Then I was consultant in the Russian Tea Room in the 1980s. I'm saying all of that to say I could never have done any of those without the training at Howard Johnson’s. That was important to me.
FL: Understanding how you make a lot of food at one time and make it well.
FL: You said it opened your eyes and excited you when you got to Howard Johnson’s to cook with black cooks and work with other people who worked in the American food world. You said a really interesting thing once – I believe it was in your book The Apprentice – that you'd been a dean at the culinary school for 30 years, and you feel that that is a failure possibly of the school, and probably of our larger society, that you're always asking yourself internally, “Why are we not having and graduating more black students to become chefs?”
JP: There are some. Again, it amounts to money most of the time. We did not pay in apprenticeships. Cooking school did not exist when I was a kid. You go the stove, you learn and we were not paid as an apprentice. For two years we worked 10-12 hours a day. So, that's one thing. When I talk to young people, I tell them it's just as good if you know a chef with a restaurant somewhere. If he wants to take you as an apprentice it is certainly as good, maybe even better than, going to a cooking school. It's different. And you will learn a great deal. He will have to pay you a little bit, maybe not much, but at least you don't have to pay.
But at the French Culinary Institute or at Boston University (B.U.), where I have a scholarship under my name, I remember the last time I was at B.U. I see a young black guy who has a scholarship under my name; he was able to do that. Now, I have a foundation, the Jacques Pépin Foundation, which my son-in-law is running and he teaches there as well. We show the technique I am known for. We give that to homeless people, to people coming out of jail, to veterans, to people who really need that. You know that it can change the life of someone. So, it's coming, it's coming more and more and it should be.
FL: There's an incredible, painful irony in the United States because for many years – almost centuries – almost anyone who did any professional was black; professional cooking was black. And now we have our food culture where people are brought up as celebrities, chefs are treated as celebrities, and there's glamour and glory in it.
JP: To tell you the truth I had no inkling, no idea, for the potential for publicity. When I had been with the President of France, I was never on the radio shows or the magazines – and television barely existed. The cook was at the bottom of the social scale, and any good mother would have her kid marry a lawyer, an accountant, or a doctor – certainly not a cook! Now we are genius. I don't know what happened.
The point is, a friend of mine, René Verdon, was a sous chef at the Essex House, in New York; he then became the chef at the White House. For the first time, he took a picture with President and Mrs. Kennedy inside the kitchen. It was the beginning of the chef starting to explode. But if you ask anyone who was the chef before him, I happen to know it was a black woman from the South; no one would have known her any more than they knew me at the time. The kitchen was foreign territory; no one came there. It's changing now.
FL: In terms of the culture changing, you just said you don't know how it happened but some of the chefs became geniuses; I dare say you had a lot to do with that.
JP: No, not really. There is no genius in the kitchen; we're still mashed-potato makers. That's what we are. We can't take it too seriously. [laughing]
FL: But, there's a certain genius in making truly wonderful mashed potatoes. What I mean by that is you were someone who brought so many of these techniques – and also the philosophy behind these techniques – to a bigger audience through your books, television shows, partnerships and collaborations, and friendships with people like Julia Child. It made that world accessible and exciting to American pop culture. As someone who lived and trained in the world before that, now In 2018, when you look around you, what do you think about the incredible focus that our culture places on cooking and chefs?
JP: It's just plain amazing. It started with womens' liberation and organic gardening in the early 1960s. I say, again, when Mrs. Kennedy took a picture with René Verdon it started people going to Europe; people wanted to visit and experience Europe. A lot of G.I. coming back to the U.S. wanted to go back on vacation to experience some of the places they had been before. All of that, the traveling and the interest in wine. But then wine started exploding in California. After the wine, the bread started, eventually now with the cheese. All of that didn't exist – all of those industries.
Cooking schools in the 1970s, all the cookware shops had a little cooking school in the back. When I kind of left the restaurant business – in 1974 I had a very bad car accident so I was immobilized for a while – I started doing classes in those cooking schools. I ended up traveling 30 to 35 weeks out of the year from one school to another. I would stay there and cook for a week. People were taking classes like crazy. I have to say, at the time, out of 30 people in the class, it was 29 women and there would be one guy. I do a class now and there may be 20 guys and 10 women. It has changed. Home cooking has also changed in the sense that the man has invaded the territory of the woman, which was the kitchen and all that. There has been that type of criss-crossing that started in the early 1960s.
Likewise, with the restaurants. 24,000 restaurants in New York; it blows your mind. And after 70 years in the kitchen, at a good restaurant sometimes I feel that I don't know anything about cooking anymore. You'll go from some Parisian cooking to some type of cooking from South Africa, and it's amazing. But what you can find in New York may be the most exciting place for food in the world now.
FL: I know when you were a student you were almost about to write your PhD dissertation about food and culture, and it was rejected because at the time they said food was not worth studying. I think we have demonstrated that food, society, culture are maybe the only things worth studying.
JP: Yeah, right. I have to say that Columbia gave me a doctorate last year.
FL: Finally. And you didn't have to write the dissertation! Chef, it's been amazing to get to talk to you. Thank you so much for having us.
JP: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.