Something très magnifique happened at Sur La Table HQ recently — legendary chef Jacques Pépin dropped by to make some food, sign copies of his new book, sip a glass (or two) of wine and let us celebrate his upcoming birthday with him. He also took time to answer questions we’d gathered from our employees across the country. (And don’t miss the video of Jacques preparing Chicken Galantine at the very end of this interview.)
Chef Pépin, when did you know you wanted to be a chef?
When I was a kid, I left home at 13 years old for a restaurant. From the age of 5 or 6, I was in the kitchen with my mother. And you know, at that time, there was no television, there was no computer, there was none of that. We had kind of blinders. My father was a cabinet maker, my mother did that, and so it was an easy choice.
What was one of your earliest food memories?
I have a book called The Apprentice which is actually coming back into print in a month or so, and I mention in that book that when I was six years old during the war in France we didn’t have that much to eat, so my mother took me to a farm for the summer. She took my brother to another farm; she knew at least we would get fed there. And so I was pretty sad, but my mother would come and bicycle with me because at that time there was no car. And the farmer and his wife would come and get me and they would take me into the barn, and I’d never been that close to a cow before. And the farmer’s wife took my hand and put it on the teats of the cow and let me milk the cow, and that was the first time I had a big glass of that lukewarm, foamy milk. That will probably stay with me forever!
Julia Child once admitted that she loved McDonald’s French fries. Do you have a guilty food that you just love to eat?
Me, I’m a glutton. If it’s there, I will eat it! I was recently on Rachel Ray’s show, and they presented me with an Oreo cookie cake because they know I just love Oreo cookies. And I love Jell-O. There was a big table of Jell-O!
Is there a particular memory you have of cooking with Julia Child, either on camera or off?
There’s probably two thousand of those, so it’s an impossible question. I mean, I knew her for 45 years, and I cooked at her house many, many times. When I was teaching at BU she came to my house many times and we would cook together. We drank a lot of wine together, we argued a lot together. There are just many, many moments.
What is the most consistently crowd-pleasing dish that every home cook should be making?
You can’t go wrong with chicken. But, you know, food is very visceral. You cook, you eat it, and it’s gone, but what’s left is memory, and those memories are very, very powerful. For a child, you know, there is no place better than after school to come into the kitchen and to hear the noises and smell the smells of the kitchen, the voice of your mother, the voice of your father—those things will stay with you the rest of your life. In the affective memory of Proust, food becomes very important.
So those dishes are all ones that mean something to me to a certain extent. I’ve been married 50 years to a woman born in New York City to a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father, and she loves Japanese food and Chinese food. But then there are some of those dishes that my mother made, like Chicken Jardinière or Poulet à la Crème, those have special connotations for me.
Has there ever been a dish that you couldn’t quite master or something that you still struggle with now in the kitchen?
No, I’m perfect. [Hearty laughter.] No, you know, there’s always a certain amount of suspense when you do certain dishes. I mean, I’m doing a dinner in a few weeks at BU for 25 people and they are paying $1,500 a head. And we’re doing Lobster Soufflé Plaza Athénée and foie gras, too. So there is a certain amount of tension there. But cooking is, to a certain extent, the art of recovery or compensation or adjustment. You kind of work it out. But at the risk of sounding presumptuous, after 60 years in the kitchen, I cannot really do something totally un-eatable, but sometimes it’s much better than some other times.
What is the best cooking advice you’ve ever been given?
Consistency is very, very important in the kitchen and creativity in the kitchen is relatively an art. You know, 30 years ago, any good mother would have wanted her child to have married a doctor or a lawyer, not a cook. Now we are geniuses, and I wonder what happened? There is a little bit of art in the kitchen at the time of creation, but then, after that, you have to do that dish in that restaurant for years, and you have to be consistent, consistent, consistent. It’s purely craftsmanship and being a good technician.
What’s one of your favorite ingredients to work with?
Probably eggs. I love eggs in any dish, in any form. I’m lucky to have a lady living next door who has chickens running around, so I have good-quality eggs to cook with. But maybe I’d like the chicken to go with the eggs too!
Do you remember the first time you ever shopped in one of our stores?
Oh yes, with Shirley Collins here in Seattle. I remember buying some books and some equipment there. I think that I bought some vegetable peelers that were new at the time. But see, I don’t spend much money on the kitchen anymore.
What’s one of the most difficult lessons you’ve had to learn in your career?
Again, to be consistent. To get up every day and to transcend the level of subjectivity in food. To be a good chef is to get up on Monday morning, after the weekend, when you have a hangover and you’ve had an argument with your wife, but the food still has to be perfectly done each time. Consistency is something that’s very difficult to achieve.
What are the top five cooking techniques that you think every cook should master?
Sharpening a knife. Peeling vegetables properly. Shopping properly, too, from everything to mushrooms to a clove of garlic. And maybe boning a rack of lamb or a chicken. There are so many others, of course, like making an omelet.
What’s your favorite piece of kitchen equipment? The thing that you use the most?
Well, the thing that I use the most in the kitchen is my fingers, that’s for sure. But a good knife is an extension of my fingers, also a good vegetable peeler. And I can’t live without a rubber spatula. And, you know, a good bowl on the table, and a table that doesn’t bounce back when you bang on it, good pots, good pans. All of these things are very basic, but you put yourself in a difficult position if you don’t have those basic things to start with.
What would your perfect day of eating look like?
Caviar and a hot dog. But with those I would have eggs, certainly, and ham and squab and pastrami and you name it. I mean, if I had to have a last meal, it would be all of these things and it would be a very, very, very, very long meal. With lots of wine.
What was the inspiration behind your new cookbook?
Well, I have done, I think, 25 or 26 cookbooks. And very often, I have done books that focused on a very specific area of food. But this one didn’t work out that way. In this one, we just did the dishes that we like to eat at home. I did a chapter on organ meats, something I haven’t done that much on before. But now tripe, pig’s feet, all that type of thing, people love it again, and this is what we eat at home.
Beyond cooking, you’ve always had a strong interest in education, literature and language. Why is that?
I feel that education is important. I mean, from the year I came to America in 1959, I went to Columbia University until 1972 regularly while I was working, because I had left school when I was 13. I never even went to high school. I don’t think that I would have taken my trade or would be where I am without the education that I had. I was doing a PhD at Columbia in 1972, a history of food in the context of civilization and literature and, at the time, they said “Are you crazy?” The thing was refused. But then four years ago, I gave the commencement address at Columbia and that was very big for me. The president of the university introduced me and said that now they would readily accept that type of thesis. So the world of food has changed a great deal. But education is very important, as I told the students. To quote Gilbert Chesterton, “To be without an education means you are in the deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”
Did you ever have an “ah-ha!” moment when you realized that you had talent as a cook?
No. I was an apprentice and, at that time, as an apprentice you learned through osmosis. You would work and the chef would say, “Do that.” And I would never have even dared to ask why. If I had said “Why,” he would have said, “Because I just told you.” That would have been the end of the explanation. And then you worked like that for a year, and you accrued speed as you work and work, doing a lot of cleaning, a lot of chopping. And then one day he’d say “You!” — you know, up to that point, my name was “you” — and then he called me Jacques. And he said, “Jacques, tomorrow you start at the stove.” Wow. I was 14 and I was going to start at the stove? I thought, “But I don’t know how to do anything.” But then I went to the stove and I knew how to do it. So it was that kind of learning, osmosis learning. But the idea, at that time in the kitchen, was to conform. You would go somewhere and you would learn how to do something according to the way it was done there. When I worked at the Plaza Athénée in Paris, we did the lobster soufflé. We were 48 chefs, and probably those 48 chefs could have done that lobster soufflé and you wouldn’t know which one had done it. That was the idea—to conform. But now it’s the opposite. It’s a totally different way of learning.
But maybe when I worked for the president. You know, actually, I was introduced a few weeks ago and the lady said, “That man worked for three presidents. And the three of them are dead!”
Is there any food or a dish that you’ve tried and thought, “Okay, I don’t ever want to have that again”?
Root beer. When I first came here, I was with my friend Jean-Claude. I came here in 1959 and he came in 1960. I was 23 or 24 years old. We were the same age and had worked together in France for the president. I had started working for Howard Johnson at that point. I was used to walking a lot in Paris and in New York. So we went to Howard Johnson’s in Queens. It was on Queens Boulevard, far out, and he came out there to see me. I said let’s walk back to Manhattan, it’s not that far. Well, it was far, taking the Queensboro Bridge or whatever. So after a while we were very thirsty, but we barely spoke English. So I saw somewhere “root beer” and we thought “beer! It’s beer.” [Makes a gagging sound.] I never recovered from that one.
What’s your favorite city to visit purely for the food?
That’s an impossible question, but probably New York. There’s 24,000 restaurants in New York and the ethnicity that you can have there is just amazing, you know? That being said, the best meal to eat is usually at home.
What do you like to cook with your granddaughter?
She’s terrific! I have a great time cooking with her. Hopefully I’m going to do a small book showing her lessons from her grandfather, like folding a napkin, setting up the table properly. When I tell that to my wife, she says “And loading up the dishwasher!” Just simple stuff to show her how to cook. We go foraging together, picking up dandelion and mushroom and stuff like that together. I have a good time with her.
What would you like your legacy to be?
You mean, like on my tomb? If someone were to write “He made me smile” or “He made me happy,” it would be very nice.