Jacques Pépin, at 86, talks about his new book, ‘The Art of Chicken’


MADISON, Conn. — During the pandemic, Jacques Pépin’s knives did not dull. The French chef has concocted more than 250 cooking videos on Facebook, where he now has 1.6 million followers. Recently, he was finishing an 11-day cruise where he was sort of the entry-level, hosting demonstrations while an all-Pepin channel played in passenger cabins.

Always good-natured, although a bit more gritty, Pépin will be 87 in December. He is among the latest in the first wave of culinary legends who have become household names – Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey. For four decades it has been a constant in many American kitchens. Pépin democratizes the formal technique. He has educated legions of American professional and home chefs, not in a constellation of sky-high white-cloth restaurants, but through cookbooks, and hosting 13 separate public television series.

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Pepin may have made a name for himself as a Child’s TV cooking mate, but he’s evolved beyond Creamy Chicken. and Mom’s cheese soufflé, while celebrating the delicious side of both. He understands that a modern chef accepts change, even the microwave and Instagram.

Mention retirement and he looks mystified, perhaps annoyed, with a raised eyebrow: “Retreat from What? withdraw from doing what I like? Retirement from kitchen?

And he still posts. His latest: “Jacques Pépin Art of the Chicken: A Master Chef’s Paintings, Stories, and Recipes of the Humble Bird.” It is a more poultry book. This gallinaceous volume—perhaps his 32nd, who can keep count? – includes a gallery of his chicken paintings, anecdotes from his remarkable life, and recipes that are more history than instruction.

As its title suggests, “Art of the Chicken” celebrates his paintings, which he produced over five decades, and his lifelong love for chicken – the Bresse bird that is a delicacy from his native region near Lyons. “Proust had his madeleine. I have chickens,” he wrote. “As a chef, I am impressed by the humble bird’s contributions to the cuisine of the world. As an artist, I marvel at the iridescent colors and varied beauty of its plumage.

Like any real French chef worthy of the name salt, Pépin does not hesitate to adore and cook the same “gentle, friendly and docile” animal. His portrayal of “Stately Chicken” faces his recipe for Gizzards, Gizzards and More Gizzards. Pepin no longer keeps chickens on his property—too many trips, too many tenacious raccoons—but collects fresh eggs from a neighbour. What does he like eggs! He writes, “If you asked me to pick one ingredient that I couldn’t live without, it would probably be the egg.

Pépin originally created his paintings – mostly oils and acrylics – for himself and for menus. Although painting is a hobby, he does not hesitate to show his work – in his books, during an exhibition at the local library and on sale in part to benefit the Jacques Pépin Foundation, which supports the teaching cooking skills to diverse and marginalized students to help them find gainful employment. use. The painting “remains forever as a testament to your creativity,” writes Pépin, a member of an informal league of famous craftsmen that includes George W. Bush, King Charles III and Tony Bennett.

Paintings are all over his house, a former brickyard he once shared with Gloria, his wife of 54 years. She died in December 2020, and photos of her line the walls. There are frequent mentions of her in his last book – which is dedicated to Gloria – but not of her passing. How has he fared during the pandemic? “Not well,” Pépin said barely more than a whisper, his 8-year-old miniature poodle, Gaston, resting in his lap.

His longevity and ever-expanding catalog of books allowed him to update print courses, teach new cooks, and reach younger audiences. “Cuisine changes all the time,” he says over a glass of rosé. (With ice!) Glitch has changed too. “He gets new vegetables. He tries new things. He is always curious,” says his friend, photographer and videographer Tom Hopkins. “As you age, it embellishes less and simplifies more.” At lunch, Pépin feasts on a tomato from his garden, bathed in olive oil and blessed with coarse salt.

“I am very Cartesian. I like to break down a recipe and show how it’s done,” he says. “The paradox here is that I can make this recipe five times, and I’ll never make it exactly the same way but it will come out the same way. When you work in a restaurant, you don’t have a recipe You do it out of practice, out of instinct. It’s about adjusting the balance.

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His recipe for Chicken Bercy, offered without measures, is based on the instinct of the home cook. It reads in full: “This classic chicken preparation is made by cutting the chicken into pieces and sautéing them with shallots and butter until all the pieces are evenly browned and nicely browned. After that, it is deglazed with a dry white wine, a little demi-glace is added, and finally it is topped with sliced ​​mushrooms and small pork sausages and finished with a squeeze of lemon juice and a piece of butter.

When a chef writes a library of over 30 books, it’s understandable that recipes can be revised and stories told. Why not? Novelists bring characters to life all the time. Pepin’s latest book revisits tales shared in his 2003 memoir, “The Apprentice,” not to be confused with the TV show that helped launch a presidency. Pépin and his editor, Sarah Kwak, decide to abandon formal recipes for this book in favor of art and stories. “It feels more intimate. He tells you about it. That’s how he would tell you to do something when you eat with him,” she says.

As he chats with his readers about recipes for chicken kyiv, chicken liver mousse, casseroled eggs and other taste delights, Pépin shares the tale of his rise to culinary fame. He left school at the age of 13 to begin an arduous ascent through the ranks of professional French kitchens. It turned out to be a remarkable success. In 1959, he arrived in the United States. The project: stay about a year to learn English. He has lived here ever since.

“I’m very existentialist that way,” he says. “In life, you make a decision that you are responsible for, and it can send you into a whole different realm. That’s life. »

Pepin turned down an offer to become the White House chef creating state dinners for Jackie Kennedy. Instead, he chose to work at Howard Johnson, perfecting chicken pot pie for the masses. Again, Pepin had previously served as President Charles de Gaulle’s chef.

He does not regret a single fried clam. He worked at HoJo for a decade, rising to executive chef. The experience taught him about American industrial kitchens while exposing him to a more diverse workforce, which he champions through his foundation. This allowed him to study at Columbia University at night. Eventually, he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in French literature.

In 1974, he hit a deer with his car. The accident nearly killed him and ended full-time cooking in professional kitchens; endless hours on your feet were no longer an option. The gastronomical existentialist has adapted. He became a restaurant consultant. He is the author of cookbooks. He discovers television. Television discovered it. The audience was stunned. He won an Emmy (resting on the mantelpiece) and 16 James Beard Awards, many for his television work. Does he still eat game? But of course.

A great irony of Pépin’s culinary odyssey is that while his television partner and occasional comic child has become synonymous with French cuisine in this country, the immigrant from Bourg-en-Bresse quickly embraced the generosity of his new house and its range of international cuisine. His recipes came to tout supermarket staples. In the fridge, he keeps the caviar next to the beer.

The caviar, he points out, is not beluga but a much more affordable egg batter mix, marketed with his endorsement. Raised in modest circumstances during the Second World War, the son of a cabinetmaker and a mother who was a cook, Pépin admits to having “an iron fist” and throw in some, freezing the vegetable tops and chicken bones in milk cartons to use later as broth.

“A recipe is a moment in time,” he says, constantly changing in its execution and evanescent. A meal brings pleasure and then — poof! – here we go, a memory. “I would so love to be able to taste the food I cooked when I was 25 and cooked for de Gaulle,” he sometimes confides to his daughter, Claudine.

He eats almost anything, as long as there is too much heat, cinnamon, nutmeg or coconut. “I’m more of a glutton,” he says. He’s not one to complain in restaurants—imagine the desperation that would cause—but Pépin isn’t a fan of “cuisine de la punctuation,” the new cuisine unleashed with the calligraphy of squeeze bottles. “They touch the food too much. You don’t want to torture him.

He relaxed his cooking, but not his entertainment style. Pépin is a member of a lively boules club that plays weekends from June to September and has around 40 players. He maintains a yard on his property, located between his two full kitchens. The games and festivities last from 1 p.m. until late in the evening. When he gives, it’s a seated dinner, prepared by three people: Pépin, his daughter and his son-in-law.

“It’s something very precise and organized. We have hot and cold appetizers here,” says Claudine. “We must have a starter, served on a separate plate. Perhaps there is a cheese dish, a salad or a dessert. We have stemware and cloth napkins. That’s up to 200 plates. Cleaning extends into the wee hours.

When she dared to suggest they use paper napkins, she recalls, “I got the look,” although she managed to replace the bamboo plates with china. Pépin, who hates waste, plans groceries and menus so well that, says Claudine, “we never have leftovers. Already.”

This season, he is promoting “Jacques Pépin Art of the Chicken” on television, at conferences and at book fairs. ” I am very old. I’m going to be 97 in 10 years,” he says. Yet this book won’t be the last word on a career as a chef that spans more than seven decades. That’s not even his last word on chicken.

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He recently submitted the manuscript for his next book — due out next fall — which will revert to a more conventional form: fewer chickens, recipes for budget-conscious cooks (those who share his “grip”), with measurements. And paintings, but not as many.

Jacques Pépin Art of the hen

The Paintings, Stories and Recipes of a Humble Bird Master Chef

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