Jacques Pépin says his new cookbook, Jacques Pépin: Heart and Soul in the Kitchen, is an invitation to join him for dinner at his house. Of course, you'll have to do all the cooking — but you can use his recipes.
Pépin will turn 80 years old this year. He says this is one of his last cookbooks, and it's timed to coincide what he says is his final PBS show, airing this fall: Jacques Pépin: Heart and Soul.
NPR's Scott Simon recently spoke with Pépin about his extraordinary and wide-ranging 60-year career: He was a personal chef to Charles de Gaulle and a longtime friend and collaborator of Julia Child. In the 1960s he left a job at Le Pavillon, an iconic French restaurant in New York, to join Howard Johnson's — a chain associated more with turnpikes than fine dining — as head of research and development.
And Pépin still can surprise: His new cookbook includes a recipe for tuna tartare and bagel chips. How did it end up there?
"You know, I may be considered the quintessential French chef by many people, but I do what I like to do," Pépin tells Simon. "And the way I cooked, I don't think that I was ever very chauvinistically French. And I do dishes which I like to eat and sometimes they are more French than others, but it really doesn't matter to me."
A transcript of their conversation, edited for clarity and brevity, is below.
I don't get the chance to ask a lot of people: What was Charles de Gaulle really like? I mean, did he like to have a burrito occasionally or something?
No burrito. Everything was very classic French. More like bourgeois French, like a leg of lamb properly roasted. ... scalloped potatoes with some cream and garlic baked in the oven. ... And grated cheese around maybe an apple tart or a caramel custard. Very simple, straightforward. Good food done with great-quality ingredients. You know, that's what's great food is all about.
You're a frugal man in the kitchen.
Does that come from growing up during the war?
Probably, yes. I mean, this is ... you know, what I inherited from my mother. I am very miserly, yes, in the kitchen. During the war, we didn't have that much to eat. And the woman cooking is usually more economical than men's cooking. It's done in a different way. So certainly, that's my influence.
Well I ask because, tell us, please, what you do with old cheese.
Oh yes, old cheese, we do a fromage fort [a French cheese spread made by blending together pieces of assorted leftover cheeses, white wine, garlic and herbs.] ... It can include from Camembert to goat cheese or bleu cheese. ... My father would put it into a jar and put white wine on top of it and let it ferment it even more, with the rind and all....
If there is mold on top, I scrape it off, but I still use it. I scrape it off, cut everything, put it in the food processor, [add] a couple of cloves of garlic, some white wine, a lot of ground pepper, and we make into a paste that we call fromage fort: strong cheese that you serve on bread with a salad. Or you put it on bread and put it under the broiler to beautifully glaze it, too.
And certainly it's very important, because cheese are very expensive. So if you have at least a few recipes like this, where you can use those leftovers ... you can continue serving cheeses when they are at their best, and using the leftover to do one dish or another. So that's part of the proper management of a kitchen, you know.
Mr. Pépin, what do you think of what they now call molecular cooking, or what you seem to call punctuation cuisine?
Well, punctuation cooking may be a bit different. But I call it — a great deal of those dishes where people have a little bottle and they do little dots and little comma and question marks all around, and basically there is no sauce to dip your bread in it. You don't really know what those things have to do with the food.
When I cook, I like people to be able to identify the food. I like people to feel comfortable. I want people to look at my food and start salivating and starting thinking of marriage of that food with a certain type of wine, and so forth. But in molecular cuisine — this is fine, I mean, up to a certain extent, a meal or two this way — but after a while I just want to go out and have a taco and a beer.
As I was reading your book, you know, Julia Child your friend and co-conspirator of many years, was famous for telling us, "remember, nobody sees you in the kitchen." But you saw her in the kitchen all the time.
Oh, yes. We had a good time.
I mean, I met Julia in 1960. Six-oh. So I came to the U.S. at the end of 1959. And then I walked out of The Pavillon [an iconic French restaurant] in New York, and I met Craig Claiborne, who just started at The New York Times — he came to The Pavillon to do a piece on Pierre Franey and me at The Pavillon.
And through Craig I met Helen McCullough, who was the food editor of House Beautiful. And she introduced me to James Beard, because she spoke with James Beard every day for like a couple of hours. And then in the spring of 1960, she said, "I have that manuscript here, can you look at it? On French cooking? What do you think of it?" And I said, well I think it's very good. And she said, "Well the woman is from California. She's coming to New York next week — let's cook for her."
It's a big, tall woman with a terrible voice. And of course, that was Julia.
My point is that I was here like six months and I knew the trinity of cooking: Craig Claiborne, James Beard and Julia Child. So you can see that the food world was very, very small. Totally different than what it is now.
Do you hear her voice, that distinctive voice, every now and then, even now?
Oh yes, oh yes. Very often — when I don't put enough butter in the dish. There can be plenty more butter!
Mr. Pépin, as you approach 80, how are you feeling?
Uh ... tired, sometimes?
No, I feel OK. I mean, I feel good. I mean, I thank God that I'm still walking around and drinking a lot of wine.
I ask because you say that this is probably your last cookbook.
Well, yes and no. Last cookbook like this, which takes a long time to do.
But I still hope to do some little thing with my granddaughter. Maybe the lessons of a grandfather, showing her how to do simple things that we've done together. I have a great deal of fun cooking with her.
So maybe a little book. Certainly some video will come with that, hopefully.