Chef Jacques Pepin on Food and the Power of Memory

Jacques Pepin

As part of his job as dean at the French Culinary Institute in New York, celebrated chef Jacques Pepin conducts exit interviews with grads preparing to raid the restaurant business.

The meetings aren't about trading recipes. Nowadays, he says, a lot of students -- "maybe one out of two" -- tell him they plan to write a book, or ask about breaking into TV.

The elevation of chefs to rock star status has worked out well for Pepin. Decades of running restaurants, writing books and hosting television shows with the likes of Julia Child has brought him fame and fortune.

But big-market success was the farthest thing from his mind when he started cooking. In the beginning, he says, he thought about one thing: food.

"You know, my parents had a restaurant," Pepin said. "And I left home, actually, in 1949, when I was 13 years old, to go into apprenticeship. And actually when I left home, home was a restaurant -- like I said, my mother was a chef. So I can't remember any time in my life, from age 5, 6, that I wasn't in a kitchen."

Watch the full interview with Jacques Pepin tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

Today, Pepin is a household name. His show with Julia Child, "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home," ran through 22 episodes, won a 2001 Daytime Emmy Award and opened the way to future series, including his latest, "Jacques Pepin: More Fast Food My Way." He is a popular guest on programs including "The Late Show with David Letterman," "The Today Show" and "Good Morning America." In addition to multiple cookbooks, Pepin has published a memoir, "The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen."

On the 50th anniversary of his arrival in the United States, Pepin reminisced about the journey from his mother's kitchen to the pinnacle of culinary achievement. He described his memories of Child, the importance of long family meals and how U.S. supermarkets have changed. And he shared memories of stops along the way, from his time as personal chef for three French heads of state to his duties in famous kitchens, such as Maxim's in Paris and New York's historic Le Pavillon.

Jacques Pepin: Getting Started

"The genetic part of it probably come from my mother," Pepin said of his urge to cook. "All of the women were into cooking. Probably a mistake, you know, that people make in America, to think that all great chefs are a male. ... I'm still the only male in the family who went into that business."

The restaurant business was tough going at first, with World War II privations still in effect, Pepin said.

"When I left to go into apprenticeship in 1949, it was only four years after the war," he said. "And people don't realize, we still had tickets for butter, meat and so forth in France until 1947. It's not like [at] the end of the war, everything was plentiful -- it wasn't. So even when I went into apprenticeship, it was just starting to get more plentiful. But of course I did not remember before, so it didn't make any difference for me."

As far as a profession, cooking was the natural choice for Pepin.

"I wanted to go into the excitement, the atmosphere of the restaurant with my mother, I loved it," he said. "So I went into that business, and I have to say I've never regretted it."

Pepin found work in the top restaurants of Paris while still a teen.

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