"I was about 17-and-a-half, I went to Paris," he said. "You know, I told my mother I had a job, which I didn't have, and I had never been to Paris. ... I ended up working at the Plaza ... Maxim's, Fouquet's, some of the great restaurants of the time. And then in 1956 I was called in the Navy. ... I ended up as a chef at the mess of the admiral, in Paris. And during that time I had a friend who worked for the secretary of the treasury. ... And then the secretary became prime minister, so I was called to work as the head [chef] of the prime minister. And I stayed there under three presidents, because under the Fourth Republic in France, the government was changing at a rapid pace, you know? So by the time I get to the end of 19, well, early 1958, de Gaulle came to power, the 12th of May, 1958. I stayed with him until he became president, basically, at the end of the year and so forth.
"And after, I decided to come to America. ... Everyone wanted to come to America. And so I said, maybe I'll stay a couple of years, learn the language, and so forth. And from the first day, I loved New York. And I never left."
Pepin's first job in New York was at Le Pavillon, then one of the top French restaurants in the world.
"I talked to Pierre Frenne, who was the executive chef, and he said 'Well, you can start tomorrow if you want,'" said Pepin. "So I started at the Pavillon right away."
The job would lead to an unexpected twist in Pepin's career in haute cuisine.
"Howard D. Johnson, who created the Howard Johnson company, was a client of the Pavillon," said Pepin. "And he always said to Pierre Frenne, one day you're going to work with me and your guys. So in the early 1960s, we ... fall out with [the] owner of the Pavillon. ... So Pierre decided, I've had enough, I'm quitting. So we all decided to quit, more or less, the Pavillon had to close, it was a big article in the New York Times."
Pepin ended up working for the hotelier for a decade, running a massive food operation.
"I did not want to work in a French environment," he said. "You know, I wanted to learn the language more, and learn. So Howard Johnson's was the place. It was totally different for me. You know, I learn about production, about marketing, about American taste, to start with. I learn a new world."
Pepin would go on to start his own restaurant in New York, La Petagerie, and in the mid-1970s he was in charge of food operations in the 22-restaurant mall in the newly opened World Trade Center.
Meanwhile, Pepin was rubbing elbows with the elite of the New York foodie world.
"[Food critic] Craig Claiborne, who started at the New York Times, came to the Pavillon, wanted to do a piece on Pierre Frenne and the Pavillon," recalled Pepin. "And I became friends with Craig. I lived in 50th street in New York, he lived in 53rd street. And he introduced me to Helen McCullough, who was the food editor at McCall House Beautiful. And she lived in 52nd street, in the building where Greta Garbo lived. I used to see Greta Garbo walking outside there. And, uh, so I became very [good] friends with Helen, who was never married, never had children, she kind of became my surrogate mother. And Helen spoke with James Beard every day on the telephone, for an hour or two. So I met James Beard through her, within a few weeks. And then in the spring of 1960, I believe she told me, 'you know, I want you to look at [a] manuscript.'