Chef Jacques Pepin on Food and the Power of Memory

"And I said, I think it's pretty good. I looked at it, French cooking. And she said, 'It's a woman who lives in California, she's coming next week. So why don't you come and cook, you know, for her with me, and uh, she's a very big woman with a terrible voice.' And there came Julia [Child], and that's how I met Julia. And I spoke French with her probably more than English at our first meeting, because her English, French rather, was better than my English. And so I knew Julia very, very early on, at a time when no one knew Julia, because she hadn't published any book, and she hadn't done any television show."

Child and Pepin ended up teaching classes together at Boston University.

"And at some point, you know, in the early '80s, or mid-'80s, I said, why don't we do a special for PBS on this. ... And, uh, so we did a thing called 'Cooking in Concert,' in front of, like 4,500 people at the Performance Center at BU. And it was great fun. So they did a special for PBS with that, and it was very successful. So maybe a couple of years later, we did another one of those specials. It was kind of the genesis of our show, and then a couple of years later, then we end up shooting that series at her house in Cambridge.

"I have hundreds of memor[ies] of Julia, but they're all related to having drinks together, drinking, eating, and sharing food and having fun with other friends, you know? She was great for that."

How Being a Chef Has Changed

Over the course of his career Pepin has watched his profession change. Chefing, he says, was not always the glorious calling it is now.

"Thirty, 40 years ago, more than that now, even, the cook was certainly at the bottom of the social scale," Pepin said. "And any mother would've wanted their child to marry a doctor, a lawyer, an architect, not a cook. Now, we are genius, it's different."

Changing perceptions of the industry were tied to people's changing relationship with food, Pepin said, adding that the change is visible in any supermarket.

"I still get excited going to the market," he said. "Especially now, with farmers markets all over the place. And even the supermarkets, I have to say, have never been as beautiful as they are today. When I came to this country, there was only one salad, there was iceberg. There was no leek, no shallot, none of the oriental vegetable. There was no herbs in it. And I remember, I lived on 50th and First Ave. in New York, going to D'Agostinos, which was supposedly a great market at the time, and asking them, 'Where are the mushrooms?' They said aisle 5 -- that was canned mushrooms. At that time, you had to go to a specialty store, early '60s in New York, to get just regular white button mushrooms. So it has changed."

Part of the magic of food, Pepin said, is its ability to trigger memory.

"I was about 6 years old when my mother took me to a farm during the summer between school," he said. "She left me there for three months, for the summer, and it was very, you know, traumatic for me, I was 6 years old. But the farmer took me to the barn, and made me sit down next to her. She was milking the cow, and had me put my hands around the tits of the cow, to show me. And then I had my first big bowl of milk, which was very foamy on top, kind of frothy, and slightly tepid, with a buttery rich taste.

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