Chef Jacques Pepin on Food and the Power of Memory

Star chef tells delectable tale of his journey through world's famous kitchens.

September 1, 2009, 9:57 AM

Sept. 15, 2009 — -- 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.

"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.

Pepin Recalls Friendship With Julia Child

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.'

"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.

"It is interesting, you know ... the memory of the senses, the effective memory of the eye, for a chef, or touching, or seeing, or déjà vu or whatever. Or you're walking in the wood, and you're talking about something else, and all of a sudden you smell something, and you're 5 years old.

"So those memories of the senses are very immediate, and very powerful. They assail you, if you want, when you don't expect it. And much more than the memory of the intellect, which makes you recall that you were at such and such place at such and such time. So occasionally I have had, in the country, that taste, that buttery taste that you have in fresh milk, a bit sour and all that, that all of a sudden assails you, and you say mm mm, yeah, that taste is very visceral, somewhere in my gut."

Pepin said his greatest joys come from being around the table with family and friends.

"When we go on vacation, food is very important to us," Pepin said. "You know, we go to the market, cook ourself. We now have a little apartment in Playa del Carmen in Mexico. So we escape the Connecticut winter for, like, eight, 10 weeks. And then we rent it after. So we are there, and our big joy, and my friend Jean Claude comes also, and he's my dearest friend. ... So the two [of] us go to the market, go to see any fishermen along the sea, when they come back, and struggle, struggle in our Spanish to get fish -- this is a great part of our life, you know? Going to the market, looking at the food, and cooking. Sharing it with friends. This is what we do."

For Pepin, food has grown from a profession into a philosophy.

"This is, uh, my philosophy of life, and everything happens around the table for us. And, uh, you know, when [daughter] Claudine was small, I don't remember one time in the over 40 years of marriage, that I say that we did not sit around the table, share a bottle of wine, sometimes two, and have dinner. And when Claudine was small, this is what we did. And we'd come back from, uh, you know, baby school, you know, nursery school, when she was 4 years old, 3, 4, and come and say 'Mom, what's for dinner?' My wife would say food, and I would say, the food we have for dinner, and she would sit down. And it's not necessarily pleasant, you know, when she was in school, and middle school, and high school, and arguments would occur around the table. But at least we spent an hour, hour-and-a-half every night, sitting around the table together.

"And if you don't do that, then you never speak to your kid. You know, I go into a family, they think they are close to their kid, the kid comes, says, 'Hi, Dad, Hi, Mom,' they go, make their own sandwich, go back, get out. No, absolutely not. They think they are close, but they're not. They haven't had a conversation in years, you know, a conversation of an hour, an hour-and-a-half around the table.

"So this is, in the social structure for me, this is the most important thing that you do."

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