I’m having lunch with Jacques Pepin at L’Ecole, the student-run restaurant at the French Culinary Institute where he teaches. He has warm, slightly down-turned eyes, and, as anyone who has ever met him says, he is a kind, gentle man. This month, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishes his newest book, Essential Pepin: More than 700 All-time Favorites from My Life in Food, which comes with an instructional DVD.
What food do you remember most from your childhood?
Bread and butter.
When you have such extraordinary bread and tremendous butter, there is something very visceral about it. My mother sent me to school with it, along with a piece of dark chocolate.
You say the recipes in this book are your “favorites,” but I don’t recall seeing them quite in this way in your previous books.
We started with 2000 recipes and cut them down to 500. They are classic recipes, and many of them appeared in books that are now out of print. I had to decide to keep them as they were, or update them. I chose the latter, so people can make them now.
You got your M.A. at Columbia University. What did you study?
French literature. I gave the commencement speech there last year—even though they refused my doctorate dissertation.
You worked as director of research and development at Howard Johnson’s in the 1960s. How did what you learn there inform your cooking today?
Production and food chemistry. Without that experience I would have never been able to set up a commissary at the World Trade Center, where we supplied food for 30 restaurants.
You have written the bible by which so many people cook. What do you turn to for inspiration?
I get ideas everywhere. I had a friend visiting recently and we went to upstate New York for mushrooms. If I look at a recipe, it gets transformed to something else.
What is a simple weeknight dinner for you?
Basically, I go to the local farmer’s market and decide to what to cook then, depending on what I find. Either my wife or I cook, and we usually finish a bottle or two of wine by the time we are done cooking and eating. For example, I had some codfish that I de-salted, and I got some garlic, tomato, jalapeño peppers, and tiny red potatoes and combined them in a stew. We always finish the meal with cheese and bread.
What parts of you are quintessentially French and which American?
It’s so intermingled, I don’t know. My mother likes what I cook, but doesn’t think it’s French. My wife is Puerto Rican and Cuban, so I eat rice and beans. We have a place in Mexico, but people think I’m the quintessential French chef
Well, what is for you the perfect blend of French and American food?
Bread… and butter.