PW: You're the author of 21 cookbooks. What was the difference between writing cookbooks and writing your memoir, The Apprentice?
Jacques Pépin: Big, big difference. I am used to writing recipes. I'm not a writer, so to get it into prose like this was quite different. The book was started at least 15 years ago. I wanted to write an essay about my apprenticeship and cooking with my mother, and eventually it mushroomed into a larger thing. I worked with a wonderful man, Barry Estabrook. He reorganized the material and shortened things and so forth.
PW: The memoir includes some recipes for dishes that have been important to you. Do you have a food that brings you straight back to childhood, something like Proust's madeleine?
JP: The eggs from my mother. That for me is strictly my mother. Also the Poulet à la Crème was a signature dish for any important holiday. Those are very close to a type of taste memory.
PW: Some of the training you endured when you were young was tough. Are you grateful for it now? How did you feel about it at the time?
JP: I don't feel grateful or ungrateful. It's only difficult and disciplined and stringent in the context of our view today. I didn't know anything else. The people I worked with and other apprentices were like me. I don't want to make the impression that I was abused or unhappy.
PW: Readers will be fascinated to learn that you worked for Howard Johnson's shortly after you first came to the United States in 1959, and that you chose that job over being chef for Kennedy at the White House.
JP: The chef was a black hole at the time on the social scale. I had been chef at the French White House, but I had never been in a magazine or newspaper. So when I was asked to go to the White House, I had no idea of the potential for the publicity. And before then there was no publicity for a White House chef—it was usually some black woman from the South and no one knew her name. But at Howard Johnson's I was going to learn a great deal about American eating habits. It was my American apprenticeship, really.
PW: How did you end up publishing with Houghton Mifflin? Have you published other books with them?
JP: No, I haven't, and to tell you the truth I've never had an agent before. I did 21 cookbooks and they all just happened. When I started to do this book a couple people said, "You should have an agent because it's a different type of book." So I called Doe Coover and she set up the thing with Houghton Mifflin, and I understood that I could get a much bigger advance with an agent.
PW: What are you working on next?
JP: I'm working on a television program with a book. The last book I did was Jacques Pépin Celebrates (Knopf, 2001), and it was more elaborate. Here I will use more canned foods from a pantry of stuff to cook in a way that people do often when they are pressed by time. I love cassoulet, but you can't always do a cassoulet. I can do something good with a can of beans and kielbasa sausage out of the market. I'm not a snob this way.