Jacques Pépin may be creeping up on 87, but he still keeps a chef’s hours: never in bed before midnight, never up before “the stroke of nine,” as he said recently on a drizzly Friday afternoon in the dining room of his Madison, Conn., home. The dean of cooking—whether French, American, or really anything that calls for a sauté pan and a hot stove—is a disarmingly polite and friendly presence.
He makes sure his guests’ glasses are full before his is. He speaks in such a way that his sentences tend to be spiritually punctuated with a nearly imperceptible Gallic shrug, not of indifference, but of, well, je ne sais quoi. He has a small black poodle, Gaston, who sits on his lap and gets a thorough petting and the occasional peck as Pépin talks about his life, career, food, painting, and what he’s doing instead of going to bed early like most other people his age: maybe a bit of reading, or watching “whatever’s on Netflix.”
The author of more than 30 cookbooks, a longtime host of PBS cooking shows, a dear friend of Julia Child, and most recently the star of 270-and-counting pandemic cooking web videos, Pépin isn’t a man to sit still. This September, Harvest is publishing Art of the Chicken, a nifty mélange of chicken and egg recipes illustrated with Pépin’s own paintings of chickens.
It’s arguably his most personal cookbook to date, and it isn’t really a cookbook. It’s a memoir in recipes (those who’ve read his sublime memoir, The Apprentice, will recognize some of the greatest hits that get replayed here), but one shouldn’t pick it up looking for “recipe” recipes. There aren’t any. There are no measurements. There are no ingredients lists. Instead, there’s a story about where each dish comes from, and then, before you know it, chicken parts are being sautéed in butter until barely browned, they are tossed in thyme (how much? Use your best judgment), and pans are deglazed with a “good splash of white wine.” That’s “Maman’s chicken,” or one way his mother cooked chicken at home. His mother, a restaurateur and chef in Lyon, did it differently for the paying guests.
But a cookbook needs recipes, surely. “That’s the whole point,” Pépin says. “It’s the stories I’m telling. Some of the recipes are usable, many of them are not. My editor said I need more information on the recipe, on the technique, or the ingredient, and I said, this is not this.” So, a perhaps ornery Pépin suggested including the recipe for a storied Lyonnaise chicken dish: poulet en vessie. To make it, what you do is you take a chicken, stuff truffle slices between its skin and the meat, and you cram the whole thing in a pig’s bladder...
“I said, fine, one pig’s bladder with truffles. My editor said, ‘What is this?’ ” Pépin reports. “I said, you want ingredients, I’m giving you ingredients.”
So we have the cookbook, and poulet en vessie is mentioned, but only in passing. Between the not-recipes, you’ll find dozens of whimsical paintings Pépin has made of chickens. Some are of chickens doing chicken things; others are of chickens in the guise of fruits or vegetables. You’ve got old chickens, young chickens, angry chickens, befuddled chickens, a blue-footed chicken wielding a fork and knife and wearing a toque. Pépin’s been painting since he was studying French lit at Columbia in the ’60s, after having turned down the opportunity to be the White House chef for JFK to work at... midcentury fast food paragon Howard Johnson’s. But let’s back up.
How to condense the bio to one paragraph? Here goes: Pépin is the son of a cabinet-maker father and a restaurateur mother. He grew up outside Lyon amid the deprivations of wartime France, and there were 12 restaurants in the family, all run by women. He wrapped up school early and left home in 1949, at the age of 13, to live the Dickensian life of a kitchen apprentice. He did his mandatory military service and, after a bit of this and a bit of that, ended up cooking for, among other French dignitaries, president Charles de Gaulle. He took a job at a schmancy Manhattan restaurant in 1959. Within six months of landing, he’d befriended the American food cognoscenti triad: chef and cooking TV show pioneer James Beard, New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, and Julia Child. Then he got job offers from JFK’s White House and HoJo’s. Pépin went HoJo’s. It was a savvy if practical decision. Also, Pépin had cooked for a president before, and back then, being a cook, no matter where or for whom you were slinging pans, wasn’t the prestige job it’s now perceived to be.
“When I was with de Gaulle, I served Nehru, Tito, Macmillan, other heads of state,” Pépin says. “No one ever would call you to the dining room to get kudos. I was never interviewed by a magazine. If someone came to the kitchen, it was because something was wrong and someone was complaining. I never took a picture with de Gaulle.”
Since the HoJo’s days, which were spent cooking on an industrial scale at a warehouse out by the airport, Pépin’s become, well, Pépin: he of the cookbooks and the TV shows and the French Culinary Institute, Manhattan’s famed cooking school. And, more recently, the Jacques Pépin Foundation, which is dedicated to giving folks who’ve had rough runs—homelessness, incarceration—a culinary education and, with it, a chance at careers and stable lives. It’s a family affair, with Pépin the executive chairman, his daughter the president, and his son-in-law the executive director.
The videos he’s been doing during the pandemic—they’re set in his kitchen and are shot and produced by his longtime friend and collaborator Tom Hopkins—are published via the foundation. They are short and unfussy, and they will also be a balm for whatever’s chewing on the ragged edges of your soul, as they are evidence of a dude casually doing a thing he is very good at doing, and telling you, believably, that you can do it, too. One will show you how to make pork and rice, another a Provençal-style roasted vegetable side, another chili con carne. One, bittersweetly, was released four days after Pépin’s wife, Gloria, died in December 2020. It’s for “Gloria’s sandwich,” and in it Pépin wears an apron with his wife’s name embroidered on it as he puts together a quick lunch dish his wife enjoyed.
“I never really think about the past or what I’m going to do with life,” he says. “I’m very existential this way. You do one thing, and it projects you there, and you do that, and it projects you there. You move. I didn’t really expect to do all those shows for Facebook. That didn’t exist for me two years ago.”
Hopkins has a slightly rosier perspective on what keeps Pépin going. “Jacques’s work ethic is to educate and create,” he says. “It’s always been that way, ever since I’ve known him. It’s been the work ethic. But I don’t think it’s work for him.”
At this point, it’s not, and hasn’t been for a while. Pépin likes to do stuff, to be useful.
“I’d probably be depressed at the end of the day if I haven’t worked on a recipe or two or done some painting or read a portion of a good book,” he says, “so I can feel at night that I’ve done something.”
It’s a humble thought, to end a day and be happy with having done something. As Pépin says this, he’s in his dining room. There’s a recently emptied wine bottle on the table. Gaston is sitting on his lap. There’s a huge wall opposite him that’s covered floor to ceiling in pots and pans—copper, cast iron, steel, a veritable Sur la Table—and to his right is the kitchen where he bangs out cooking demos. To his left on a side table are framed pictures of Gloria. Behind him, the entry foyer is crowded with photos of friends and family and other evidence of a life well lived, and near the staircase leading up to the room where he paints, there’s a picture of him and his daughter and granddaughter with the Obamas.
Which is to say, he’s done a bit more than something. (And he may not have had his picture taken with the first president he cooked for, but, you know, a few decades and a continent away, and eventually.)
“I am very often considered to be the quintessential French chef—apparently I have an accent,” Pépin says, with a wink and a French accent. “After 60 years in this country I am, in my opinion, probably the quintessential American chef.”
It’s a big claim, but he’s also not wrong. That’s something.