Jacques Pépin is not a chef — at least not at the moment.
“I’m not a chef now,” Pépin said. “I don’t have a restaurant. I’m not running a place. I cook at home and my wife is the boss, so I’m not a chef here; I’m a cook.”
Chef or not, Pépin is certainly qualified to open the Chautauqua Food Festival as part of Week Nine’s theme, “At the Table: Our Changing Relationship with Food.” Pépin will speak at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater, and appear again at 12:45 p.m. Monday at the Food Festival stage on Bestor Plaza to judge the “Ultimate Cheeseburger Challenge” with Buffalo-based chefs Michael Dimmer and Joseph Fenush.
Internationally recognized as the quintessential French chef, Pépin, with his multiple television shows and cookbooks, has taught millions of Americans how to cook with a focus on technique and creativity.
“I feel that if Jacques Pépin shows you how to make an omelet, the matter is pretty much settled. That’s God talking,” chef-turned-TV host Anthony Bourdain once told Slate, echoing these thoughts during a recent episode of PBS’s “American Masters” series on Pépin.
Although Pépin, 81, has long emphasized the celebratory aspect of cooking and sharing a meal, the current “foodie culture” is a dramatic departure from the culinary world of Pépin’s past.
“The cook was certainly at the bottom of the social scale at that time,” Pépin said. “Any good mother would have wanted her child to marry a doctor or an architect, certainly not a cook, so this is totally another world.”
In some ways, what was old is new again, Pépin said, considering the current emphasis on fresh, local and organic food.
Born in Bourg-en-Bresse, France, Pépin grew up helping his mother at the family restaurant. Since there was no family car, Pépin and his brothers would carry groceries from the local market, and his mother would prepare the food upon their return.
“She didn’t have a refrigerator, so chicken, fish, whatever she bought that day, she had to use it by the end of the day,” Pépin said. “The day after, back to the market.”
In 1949, at age 13, Pépin began his formal culinary apprenticeship. Although Pépin went on to become the personal chef for three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle, he turned down the position of White House chef. Following his move to the United States, Pépin instead directed research and development at Howard Johnson’s from 1960 to 1970.
A theme throughout Pépin’s work is that food can be made by and for anybody, an outlook he shared with his friend and occasional kitchen collaborator, the late Julia Child. Pépin said he does not have a guilty pleasure, and has no qualms about using the grocery store as a prep cook, as he did in his “Fast Food My Way” television show and companion book series.
“I eat anything,” Pépin said. “I am basically a glutton and I don’t feel any guilt about anything that I eat.”
If Pépin could change anything about the way Americans eat, it would be to get people back around the table sharing meals together. He has two upcoming books that emphasize the importance of a shared meal: A Grandfather’s Lessons: In the Kitchen With Shorey, due out in September, and My Menus: Remembering Meals With Friends and Family, due out in October.
While at Chautauqua, Pépin will also teach a master class, “Essential Pépin: My Life in Food,” with his daughter, Claudine. The class will demonstrate the classic cooking techniques, from boning out fish and chicken, to making mayonnaise from scratch, and cutting and chopping.
“Frankly, I want people to have a good time, to relax, to ask me questions and to enjoy life,” Pépin said. “That’s what I do, and I feel that cooking is a great part of it.”
He may have meticulous knife skills, but Pépin’s kitchen is a relaxed one and he is known for signing off with “Happy cooking,” a phrase that came about by happenstance when he taped his first cooking show for a Florida television station in the early 1980s.
Looking back on his career, Pépin said he would love to taste food he made as an apprentice because of how he has changed as a chef and how time has changed his palate.
Pépin wouldn’t, however, still call himself a French chef. Open up one of his cookbooks, and home chefs will see recipes for black bean soup with sliced bananas on top, fried chicken and lobster rolls.
At the Connecticut home he shares with his wife of 50 years, a New Yorker born to Puerto Rican and Cuban parents, Pépin may have New England or Vietnamese cuisine for dinner. The menu depends on what’s growing in their garden.
It would appear, Pépin admitted, that he is actually “the essential American chef.”