The Interviews: Jacques Pépin
Cooking show pioneer Jacques Pépin talks cooking, Child, and cut fingers.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Well before entire tv networks were devoted to cooking and food, Jacques Pépin made his name as a chef at the finest restaurants in France and the U.S., and in the kitchens of heads of state, including French President Charles de Gaulle.
Pépin would go on to become a pioneer of television cooking instruction, headlining PBS series such as Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pépin, Today's Gourmet and Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home (with cohost and fellow daytime Emmy winner Julia Child).
But what would the chef prefer to eat? Bread and butter.
"Put butter from Brittany or Normandy on great country bread or a baguette, and I can't think of anything better," Pépin told producer Adrienne Faillace last November, when he sat for an extended conversation with The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation.
The following is an edited excerpt of their discussion. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: How did you gravitate toward cooking?
A: My mother was a cook — she had a little restaurant [outside Lyon, France]. At about five or six, I was helping in the kitchen with my two brothers… washing bottles, getting potatoes or doing one thing or another.
Q: When did you decide that cooking is what you wanted to pursue for a living?
A: By the time I was 11 or so, I was more involved in the kitchen, helping my father in the cellar, drawing the wine from the cask. In addition, I had an aunt who had a restaurant. There were 12 restaurants owned by women in my family. I'm the first male to go into that business.
I was doing pretty well in school, but by the time I was 12, I wanted to go into the kitchen. So I left when I was 13. I finished my exams and went into apprenticeship.
Q: How did you come to work in Paris in the 1950s?
A: I finished my apprenticeship, and in 1952 — I was 17 — I decided to go to Paris. I told my mother I had a job there, but I didn't have a job. A friend took me to la Société des Cuisiniers [the chefs' union]. You'd register and go in the morning… you'd get a job for the day, three days or five days, depending on your level.
That's why I worked in close to 100 restaurants in Paris on my days off when I worked at the Plaza Athénée.
Q: What was that like?
A: The idea at that time was to conform. At the Plaza Athénée, we cut a tomato [only] one way. I would never have thought of cutting it another way. We did many famous dishes — one of them was a lobster soufflé. I'm sure that 40 of the 50 chefs could have done it and you would not have known which one, which is quite different than today. Now every chef wants to leave a signature.
Q: How were chefs regarded in Paris in the 1950s?
A: The chef never went to the dining room. The maître d' was more famous.
Q: You also served in the military in the 1950s….
A: I was drafted into the navy in 1956. I was marked to go to Algeria, but my brother was there. At that time, they did not send two brothers from the same family at the same time because they had whole families being killed. So I was sent back to Paris to work at the Admiralty, serving the big brass in the kitchen.
At some point a friend of mine — he was a chef, as well, working for the minister of the treasury — said, "I have to cook a banquet, but I don't know much about classical food. Can you give me a hand?" So I started doing special dinners with him.
Eventually they asked me to come work for the minister of finance. At that point, during the Fourth Republic in France, the government was changing at a rapid pace. The minister of finance was [Félix] Gaillard, and he became the prime minister.
I was sent to his private residence in Paris. His government lasted six months, the next one lasted like a month, and then [Charles] de Gaulle came to power [as prime minister and then president]. I cooked for de Gaulle until I was released close to 1959.
Q: Why did you come to the United States?
A: America was — and still is, to a certain extent — the El Dorado. I wanted to go there and spend a year on the language. From the first day I came to New York, I loved it.
Q: How did you learn English?
A: I took some classes in Paris, but when I arrived, I tried speaking a little bit of my English and made a lot of mistakes. I was told the best school in New York was Columbia University, so I took an entrance examination — English for foreign students.
When I came into the class, I couldn't understand one word. But I passed, and later I was accepted in the program in general studies at Columbia and went on to do a B.A. and a master's.
Q: During your first few years in America, you held positions at two very different institutions, Le Pavillon and Howard Johnson's….
A: When I first came, I worked at Le Pavillon [in New York City]. It was the greatest French restaurant in America at the time, and it would continue to be for a number of years. For me, it was not much different from what I'd done in Paris.
After I left, in 1960, when [John F.] Kennedy was running for president, I was offered a job at the White House. I was tempted to go, but at that time chef Pierre Franey, who had also left Le Pavillon, was hired at Howard Johnson's. Pierre was the vice-president, director of operations, and he wanted me to go with him.
I was a bit torn between those two things, and I did not realize at all the potential of working at the White House. I had been the chef to the president in France. Television barely existed then. The cook was in the kitchen, period. I had no idea of the potential of cooking for the president in America.
At Howard Johnson's, on the other hand, I would learn about mass production, marketing, American eating habits, chemistry of food…. So I went to Howard Johnson's with Pierre [as director of research and development], and I stayed there 10 years, from 1960 to 1970 or so.
Q: You then took what you learned and opened your own restaurant….
A: In 1970 I opened a restaurant on Fifth Avenue, La Potagerie, and it [involved] large-scale production of soup. I did 160 gallons of three soups a day. I also opened the World Trade Center commissary with Joe Baum — we could feed 20,000 people a day there. And I worked at the Russian Tea Room in the '80s as a consultant.
I would not have been able to do those jobs without the training of Howard Johnson's.
Q: In the '70s you also started to appear on television….
A: I did What's My Line? and To Tell the Truth, [where] they put two French guys with me; one was an opera singer and the other was a big guy, because you're supposed to be fat if you're a chef. At the time I was very thin, so the people never guessed that I was the chef at La Potagerie.
Q: Were you comfortable on camera?
A: Yes, and at that point my English was better. I had a complex about not having an education, and going to Columbia changed that. I started doing things on television and radio. My friend Helen McCully [food editor of McCall's and House Beautiful] helped me with that, as well.
Nouvelle cuisine came in at the end of the '60s. Helen pushed me to write about food, so I started writing for House Beautiful under her guidance. Eventually I did an illustrated manual of cooking techniques, called La Technique, followed by La Methode. I was starting to give cooking classes, and I realized that people didn't know how to peel an onion or a carrot.
I'm very Cartesian in my mind, so I like to break things down and explain them.
Q: How did you get into cooking instruction?
A: I had a serious car accident [in 1974], and after that I wasn't going behind the stove as much. I was asked to go from one cooking school to the other. In the '60s and '70s, I did a great deal of that. 30-plus weeks out of the year I was on the road.
Q: Did you like the idea of teaching on television?
A: Yes, I did. But it was new at the time. Julia [Child] had done her series, The French Chef, and I was asked to do television two or three times, but it did not materialize.
At one point I ended up in California, at Martin Yan's cooking school in Foster City. Martin was just starting [his PBS show Yan Can Cook] at KQED, and he said, "Can you do it with me?" I said, "Sure." After that, Marjorie Poore, the executive producer, said, "We'd be interested in doing something with you."
Q: That became Today's Gourmet, which debuted in 1989. What decisions went into making your show?
A: I did not want to present myself as a professional chef. That turned people off. I wanted them to understand what I was doing. So I did very simple recipes. I tried not to cook anything ahead, but do it in front of the camera — to show that it was possible. I tried to follow the seasons, to get fresh ingredients.
Q: You shared family stories, as well….
A: Certainly. [My cooking] is all related to my mother, my aunt.… The dishes I had as a kid and the ones I learned in Paris — I wanted to incorporate those and explain them in a way that people could understand, and cook with products from the supermarket that people could relate to.
Q: We got to see you cook with your daughter in Cooking with Claudine in 1996.
A: After we did three seasons of Today's Gourmet, I said I should have someone who would ask me the questions that people at home will want to ask me. I said Claudine could do that. That series worked out quite well. Then I moved on to cooking with my granddaughter.
Q: Your granddaughter, Shorey, appeared on your more recent series, Heart & Soul …
A: Yes, she did several shows with me, and we have a cookbook. It was fun for me to bring her into that world. At my age, when you talk to a kid, 13 years old — we speak a different language. I may be faster with a knife, but she's much faster with her iPhone, iPad and all that. We cook together, and it's a way of communicating with her.
Q: Another of your well-known series was Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home.
A: Yes. Now when you do a series, you need about 100, 120 recipes. With Julia, we had no recipes prepared ahead. We'd say, "We're going to do stew tomorrow," but without any recipe. We'd buy ingredients, but we could change at the last moment.
It was a more natural way of cooking, easier for us, but more crazy for the camera. We also worked with no time limit. When you do a show of 30 minutes for PBS, it's about 29 minutes of show with credits. On Today's Gourmet, I had four recipes and someone came with a sign that said, "Wrap it up."
With Julia, I think we once did 110 minutes — for a 30-minute show. So there was an enormous amount of editing. And it took over two years for the show to come on the air because they had to extrapolate the recipes to do the [companion] book.
Q: Talk a little bit about your chemistry with Julia Child.
A: I met her at Helen McCully's place in 1960. In a sense, we spoke the same language, the cooking of the time. We knew the same chefs. It was fun cooking together.
I was probably too serious for her. She told me, "You have to lighten up — this is television," which was good for me to learn. And at the beginning she would say, "Write down ideas that you would like to do, and I'll do the same." So I wrote about 80 ideas, and she did the same thing. I think four of mine made it in the show.
I didn't want to do a show on hamburger, but she did, and it became maybe the most famous show. We sparred even though she was, what — 23 years older than me? Sometimes we didn't speak for a day or so. We argued about everything. But we were good friends.
Q: Back in the 1970s, you were with Julia on Tomorrow with Tom Snyder when she famously cut herself….
A: I was doing a book tour, and Tom Snyder asked, "Do you want to do the show with Julia?" I said, "I'd love to." So I called her, and she bought enough food to feed 100 people. My plane arrived late, so they rushed me to the stage.
I had a knife with me, because I was doing demonstrations on the tour — at that time I could take it on the plane. Julia took the knife to cut something and took the end of her finger off. I pressed it back together and tied it with a towel.
Tom Snyder said, "Oh my God, what are we going to do?" Julia said, "We're not going to do anything. Jacques is going to cook. I'm going to taste everything. I don't want to mention it."
So we started the show. Tom Snyder was six-foot-seven and Julia was six-foot-three, something like that. He said, "How tall are you?" I said, "I'm five-one. I'm a hobbit." That was the beginning of the show. Then Tom Snyder said, "Julia, would you mind if I tell them you cut your finger?" She didn't want to show her finger. She had a towel on it all day.
After the show, we went to the hospital. She got sutures, then we went to have dinner at L'Ermitage till one in the morning.
Saturday Night Live ended up doing a piece on the cutting of her finger. It was all over the place.
Q: Did you watch the parody at the time?
A: Yes, it was really funny. She loved it, too.
Q: What has been your most significant contribution to cooking?
A: To demystify cooking, to make people comfortable with it, to bring people together. That's probably the most civilized occupation, to cook and share food together.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: As a good cook, a good father, a good husband and a nice guy. And a good drinker. I'm good at that.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2018