One on One with Jacques Pépin

Jacques Pépin

Credit: KQED copyright © 2008 Greg Habiby

Jacques Pépin, one of today's most respected chefs and teachers, returns to public television with Jacques Pépin: More Fast Food My Way, the sequel to his inspiring last series. The program also has a companion book with the same title, published by Houghton Mifflin. Jacques sat down to talk about current and future projects, cooking at home and more.

You're at the top of your profession--you've been chef at some of the best French restaurants in the world and personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle. Why did you decide to do books on "fast food"?

This is not something that I suddenly invented: I cook this way all the time. My mother cooks this way, and chefs cook this way. We cook like this when the occasion is right. And if it's faster and fresher, why not?

What sort of rules did you set for yourself in doing these books?

First, to use ingredients that are available to everybody. Second, to take advantage of the supermarket the way chefs take advantage of prep cooks. More and more, supermarkets duplicate the work of a prep cook: they sell washed spinach, sliced mushrooms, chopped garlic, pitted olives, all sorts of crumbled and grated cheeses, chopped nuts, cooked beans, and so on. You put a filet of sole in a pan, add sliced mushrooms and shallots, and some wine and a few fresh herbs and dinner is ready in a matter of minutes because your supermarket prep cook has done most of the work for you.

What's a typical dinner in the Pépin household?

Well, last night we had asparagus, which I steamed in a skillet, and a piece of salmon that I cooked skin side down in a very hot pan. I cook it on one side for about three to four minutes, covered, so the skin is crispy and the flesh cooks through but stays moist. And some couscous that my wife, Gloria, had made, with Tabasco, butter, canned chickpeas, and herbs. We had a salad because I had a lot of greens in my garden. Plus a piece of cheese for dessert.

Does your wife cook? And does she follow your recipes?

Gloria cooks a lot, and she does a fair amount of Asian cooking. She follows my recipes occasionally. When she finds a recipe she likes, she'll never make another one, no matter how many variations I do later. After forty-three years of marriage, she's still making the same one of my cheesecakes and she still has to read the recipe. When I come into the kitchen, she doesn't say, "Darling, do you think this is right?" She says, "Don't touch anything!"

Jacques Pépin

Credit: KQED copyright © 2008 Greg Habiby

What's the one piece of advice you'd give to a beginning cook?

Have a glass of wine before you start cooking.

You've written many best-selling books and hosted many TV shows. Can you rest on your laurels now, or are there still other projects you want to do?

I always live in the present -- I never look back. Jean-Paul Sartre was once asked, "What's the best book you've ever written?" His answer: "The one I'm going to do next." Every minute you're learning, and what you will do is better than what you did before. My next project is a big book of seven hundred or so recipes-- an anthology from my whole career. There's a certain satisfaction in revisiting recipes that are good. I look at them and think, "That's a good idea, but this time I would do this or that."

What do you do when you're not cooking?

I'm painting. I'm picking mushrooms and playing boules, which is the French bocce ball. It's an excuse to eat and drink with my friends.

You've been granted numerous honors: many James Beard Awards, awards from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, even France's top accolade, the Legion of Honor. What are you most proud of having accomplished?

My daughter. The rest is relatively unimportant.


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