For Pepin, cooking is about technique, not stardom

By Michele Kayal

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 3 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Tuesday, June 28, 2011 photo, chef Jacques Pepin places silverware on a plate with an omelette at his home in Madison, Conn. The man who taught two generations of home cooks, and many of today’s celebrity chefs, how to hold a knife can still out-chop a food processor and make boning a chicken look like magic.

Steven Senne, Associated Press

MADISON, Conn. — Back in the woods, behind the kitchen, French and American flags fly over Jacques Pepin's petanque court. He launches his heavy, metallic ball toward a visitor's, popping it off course with a sharp, expert crack.

"That is how you play petanque," he says, smiling at his pupil.

Whether it's lawn bowling or making an omelet as bright and unblemished as the noontime sun, Pepin is, above all things, a teacher. A trim, elegant 75, the greatest cooking instructor America has ever known has entered a genteel upper middle age. His hair is thinner, the limp from the car accident that turned him from chef to professor is a bit more pronounced. But the man who taught two generations of home cooks — and many of today's celebrity chefs — how to hold a knife can still out-chop a food processor and make boning a chicken look like magic.

"I tell a student that the most important class you can take is technique," Pepin says while chopping chives beneath a decorative tile that reads: "A great chef is first a great technician." ''If you are a jeweler, or a surgeon or a cook, you have to know the trade in your hand. You have to learn the process. You learn it through endless repetition until it belongs to you."

And nobody owns technique like Pepin. Born in the eastern French town of Bourg-en-Bresse just before World War II, he peeled, diced, whisked and braised in his mother's restaurants from the time he was tall enough to reach the counter until he left home at 13 for a formal apprenticeship. In the decades that followed, he served as the personal chef to French president Charles De Gaulle, helped introduce Americans to French cuisine as a chef at the iconic New York restaurant Le Pavillon, turned down the Kennedy White House to pioneer mass produced restaurant food for the Howard Johnson's chain, and ran with James Beard, Craig Claiborne and the rest of the culinary Rat Pack that transformed the way Americans think about food.

"He was very much part of this group," says David Kamp, author of "The United States of Arugula." ''He's the last living representative of that wonderful group that elevated the game for Americans."

But it is Pepin's message of craftsmanship that is likely to be his legacy. In more than two dozen books and 11 public television series, Pepin has stressed the importance of basic skills in mastering the art of any cooking. His 1970s classic "La Technique" and its sister volume "La Methode" used hundreds of black-and-white photos to illustrate every procedure from cracking an egg to making puff pastry. They remain the standard references of any serious home cook, and the basis for what happens in professional kitchens from New York to Los Angeles.

"Jacques stressed that cooking is not about recipes, it's about techniques and methods," says Tom Colicchio, New York restaurateur and co-host of Bravo's "Top Chef," who discovered "La Technique" as a teenager. "That really spoke to me and really cut through all the gibberish. I realized that you don't need recipes. You can approach anything as long as you know how to cook. It really unlocked the door for me."

Boston super-chef Jamie Bissonnette — young enough at 33 to be Pepin's son — even admits to stealing "La Technique" from the public library as a kid. "As a teenager who wanted to cook you'd look at it and say, 'Wow, I can do that,'" says Bissonnette, who recently won Food & Wine magazine's People's Best New Chef award. "I've never stolen anything else in my entire life." Last Christmas, he gave each of his chefs a copy of the book (which he purchased).

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