For Pepin, cooking is about technique, not stardom

By Michele Kayal

Associated Press

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

But Pepin's newest book, "Essential Pepin," is the story of the man today: a French chef turned quintessential American cook whose formidable skills and affable manner make him the ultimate culinary teacher. More than 700 recipes trace the history of his palate from his mother's mustardy les oeufs Jeannette to the light, fresh taste of salmon in basil sauce. The book's accompanying three-hour, searchable DVD promises to demonstrate "every technique a cook will ever need," some of which he'll perform on the companion TV series.

"I don't cook the way I cooked 35 years ago," Pepin says, "but the way you make an omelet, the way you bone a chicken, that doesn't change."

So what has changed? "My palate is simpler than it used to be," he says. "A young chef adds and adds and adds to the plate. As you get older, you start to take away."

When he arrived in the United States in 1959, Pepin carried with him the rigid French view of food: that if you add carrots to boeuf bourguignon it ceases to be boeuf bourguignon. But he immediately embraced his adopted country's flexibility and its diverse people, foods and ingredients, including an alluring herb called "cilantro," which he learned about from his wife Gloria, who has Puerto Rican roots.

"Five years after I was here, my mother would say, 'This is really good, but it's not French,'" he says. "I'm not trying to be French. But I'm also not trying not to be French. I think more in terms of 'It's a good idea.' Or 'It's fresh.'"

If Pepin's good friend and long-time cooking cohort Julia Child introduced Americans to classical French cooking — the intricate, time-consuming recipes created in Michelin-starred restaurants — Pepin brought a much earthier understanding to the genre. His food was born of war and privation, of the days when his mother biked through the countryside scavenging bread, eggs and butter, boiled beets to make sweetener, and later, in her restaurants, offered hearty plates of rabbit stew or creamed chicken to patrons who were friends and neighbors.

"Jacques is fundamental," says Rux Martin, Pepin's editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishing. "When he writes a cookbook, it's for a home cook. He's not a synthesizer of restaurant classical French cooking. And Jacques's heart is fundamentally like his mother's, who came out of that country French cooking."

"Julia and Jacques" were perhaps the most beloved duo ever to cook on television, their easy banter and clear devotion to food capturing hearts and stomachs across the country. And though these programs, as well as Pepin's solo shows, helped usher in the era of food television — and, by default, laid the groundwork for the celebrity chef phenomenon — Pepin has little patience with the fetishizing of food and the rock star status of today's chefs.

"The whole food world has changed," he says. "Any good mother would have wanted her child to be a doctor, a lawyer, not a cook. Now we are geniuses."

In reality, he says, chefs are basically "soup merchants." ''But," he adds with his trademark twinkle, "there is good soup and bad soup."

Pepin means no offense. And it is almost impossible to take any from him, so wry and sprite-like is his manner. But he is old school in the best sense of the phrase, from an era when cooking was a vocation not a profession, when chefs learned at the elbow of a mentor, not in a fancy cooking school. In fact, the culinary program he and Child helped found at Boston University still follows that model, offering only a single semester of basic skills before sending its charges into professional kitchens.

"It was his theory that people who want to learn about food and want to learn classical French technique do not have to go to school for two years or four years," says Rebecca Alssid, the university's director of food and wine studies. "They need an intensive schooling in the techniques that are important... He felt that when someone graduated after 14 weeks of working four days a week on technique they could go into a restaurant and perfect it."

Pepin takes the same no-frills approach on his cooking shows. "Essential Pepin," which begins airing in October, will have no giant clocks dangling over contestants' heads, no one yelling "Bam!" as they throw garlic into a pan, no beautiful woman telling chefs to pack their knives. There'll just be a guy with a smile chopping chives.

"I'm sure a lot of people say my shows are really boring," Pepin says. "But you can't escape yourself. I'm not an actor. I am who I am. And I'm still teaching cooking. Which is what I do. It's good for me, it's no good for someone else."

This sense of authenticity, his devotion not to his own stardom, but to the food and the food alone, is what has kept people watching Pepin. Even in this era of flash and glitz, his executives at San Francisco's KQED, which produces his shows, say his audience has remained steady and that he is more widely distributed and watched than Food Network peers.

"He's about sharing good food, demonstrating good technique and really educating the viewer," says Tina Salter, Pepin's producer at KQED, who notes that she usually has to drag him out of the kitchen to get him into makeup. "That's what separates him from everyone else. He's the consummate teacher."

So once again, Pepin is walking the line between two cultures, not French and American this time, but entertainment and education. And once again, say his supporters, he will bridge that gap. And secure a place with the next generation.

"He's a cook's cook," says Russ Parsons, food editor at The Los Angeles Times. "And that's not to belittle the Food Network because they're bringing people into the church. And when they become true believers, they'll find Jacques. And Jacques will be waiting."

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