At Nearly 80, Jacques Pepin Keeps On Educating and Entertaining

The legendary Jacques Pépin
The legendary Jacques Pépin
Tom Hopkins

Weeks away from hitting his eightieth birthday, Jacques Pépin is still among the best-known, most active culinary instructors in the world. Over the course of his career, he's published more than two dozen books and starred in thirteen public television cooking series. He's a contributing editor to Food & Wine magazine, adjunct faculty member of Boston University, and the Dean of Special Programs at the French Culinary Institute in New York City (now ICC). The secret to his vitality, he says, is wine.

On top of all the distinctions, honorary and literal, the soon-to-be octogenarian recently filmed his last TV series, which is currently airing on KQED. And, as a companion to it, Pépin debuted his most intimate cooking tome, Jacques Pépin: Heart & Soul in the Kitchen, an inside peek into the life and home of one of the top culinary figures in the world.

During a recent phone conversation, Pépin told the Voice that the book reflects the way he eats at home with his family, with an international flair. "It's all over the place," he said.

Pépin moved to the States from France 56 years ago. He married a New Yorker whose mother was Puerto Rican and father was Cuban. The Pépins and their daughter eat everything from Japanese and Chinese to Mexican. Recipes range from homemade butter and country bread to the Dirty Rice for Gloria (his wife), from his mother's poulet à la crème to tabbouleh and an avocado, tomato, and crab salad. He goes over the details of entertaining well. "You have to plan," says Pépin. "Do what you're comfortable with, so you can spend time with guests. The idea is for people to have fun and enjoy themselves." 

With photos of his family and their gatherings, Pépin's book outlines his idea of a great get-together. He talks about his entertaining ethos: "The first requirement for anything I serve at my house is that it taste good. No compromises!" He explains his favorite game, boules (bocce), and what to drink while playing — Pernod or rosé. Pépin recalls foraging with his parents and older brother in Bourg-en-Bresse and describes how he's continued the tradition with his daughter — and, now, granddaughter — in Connecticut. It's all enough to make you wish you were part of the Pépin brood. 

Pépin makes numerous recommendations for creating special events. One of his personal favorites is creating paper menus for dinner parties. The ever-talented chef illustrates his own by hand (his drawings are featured throughout the volume), keeping them as mementos of good times with family and friends. "I still have some plans from the Seventies and late Sixties," he says. "I can look at what we ate for my daughter's second birthday."

A portrait of his life and dinner parties, the book is also an extension of Pépin's mission to educate — there's a section dedicated to his love for the profession. He's been teaching at Boston University for over thirty years, at ICC for the past twenty.

He's seen firsthand the ways in which food media has changed the industry. Students are more inquisitive than they were in the past — many pupils come in for three months with the goal of writing a book or getting a TV show. Some are serious, others are not. But one of the biggest differences over the past three decades, and one of the most positive, is gender demographics. He's always had women in his classes, just not necessarily at his professional level. Thirty years ago, he says, his Certificate in Culinary Arts course at BU was dominated by men. Last time he taught it, however, out of the fifteen students, fourteen were women. Much of that can be attributed to changes in society, says Pépin, though he also thinks it has much to do with evolving attitudes toward the profession: "In my time, any mother would want her daughter to marry a doctor or a lawyer, not a chef."

Pépin himself was integral in the culinary shift in the States. A longtime colleague of James Beard and Julia Child, he made his foray into television in the early Eighties, making him one of the front-runners in what would become a huge fame-generating machine.

Even so, and while he appreciates the rise of food culture stemming from the growth of food media, Pépin is not much into the theatrics of television. He appreciates chefs like Ming Tsai and Lidia Bastianich, colleagues who, like him, impart knowledge to viewers. He doesn't like the dramatics of the new crop of reality shows that have taken over the bulk of food television. "They show yelling and action and moving," says Pépin. "For me, it's not conducive to great cooking. Some people look at me and think I'm boring."

Keeping it in the family: Jacques Pépin's interpretation of his mother's poulet à la crèmeEXPAND
Keeping it in the family: Jacques Pépin's interpretation of his mother's poulet à la crème
Photo by Tom Hopkins

Excerpted from Heart & Soul in the Kitchen, © 2015 by Jacques Pépin. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Poulet à la Crème
Serves 4

Chicken in cream sauce is a specialty of the town where I was born, Bourg-en-Bresse. My mother’s simple recipe included a whole cut-up chicken with water, a dash of flour, and a bit of cream to finish. I have added white wine and mushrooms to make the dish a bit more sophisticated, and used chicken thighs, which are the best part of the chicken (1½ thighs per person should be a generous serving for a main course). A sprinkling of chopped tarragon at the end makes it more special, but it is optional. I am not sure my mother would approve of my changes, but this is easy, fast, and good. Most of the time, my mother served hers with rice pilaf.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 chicken thighs (about 3 pounds), skin removed (about 2½ pounds skinned)
8 mushrooms (about 6 ounces), washed and sliced
1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ cup dry white wine
¼ cup water
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh tarragon (optional)

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the chicken thighs to the pan in one layer and brown over high heat for about 2 ½ minutes on each side.

Add the mushrooms to the pan and sprinkle on the flour. Turn the chicken pieces with tongs so the flour is dispersed evenly. Stir in the wine and water and mix well. Bring to a boil and add the salt and pepper. Cover, reduce the heat, and cook gently for 25 minutes.

Add the cream, bring to a boil, and boil, uncovered, for about 1 minute. Serve sprinkled with the chopped tarragon, if desired.

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