Yesterday we chatted with Jacques Pépin about his new book, Essential Pepin, an impressive collection of more than 700 of his favorite recipes. Today, he explains why chefs must master technique in the kitchen, and also reveals his Thanksgiving plans and cooking tips.
In your book, you talk a lot about the importance of technique. Do you think that it is the most important thing a chef must master?
Yes, from my point of view, because it takes so much of the drudgery out of cooking. If you want to be a good painter, you go into a studio and learn the laws of perspective and how to mix yellow and blue to make green and you work to imbibe yourself with knowledge. Does that make you an artist? Not necessarily, but you’re a good technician. If you only have the technical knowledge, you won’t go that far, but you can still run the kitchen. There are small restaurants at, say, the Marriott, that are good in that they run a kitchen with good food costs and they are nice chefs and put out a good product. Do they do extraordinary food? No. Not everyone is a Keller, Boulud, or Vongerichten. If you have talent, then you have all that knowledge and then you can express it. Many chefs today like René Redzepi have started without the technique, but it takes longer to get there. Do like you do in school and learn the three R’s and then after you can move forward. Many chefs, they’ll reject it, but they’ve still acquired the knowledge. Look at the students at the French Culinary Institute, from Bobby Flay to David Chang to Dan Barber: All of those people aren’t doing French cooking at all and they’re doing interesting things.
What do you think about modernist cuisine or molecular gastronomy?
It’s an addition to what we do now. You always learn. We had nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s. Sous-vide is repackaging of what I did at Howard Johnson in the ’70s. We’d put turkey breast in sealed Cryovac bags to prevent loss and to keep them moist, so there was a lot already done in that area. Now, it’s about using new ingredients and gelatins and it’s creating the “wow.” It’s like when you see a great couturier. Like when Christian Lacroix makes an enormous hat and you laugh as you see [a model wearing] it down the runway. You’d think, Who wears that? But it trickles down to prêt-à-porter. Not everybody and even Ferran Adrià doesn’t eat that way all the time. It’s about pushing the envelope. It’s more for younger people than for me. After 60 years, I see it as an interesting thing but it’s not like I’m going to reincorporate that into my recipes. I’m too old for that.
OK, so Thanksgiving is coming up. Are you doing anything to celebrate?
We actually are going to do Thanksgiving at my house, and we have a pretty extended menu. For me, Thanksgiving is the best holiday of the year. It’s not anything religious or based on any war or memorial. It’s just a date to get together and eat and be merry and share food and you don’t have to bring gifts.
So what’s the essential Pépin way to cook the turkey?
I ordered my turkey from a farm — start with a good bird. I’ve done eight different ways of doing turkey. I’m going to steam the turkey first. I feel between the thigh and drumstick which still stays red until the last moment so I’ll cut deep to expose the joint a little and I do the same thing at the joint at the shoulder, cutting half an inch or one inch. I’ll put the turkey on a rack in a stockpot with four cups water and will steam it for 45 minutes. At that point, I can remove my turkey because all the fat will have been taken out. I wait five minutes and scoop all the fat out and then I put the neck, gizzards, and wing tips in to make the gravy. Then I’ll put my turkey on a rack on a big tray with some carrots and onion, and I’ll brush it with vinegar and maybe a little apple cider or Tabasco and some salt and it’ll get a nice crust. And the juice that comes out of it, I don’t have to worry about there being fat. And then finally when the neck and gizzards are cooked, I’ll pick off the meat and add that to the gravy. And that’ s my secret!