When Jacques Pépin gets ready to cook a meal at his vacation home in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, he's as laid-back as the other residents of this beach town, less than an hour south of Cancún. Strolling the aisles of the market, contemplating a mound of plump avocados or sniffing a leaf of the herb epazote, he has no shopping list in hand, no classic recipes in mind. "It is harder if you try to make a specific dish," he says in the French accent he hasn't lost in nearly 50 years of living in the United States. The best plan in Playa del Carmen, where he and his wife, Gloria, bought an apartment two years ago, is to avoid planning altogether. "I go to the market, I see what comes knocking, and then I buy," he says.
Today, a glossy pile of poblano chiles catches his attention. "Last week when Jean-Claude was in town, we cooked these with fish, it was incredible," he says, piling them into his basket. Jean-Claude Szurdak, Jacques's best friend and fellow chef, and Jean-Claude's wife, Geneviève, often join the Pépins on vacation. "I like to add the chiles to a bed of diced jicama to simmer fish, just a little, so the fish gets tender. Then I serve the fish and vegetables on a very thick sauce, really a puree, of black beans and cilantro. Ever since I started coming to Mexico, I use a lot more cilantro," he says, grabbing a large leafy bunch.
Having a kitchen in which he can prepare dishes like these is one of the reasons the Pépins bought a vacation home overlooking the Caribbean Sea in booming Playa del Carmen, which locals claim is the fastest-growing town in the world. "It was love at first sight," Jacques says of the town. "We adored the exciting atmosphere. It's a fantastic walking town, bustling with shops and restaurants, most of them lining the main street, Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue."