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Jacques Pepin's Buddy System

Best friends for almost 50 years, Jacques Pépin and Jean-Claude Szurdak know what it's like to cook for presidents, prime ministers...and each other. During a weekend in Aspen, they hang out on the ski slopes and in the kitchen.

I met Jacques Pépin about nine years ago, soon after I became editor of F&W. I was new to the food world and wanted to get to know our contributors. Overcoming some anxiety—He was a TV star! He'd cooked for three French presidents! I didn't know a croquembouche from a cocotte!—I invited him to dinner.

The evening went pretty well, so about six months later, I invited Jacques out again. The day before, he called to say he would be bringing his best friend, Jean-Claude Szurdak. Was he worried he'd be bored? Had he forgotten about our plan and double booked? Later I learned that Jacques and Claude (as Jacques calls him) go pretty much everywhere together, particularly when Jacques's smart, independent-minded wife, Gloria, doesn't want to accompany him.

Since then I've spent time with the two men in at least three states. Whenever I'd see them, I'd beg (yes, beg) for a chance to capture the spirit of their unique relationship for the magazine. Jacques and Jean-Claude finally relented: They were planning to go to Aspen to teach, ski and cook, and they agreed to let F&W tag along for what would surely be a great time. "We have fun," Jean-Claude joked, with a straight face, "if I do what he tells me to do."

I could say, as many people do, that Jacques and Jean-Claude are like brothers, or like a long-married couple. Except that in my experience no brothers or spouses get along so well. "Before we were married, before children, before accidents, before everything, we were already together, cooking in the same way," Jacques says. "We are forged from the same material."

When they met, Jacques was 21 and Jean-Claude was 20. It was 1956, and Jacques was working in Paris, as the chef at Matignon, the residence of the French prime minister, preparing elaborate dishes like capon Régence, a bird stuffed with crayfish mousseline, garnished with puff-pastry shells filled with whole truffles and foie gras, and served with three kinds of quenelles. Jacques requested additional kitchen help, and Jean-Claude arrived. In his memoir, The Apprentice, Jacques recalls feeling as if he'd "been made the butt of somebody's joke...I'd asked for a chef. The gawky kid who slunk into the kitchen looked more like a recently drafted poet, and a starving one at that." Jean-Claude turned out to be Jacques's perfect partner: well-trained, quick-witted and easygoing once you got to know him.

The story of Jacques and Jean-Claude is that of the impetuous leader and the cautious follower, but one in which leader and follower are equals. Jacques moved to the States in 1959 and landed a job at Le Pavillon, one of the best French restaurants in New York City at the time. Less than a year later, after serving with the French army in Algeria, Jean-Claude followed; he became Jacques's roommate and found a job at the restaurant on the ground floor of their run-down building. The men couldn't have been happier—reunited, employed and skiing every weekend with a band of chefs at Hunter Mountain in the Catskills.

The two Frenchmen didn't know how to ski at first, but they threw themselves into it. "We went to the slope, the big one," Jean-Claude says. "We went all the way down, just never on skis. On the side. On the back. On the front." But they progressed, and Jacques even became a ski instructor. He met Gloria when he gave her lessons; an expert, she'd posed as a student to meet the cute teacher.

During the '60s and '70s, Jacques's and Jean-Claude's careers took off in different directions. As director of research and development for Howard Johnson's, Jacques created frozen food for the restaurant chain, then opened a wildly successful soup restaurant in Manhattan; after a car accident that almost killed him, he became one of the country's most famous cooking teachers. Jean-Claude and his wife, Geneviève, ran Jean-Claude Caterers, which served the top echelon of New York society. "Jean-Claude cooked for more presidents and heads of state than I ever did," Jacques says admiringly. Over the years, Jean-Claude also opened three pastry shops in Manhattan. "I did nothing but work for 20 years," he says. Meanwhile, Jacques was off seeing the world. He'd come back with stories about the foods he'd eaten abroad, and Jean-Claude would adapt the dishes for his clientele, who always wanted to impress friends with new things. "It took my soul away," says Jean-Claude of his demanding business. ("Don't start crying now," Jacques deadpans.) Jean-Claude and Geneviève sold the company about seven years ago.

Today Jacques and Jean-Claude spend as much time together as possible—on Jacques's syndicated TV shows produced by San Francisco's KQED, in his Boston University cooking classes, at each other's homes (Jacques lives in Connecticut, Jean-Claude in the Catskills). Says Gloria, "When Jean-Claude is around, I know I can go to bed early. Jacques and Jean-Claude will stay up all night talking. They talk about everything, profound things, things Jacques wouldn't even talk to me about. Religion, women, food, everything." For several years, they've traveled together to the F&W Magazine Classic at Aspen in June. Once they competed against each other in a cook-off. Jacques was greeted by cheers from the audience. For Jean-Claude there was a smattering of polite applause. The MC introduced Jean-Claude as Jacques's best friend. "I'm nothing," Jean-Claude declared. "I'm sunk," Jacques responded. And he was. The crowd chose Jean-Claude as the winner.

The recent ski trip to Aspen was one in a series of happy escapades. Says Jean-Claude, "When I ski, I dance. Very safely. Jacques is like jumping from a parachute." Jacques had skied in Aspen before, but it was the first time for Jean-Claude, who marveled at the difference between the powdery snow of the West and the icy snow of the East. "Aspen," he says, "is a big discovery for me. I ski on an iceberg in Hunter."

After the last run of each day, the two men would have a beer and decide what to eat. One night they prepared dinner at the home of Charles Dale, the owner of Aspen's Rustique Bistro, who worked for Jean-Claude Caterers before becoming an F&W Best New Chef 1995. The first course was one of Jean-Claude's signatures: puff-pastry shells filled with a light potato salad topped with chives, caviar and crumbled egg. Jacques chose the Belgian-inspired beef stew he developed for Red Coach Grill, the Cadillac of the Howard Johnson's restaurants. "I like to use the chicken steak," Jacques says. "It's tasty, like skirt steak." (Also known as the flatiron steak, chicken steak is an inexpensive cut of beef from the blade near the shoulder.) Jean-Claude prepared his pecan-studded brownie cake. "You make sure the top is crackled," he says, "so the ganache will go on nice and smooth."

"Yes," Jacques says, "it's just like when you're preparing a cement wall. You rake it before putting tile on it."

"That's not a nice way to put it," Jean-Claude says in mock offense.

"But it's true!" Jacques insists, feigning indignation.

Jacques and Jean-Claude are natural teachers, but what I'm most interested in learning from these two men is not cooking tips but the secret of their friendship. How can there be no envy, no competitiveness, no struggle? What they possess, I think, cannot be taught. They were simply born with uncommon generosity and sincerity. I feel lucky to know them.

Published January 2004
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