Life-Changing Lessons from Jacques Pépin

© Pépin’s Archives Rephotographed by Tom Hopkins
Chefs and food lovers from all over the world are gathering in Aspen tonight to celebrate Jacques Pépin, who turns 80 this year, at the #FWClassic. In honor of his birthday and final PBS series, we asked 25 of his biggest fans tell how this extraordinary teacher changed the way they cook, think and live. 

Chefs and food lovers from all over the world are gathering in Aspen tonight to celebrate Jacques Pépin, who turns 80 this year, at the #FWClassic. In honor of his birthday and final PBS series, we asked 25 of his biggest fans tell how this extraordinary teacher changed the way they cook, think and live.

"What separates a good chef from a great chef?" I once asked Jacques Pépin.
He said: ‘To be a good chef you have to be a good technician. To be a great chef you have to be a good technician, but you also have to have talent, and you have to have love.’ Jacques has always reminded us that one cannot cook indifferently. He also has taught us that food doesn’t make sense unless you share it with someone. This is the essence of Jacques: giving invaluable culinary and life lessons. It is my belief that the best chefs are the ones who came before us, the innovators and influencers whose experience and expertise paved the way for us. Jacques Pépin has helped elevate cooking from a mere job to a respected field pursued by professionals.”
Thomas Keller, chef/proprietor of Thomas Keller Restaurant Group

Knife Skills:

Cutting Carefully
“These days, we tend to use big, flashy Japanese chef’s knives, but Mr. Pépin often uses a paring knife, which lets him cut ingredients with more control, in his hands.”

Jonah Miller, Huertas, New York City


Dicing Onions
“Jacques’s TV show taught me to cut an onion in half, slice it down, cut it crosswise, and then cut it in an eighth-inch dice. The Vietnamese julienne first, but you get a more even dice the French way.”

Charles Phan, The Slanted Door, San Francisco


Cleaning Artichokes
“Making a perfect, single cut around an artichoke to expose its usable parts was magic to me the first time I saw Jacques do it.”

Tim Love, Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, Fort Worth, Texas

Birds:

Having Fast Hands
“I once volunteered to help Jacques butcher chickens for a demo at Chez Panisse. He whispered that it should take about 50 seconds, but it took me five minutes and it looked horrible. Today, we use his method when we make chicken ballotine at Camino.”

Russell Moore, Camino, Oakland, California


Perfecting Turkey
“One Thanksgiving, I used Jacques’s recipe for steaming a turkey from his 2012 article in the New York Times. My turkey was a huge success—so moist, and it cooked in a quarter of the usual time. Ever since, I’ve been obsessed with steaming meats.”

Daniel Holzman, The Meatball Shop, New York City


Butchering Chicken
“Jacques Pépin is a Zen master with a knife. He butchers chicken differently than most chefs do: He gets in under the legs and pulls the meat away from the carcass, which lets his knife follow the body line of the bird. I butcher chickens every day for yakitori skewers, so I think of Jacques Pépin every day.”
Christine Lau, Bar Chuko, Brooklyn

Being Punctual:

Seizing the Moment
“Here’s what Jacques has taught me: Do it now! If you ask him to provide a new recipe, you’ll get it within the hour. Questions about recipes? Instant answers, delivered with perfect precision, even as he prepares dinner for 1,500 people (literally), as he did when we were wrapping up his forthcoming book, Jacques Pépin Heart & Soul in the Kitchen. Woe to procrastinators who work with Jacques! But of course, doing things so fast is not as easily accomplished for those of us who lack his brilliant mind and total recall of all things food.”

Rux Martin, Pépin’s editor extraordinaire


Goofing Around:

Being Outrageous in Downtown Manhattan
“Jacques and I had decided to go have lunch together at DBGB. I went to pick him up on my motorcycle, but neither of us had an extra helmet, so Jacques put a mixing bowl on his head! Somehow I convinced him to take it off.”
Jacques Torres, Dean of Pastry Arts at the International Culinary Center, New York City

Catching Frogs
“Jacques Pépin is a frog killer! One summer I was invited to his place in the country for a pétanque tournament and, at around 1 or 2 a.m., Jacques told us he needed some frogs for one of his upcoming shows. We then decided to go on a commando excursion in his pond to catch frogs that were heavily defended by mosquitoes. We did catch a few of them but ended up covered with mud and mosquito bites!”

Jacques Torres


Stealing a Goose
“When I worked at Clio, Jacques Pépin once came to the bar with a friend and ended up sharing his stories with us cooks. The one I’ll always remember took place in France when he was a teenager. His mother sent him to buy groceries, and off he went with a friend. They got hungry while they were walking, though, and when they spied a 
goose in a field, their appetites won over—they caught and killed it. What they didn’t know is that the goose’s owner watched the whole thing happen. The irate farmer started yelling, demanding money. So instead of buying groceries, they paid for a goose that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he finished the story, he clinked glasses with his friend at the bar—his fellow goose thief—and laughed about how delicious the goose tasted when they finally got it home and cooked it. I love this story because sometimes we get so caught up in the myth of great chefs that we forget they are human. He is flawed, hilarious and full of life.” 

Carey Dobies, BOKX 109 American Prime, Newton, Massachusetts

Vegetables:

Elevating a Leek
“I remember watching Jacques cook on TV in the ’90s. The first course he did struck me: It was a braised leek with a vinaigrette, fines herbes and black truffle. It was perfect in my eyes—one of my favorite vegetables, served with a light sauce to bring out all of its bright lushness.”

Frank McClelland, L’Espalier and La Brasa, Boston area


Getting the Most Flavor from an Onion
“As a classically trained chef, for years I was taught to be careful about caramelizing my onions too deeply when making French onion soup—
after you add the beef broth, the soup can get too rich or sweet. Then I saw Jacques Pépin make his version on TV, and it turned my training on its head. Why bother making onion soup without properly caramelizing the onions? In fact, why add beef stock at all? Pépin’s recipe called for water, so the soup is all about the onion.”

Joshua Lewin, Bread & Salt Hospitality, Boston


Eggs:

Cracking Eggs
“Chef Pépin taught me to crack eggs on a flat surface. Hitting them against the edge of a bowl makes it more likely you’ll get shell fragments in your food.”
Greg Richie, Soco, Orlando, Florida

Making an Omelet
“According to Jacques, a perfect omelet should have no color on either side and should be rolled into an oblong tube to keep it moist and tender.”

Tim Wiechmann, Bronwyn and T.W. Food, Boston area

How to Be a Great Chef:

Mastering the Basics
“I was 18 years old when I approached Jacques Pépin and asked, ‘How do you become a great chef?’ He told me that in order to become a great chef, I needed to learn to make a proper vichyssoise. I struggled to figure out why, but later realized that what he meant was more about the importance of mastering the basics than the soup itself.”

Sang Yoon, Father’s Office and Lukshon, Los Angeles


Inspiring Your Cooks
“Working with Monsieur Pépin taught me that you should treat your cooks like you’ve known them your entire life. When you walk into your kitchen, they should not be filled with fear but instead inspired to try their hardest not to let you down.”

Dave Becker, Sweet Basil, Needham, and Juniper, Wellesley; Massachusetts


Equipping a Kitchen
“When I was outfitting one of my restaurant kitchens, Jacques suggested that I avoid wasting money on new equipment by buying lightly used stoves and other pieces at auction from restaurants that have closed. I’ve stocked up at auctions ever since.”

Daniel Bruce, Boston Harbor Hotel, Boston

Helping Your Friends
“When I had my catering business, I fed three American presidents, but Jacques was always behind me, giving me new ideas from his travels. 
One time he said, ‘Claude, I just came back from California, where I saw a lobster en croûte.’ I said, ‘Well, I do lobster en croûte.’ But he explained 
a different technique to me, and wow! I was so excited! Jacques is always full of fantastic ideas.”

Jean-Claude Szurdak, chef and Pépin’s lifelong sidekick


Focusing on Technique
“In his books, he focuses on teaching techniques as opposed to recipes 
so that cooks not only understand the hows, but also—more important—the whys. This frees you up to experiment with new flavor combinations, because you understand how to fundamentally cook a dish.”

Tom Colicchio, Craft, New York City


Cooking by Intuition
“It was magic to watch Jacques make fruit compote, slicing oranges with the speed and precision of a surgeon, adding honey and raisins, without 
a recipe. His hands moved constantly, while his mind was one step ahead.”

Joanne Weir, Copita Tequileria y Comida, Sausalito, California

Living the Good Life:

Being a Tough-Love Dad
“Jacques is a very funny guy, you know. One day, I was on the road near his house on Hunter Mountain, and I saw him on his bicycle, riding behind his daughter, Claudine, who was six or seven. I asked, ‘What’s going on here?’ He said, ‘She misses the school bus every day, so now she’s going to walk!’ He made her walk to school, riding behind her the whole time.”
André Soltner, Dean of Classic Studies at the International Culinary Center, New York City

Making Wine Sing
“While filming Top Chef: Boston, I had dinner across the table from Jacques, and we all toasted to start the meal. He leaned over and said, ‘Tilt your glass a little to the side when you clink, and it makes the wine sing.’ I did, and it sounded beautiful!”

Mary Dumont, Harvest, Boston


Topping a Burger
“The best thing Jacques taught me was to top a prime rib burger with a torchon of foie gras. Amazing! The burger is medium rare and warm; the torchon cool and rich. What a combination of flavors and textures.”

Gary Arabia, GC Marketplace, Los Angeles


Appreciating Schotch
“He taught me how to properly taste and appreciate a good Scotch: Think of it like a beautiful lady and give it a good French kiss.” 

Nick Ronan, Bisou Bistronomy and Beso Bistronomia, San Francisco


Teaching Kids
“My parents never gave me ‘kid’ food. Whatever they ate, I ate. My father always says that when you put a veal chop, fingerling potatoes and brussels sprouts in front of a child who’s only been given kid food, she’s going to go, ‘What the hell is this?’ It’s not about trying to give your child the most extraordinary palate. It’s about feeding your kids real food.”

Claudine Pépin, cookbook author and Jacques’s daughter

Learn From Jacques Pépin:

Take a Cruise
Pépin will lead cooking demos on Oceania Cruises’ Iberian Inspiration journey in July. Throughout the year, the Marina and Riviera ships will offer a new Pépin-designed class called La Technique. oceaniacruises.com.

Watch the New TV Show
This fall, PBS will air Pépin’s final TV cooking series, Jacques Pépin: Heart & Soul, accompanied by a new cookbook of the same name. 


Learn from Videos
In videos, Pépin demonstrates both simple knife skills and more challenging projects like how to make puff pastry.

Recipes: Leeks with Tomato Vinaigrette
Fines Herbes Omelet
Grilled Chicken with Cabbage Anchoïade

Related: 20 Recipes from Jacques Pépin
Jacques Pépin's Best Desserts
Cooking Basics with Jacques Pépin

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