Jacques Pépin

The Essential Magic of Jacques Pépin

Jacques Pépin, one of the food world’s living legends, reflects on a career that includes over two decades at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

Jacques Pépin’s hands are resting quietly on his kitchen table, and it’s taking every ounce of my willpower not to stare. I know these hands well, and you do, too. They’ve been photographed meticulously barding a roast or folding a tart in the pages of La Technique, whisking a crème pâtissière while bickering with Julia Child on a TV screen, curled around a knife handle and an onion half on the cover of Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pépin, casually wielding a flaming pan of crêpes suzette as he lovingly taunts his cook-off opponents at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

At the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, I saw these hands projected many times their size on a screen above him, boning a chicken and rolling an omelet as he spoke to 300 silent, awestruck chefs and spectators about the importance of mastering technique. He never looked down. These are magic hands. 

Mine are shaking as I slide over the manila envelope I’d clutched on the train ride to his home on the Connecticut shoreline. It feels like a bit of a risk, and Gaston, the small, dark gray French poodle nestled in his lap, grumbles in protest when the 87-year-old chef leans forward to flip open the March 1978 Playboy nestled inside with some old photographs. But Pépin’s face warms. He recognizes his own work — a step-by-step tutorial and recipe for a soufflé — and beams into full sunshine when he finds out, to his complete amazement, that this 18-page insert within the magazine is considered the debut issue of Food & Wine, and his recipe is the first the publication ever ran. 

“I didn’t even remember that. It goes back so many years, and it’s very rewarding to go back that far,” he muses. “Food & Wine has been around for a while, and I've been part of it.” He’s also been the lifeblood of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, which turns 40 this year, headlining the annual culinary festival more than two dozen times since his first onstage appearance in 1993. Then again, Pépin has existed as a gentle gravity at the center of the culinary universe for as long as most of us can recall, drawing press, presidents, civilian cooks, and his restaurant peers alike into his orbit in the hopes of improving our kitchen skills, tasting something close to perfection. Even Gaston, now shifted into an adjacent chair, keeps his whole being trained upon his owner, seemingly hoping not to miss a word. 

This collective focus seems to baffle Pépin. Not out of any faux humility — pretense is anathema to this legendarily precise man — but because when he began his kitchen career at his mother’s restaurant, Le Pélican, nearly 80 years ago, the notion of a chef being treated as anything other than a laborer seemed laughable. “The cook, when I was young, was really at the bottom of the social scale. Now it has changed, but for me, we’re still mashed-potato bakers. We can’t take it too seriously.” Nor does he take any of it for granted.

Pépin was born in 1935 and started his formal apprenticeship at age 13 at the Grand Hôtel de l’Europe in his hometown of Bourg-en-Bresse, France, but it was two years before he was allowed to approach the stove to do anything other than refresh the wood or coals. That was just the way, he says, spending your time eviscerating poultry, scaling fish, sharpening knives, until one day, the head chef says that it’s your time. “You would never have asked ‘Why?’ because he would have said, ‘I just told you.’ That’s about the end of it. You learn through a type of osmosis, which is different from the way we teach now.” And though he may not have known it at the time, the thing that was being stoked within him was the lifelong passion to pass on his craft. He is acutely aware that he’s one of the few chefs of his generation who still can. 

At 17, Pépin moved to Paris to work at some of the country’s most august restaurants: Plaza Athénée, Maxim’s, and Fouquet’s. By 1956, he’d begun cooking in the French navy, eventually serving as personal chef to three different heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle, but something in him yearned for more. An intended one-year stint in the “golden fleece” of America in 1959 accidentally became two, then 10, then decades as he just kept saying yes

Yes to a master’s then a PhD program at Columbia University while working at fellow Frenchman Henri Soulé’s Le Pavillon. (“I was doing a history of food in the context of literature. I wanted to start with one of the poems of Ronsard from the 16th century, called ‘La Salade,’ then from this other point of departure to Proust in the early 20th century. They said, ‘Are you crazy?’”) A no to once again cooking in rarefied political air at the Kennedy White House was in service of a yes to a position developing recipes to serve in mass quantities at Howard Johnson’s. (“It wasn't a noble reason; I thought it was totally different in terms of production, marketing, chemistry of food. I knew nothing about this.”) 

Yes to the stunning woman, Gloria, who hired him for a private ski lesson at Hunter Mountain, despite her already being part of the ski patrol. (“I’m banging on her leg. I said, ‘Bend your knees, do that!’”) Yes, of course, he married her, and his friends Pierre Franey, Roger Fessaguet, and René Verdon catered the celebration at the home of the longtime New York Times food editor and critic Craig Claiborne in East Hampton, New York. Yes, they became parents to a daughter, Claudine, the next year.

Jacques Pépin paints in his home

Cedric Angeles

When Claiborne wanted to introduce him to House Beautiful editor Helen McCully, he said yes, and, of course, yes again when she asked if he’d care to meet her friend James Beard or to cook for an aspiring author who was coming to town, seeing as this tall American expat was working on a book that had to do with mastering the art of French cooking. He also said yes when McCully suggested that he use his kitchen skills to instruct others — maybe even break it down and document the steps in his very Cartesian way, perhaps even in a book of his own. He went on to write more than 30, the most recent of which came out last year, fully festooned with whimsical, wonderful watercolor illustrations of chickens that Pépin painted himself. 

“The mistake is to think that you planned those moments. I never planned to stay in America. I never planned to go to Columbia; I never planned to parent or to do that many books or to do any of the things that I’ve done,” Pépin says. “But things happen, and you go with it.”

Certainly unplanned was the 1974 accident when his car collided with a deer, flipped into a ravine, and exploded, fracturing a dozen of his bones, breaking his back, and leaving him uncertain if he’d ever walk again. Even in this agony, he found clarity, leaving behind the 15-hour days in his post–Howard Johnson’s restaurant La Potagerie in order to focus on teaching cooking however and wherever he could, and still wherever he can.

Jacques Pepin

Cedric Angeles

“You always learn somewhere, wherever you are, and if you want to move forward, you have to look at the positive things and move with it. Those decisions always kind of seem to be trivial at the time, then they change your life.”

What a life it’s been so far, and Pépin is well aware of the pleasure and privilege of it. We tip the rest of the photos from the folder — spanning at least two decades — and he takes them into his hands to examine them more closely. There is an infant onstage in Aspen with him and Claudine, and he confirms that she is his granddaughter, Shorey, who is now a freshman at Boston University, where he still teaches. She’s taller than him now, he laughs, but he recalls her at age 4 or 5, as he showed her how to taste the parsley in the garden, smell and touch the tomatoes, and tell him all about it. When she was 12, they coauthored a book, A Grandfather’s Lessons, featuring her hands going through the steps of some of the recipes. Cooking is the way the Pépin family has always communicated, and he wants that memory to stay with her for the rest of her life, the sensations anchoring her to the warmth and safety of home, even when she is far away. 

Jacques Pépin flips a crepe

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There is Pépin, eyes crinkled in glee as flames leap from the pan he is wielding onstage like the consummate showman he is. His best friend of over half a century, Jean-Claude Szurdak, is going toe to toe with him in the annual Classic cook-off, playing to the crowd, calling himself an underdog. It works, and he wins — the only person ever to beat Pépin — but he doesn’t mind. Szurdak is in a nursing home now, with Alzheimer’s disease. Physically, Pépin says, he is fine, but … the sentence trails off. It is Pépin’s task now to keep these memories alive, and he is quick to share them. Daniel Boulud, laughing somewhere in the background of a snapshot, opened an homage to Le Pavillon in 2021 and had Pépin come in to meet the team. “I was probably the only one who worked in that kitchen who was still alive, so we talked about that. Those were great moments.”

“The moment that I go to is always the same: being together. I worked in the greatest restaurants in the world. I ate in the greatest restaurants in the world, but I don’t remember those as well as I remember friends in the kitchen, or upstate New York, or at Craig Claiborne’s. Those are the moments that I cherish, all cooking together, stealing one another’s food, talking. Certainly with Pierre Franey, Roger Fessaguet, and all of those guys who are all gone now. My God.” 

In the weeks after we speak, Pépin would travel into Manhattan to attend a memorial celebration for his friend and fellow French Culinary Institute dean Alain Pierre Sailhac, along with what seemed like half of the fine-dining world. Pictures of Pépin appeared all over Instagram; no one is too cool to ask for their picture to be taken with a living legend. I’m certainly not.

Back at home, things are quieter. He still cooks for friends and enjoys when they return the favor, but most nights it’s just him and Gaston in the kitchen, and it’s admittedly harder since he lost Gloria in 2020. “I don’t like to eat by myself. This is the worst part of it,” he says. “I mean, for 54 years, Gloria and I would always share a bottle of wine, sit down, and have dinner. For over half a century, that was the end of the day, and that was the culmination of the day. That was a big part of who we were, who we are.” 

That were and are eternally exist in the same plane is perhaps the essential magic of Jacques Pépin. It’s not a hollow nostalgia or wistfulness for the way things were, but rather a preternatural sense of what is worth taking along with us and handing down. This is the teacher in him. The one who is proud to stand by his earliest work. Even though he’s cooked for presidents, popped Champagne at the summit of Aspen Mountain, and stripped his own cooking back down to the pleasures of the basics — a perfectly charred hot dog, lightly warmed yellow tomatoes with olive oil on toast, Cornish hen with broccoli, a pop of caviar — he knows that the way his hands peel asparagus stalks and sharpen blades on the pages of a nearly 50-year-old book is the right way to do it then, now, and always. This is his eternal yes.

Jacques Pépin

Cedric Angeles

Main image courtesy of the Jacques Pépin Foundation, video by Tara Sgroi and Aaron Pattap

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