CHEF JACQUES PÉPIN ON ALMOST WORKING FOR THE KENNEDYS AND MEETING AN UNKNOWN JULIA CHILD
Jacques Pépin was an original celebrity chef. He was sautéing and chopping when the title did not carry the prestige it does today. Immigrating to the U.S. from France in 1959, Pépin continued his culinary career in New York at Le Pavillon, which was looked upon as the best restaurant in the nation at the time. Known for his friendship with Julia Child, Pépin, now 76, was the first chef to review her cookbook manuscript and the last to cook in her kitchen before it was given to the Smithsonian. On Nov. 12, you can meet Pépin at the 92nd Street Y, where he will join Andre Soltner and Jean-Jacques Rachou for Three French Chefs: Conversations and Reminiscences. He will also sign his new cookbook, Jacques Pépin’s New Complete Techniques, which will be released Nov. 13.
In your book The Apprentice, you talked about coming to New York and working at Le Pavillon, which was thought to be the finest restaurant in the United States.
Yes, I started at Le Pavillon in ’59 and worked there for less than a year. It remained a famous restaurant for 20 years after Henri Soulé created it at the World’s Fair in 1939. In the middle of 1960, when Kennedy was running for president, Soulé had a problem with Pierre Franey, the executive chef, and the staff. He didn’t want to pay anyone. So we all left in support of the chef.
In your opinion, what is the best restaurant now?
At this time, there would probably be 10 best restaurants in New York alone. Remember that the Michelin [Guide] came at some point in the late ’60s and gave Le Pavillon a two-star rating, which was the highest in the United States. They didn’t even give another two-star rating, and now there are five or six restaurants in New York with three-star ratings.
You were asked to be the chef at the Kennedy White House, but declined the offer.
This was in the beginning of the spring of 1960, and what you have to realize is, the world of the chef was totally different then. At the time, I had been the chef to a president in France and I had never once been in a newspaper, magazine, on radio or television. No one ever came to thank you or call you in the dining room. Usually when they came into the kitchen, it was because something was wrong. When I was asked to go to the White House, I had no inkling of the potential it could have had for my career.
You were one of the first celebrity chefs.
Well I don’t know. Yes, I suppose, in retrospect, probably at that time. I mean it was a small world.
You said that in the early ’60s there was no food television. What do you think of the change?
It’s just an amazing thing. I was at the Food and Wine Festival in Aspen, and one of the lecturers said that there are 407 cookery shows on television. I don’t know whether it’s accurate, but still, it blows your mind.
You met Julia Child in 1960 when you were asked to look at her cookbook manuscript for Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
I met Julia because I met Craig Claiborne, who was just starting at the New York Times. He introduced me to Helen McCully, the editor of House Beautiful. An older lady, she was never married or had children, so she became my surrogate mother. Helen told me to look at the manuscript, and I thought it was pretty good. She said, “The woman who wrote it is from California and she’s coming to New York next week, so let’s cook for her.” She told me, “She is a big woman with a terrible voice.” That was, of course, Julia.
What do you remember about meeting her?
You look at her size, her voice, and her exuberance. I remember that I spoke French with her more than English. Her French was better than my English at that time. We were friends for close to half a century.
You met your wife Gloria on Hunter Mountain, where you were a ski instructor.
She requested a private lesson with me and was actually in the ski patrol. Our first date was on Valentine’s Day; I cooked for her. Yesterday was our 46th anniversary. I cook for her every day, unless she cooks for me.
What is the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Oh boy. I ate a lot of strange things, from caterpillar and slug in West Africa, to raw fertilized eggs in China.
For information on Jacques Pépin’s event, visit www.92y.org/Uptown/Event/Three-French-Chefs.aspx
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