Jacques Pepin walks very softly in an era of the big schtick. He does not wham, or "Bam!" (although he is generous to his more flamboyant colleagues: "After all, Emeril Lagasse has done a lot to introduce people to food and to the fun of cooking"). He prefers to inspire rather than to dazzle and has been teaching at the French Culinary Institute in New York and Boston University for more than 30 years.
Pepin still loves to cook and says that "if I don't cook for two or three days, I get edgy." Despite his classical training in the kitchens of France, he maintains that he found his own style in the anti-artifice revolution of nouvelle cuisine. "My tastes have remained simple," he writes.
And finally, there is the sense of spiritual as well as physical nourishment that pervades his cooking shows. Here's a guy in touch with his feminine side. "I realized," he writes, "although I had worked mostly with men in the great restaurants of Paris and New York, the sort of cooking I was now turning to had been shown to me by women. It was the type of cooking I most loved." So naturally, the man Julia Child calls "the best chef in America" has modestly titled his memoir The Apprentice.
After 21 cookbooks, including the landmark La Technique and The Art of Cooking, Pepin has produced a characteristically gentle reminiscence of his "Life in the Kitchen," as the subtitle has it. It ranges back to his boyhood in his mother's various restaurants (and his escapades of stealing fruit with his brother), through his years learning sauces, grill techniques and stocks in some of the most famous restaurants of two countries: Le Meurice and the Plaza Athenee, Le Pavillon and his own Midtown Manhattan "soup kitchen," La Potagerie.
Public TV viewers who remember the video of Pepin bicycling to the market to fill his handlebar basket will be charmed to know that it's a sort of quiet tribute to his mother, who worked as a waitress supporting three small sons while her husband was off in the army during World War II: "[Riding] an old bicycle with solid rubber tires (no inner tubes) . . . she pedaled thirty-five or forty miles, going from farm to farm, filling the wicker basket strapped on the back of her bicycle with bread, eggs, meat, chicken, honey anything that she could find that would help feed us." With this background, it is not surprising that Pepin is a champion of food that is good from the bottom up, so to speak: fresh, healthful and prepared with an appreciation of its true nature rather than its "star quality."
"You know, a lot is said these days about great chefs, but not enough is said about the farmers," he said recently from his office in the French Culinary Institute. "Food should taste of what it is, as well as of how it has been transformed. Both things are worthwhile. If you have a nice piece of pork, and you roast it and maybe serve it with a little sauce, it has its own character. And if you add some shallots and some mushrooms and cognac and make a pate, that is also delicious. But it must have quality, and the cook must respect that."
On the other hand, Pepin is astonished at the wastefulness of modern-day chefs, and says that he was recently at one of those celebrity chef extravaganzas in California. "There were like 20 chefs, and when I went into the kitchen, I went crazy. A slightly wilted piece of broccoli or a bruised piece of basil and they threw it away. Frankly, I'd like to do a series on 'garbage food,' just using what most people waste."
His own cooking "was always pretty straightforward, but you have to remember that I started my apprenticeship in 1949, and we still had [ration] tickets for sugar and meat and eggs. A chicken was a big deal." The recipes that are scattered through the memoir, from a Reuben sandwich and New England clam chowder to braised rabbit, are examples of what he calls his "modern American cuisine with strong French influences." And yet none will frighten the amateur chef.
Apprenticed at 13, Pepin has cooked high and low. Having survived naval KP to become personal chef to de Gaulle before emigrating to New York, he turned down the position of chef to the Kennedy White House to take a job re-inventing the corporate kitchen for (the real) Howard Johnson. And he very nearly gave it all up for the life of an academic, lacking only the thesis for his doctorate in French literature from Columbia, even though he'd had to begin by taking English classes. He became a close friend of Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Alice Waters and of course the ebullient Child. He consulted on the creation of the Windows on the World.
Then in 1974, a car crash left him with multiple fractures. It was during his slow convalescence that he stumbled onto consulting, teaching, writing and doing television.
In fact, Pepin is about to tape a new series. "I wanted to call it, 'My Fast Food,' to show how to make simple, good but quick family food, but the producers didn't like it; so I don't know what to call it." It will be his 14th series, but the phenomenon of the celebrity chef is still a marvel to Pepin. "When I was coming up, you know, 50 years ago, being a chef was pretty low on the social scale. A good mother would have wanted her son to be a doctor or a lawyer."
Eve Zibart is a writer for The Washington Post.