Jacques Pepin: An American From Paris

A few weeks after he arrived in New York, Jacques Pepin was invited to the home of a new American friend. He was offered a sandwich — which he declined, not wanting to spoil his lunch.

"I didn't realize that was lunch," he says.

We know Jacques Pepin — or as I can't help calling him, The Great Monsieur Pepin — as a master culinary technician, the cookbook author and public television personality who taught millions of American home cooks and scores of professional chefs how to sharpen a knife, break an egg and, just for fun, remove the bones from a whole chicken (a trick he performs in less than a minute).

But there's another story, one that almost never gets told. It's about coming to America with a centime in his pocket. (OK, maybe it wasn't a centime). It's about working harder than he ever worked, struggling to learn English in the few hours a day that he wasn't sweating over a stove. It's about turning down glitzy opportunities — like being President Kennedy's White House chef — to discover the "real" America, a truth he sought as a line cook for Howard Johnson's. It's about meeting adversity head on, transforming himself from chef to teacher when a nearly fatal car accident left him unable to stand at a stove for hours on end. And like so many immigrants before him, it's about becoming an American.

Pepin never intended to stay in the U.S. He'd worked for the president of France. He'd cooked in the best restaurants in Paris. But when he arrived in New York in 1959, he fell in love with America and its open-mindedness about food, culture and social class.

"Most people who came here came for economic reasons or sometimes for religious or political reasons," he says. "I didn't have any of this. I came here, I liked it, I stayed. So I'm a pure American — even more than people who are born here — because I did it by choice as an adult."

Though the charming accent has never left him, it's impossible these days to think of Pepin as "French." Yes, he hosts a petanque party every summer on the court in his backyard. And yes, his dog is a well-coiffed miniature poodle (named Paco). But Pepin is a man who calls his recipes "the diary of my life." And if you read that diary, collected in his new book The Essential Pepin, you find his journey from young Frenchman to seasoned American.

About The Author

Michele Kayal is a food writer specializing in the intersection of food, culture and identity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the late great Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Conde Nast Traveler and many other national outlets. She writes regularly for The Associated Press and on her blog, The Hyphenated Chef.

Recipes such as eggs Jeannette speak to his childhood in wartime France, when his mother pedaled her bike from farm to farm scavenging eggs, milk and scraps and somehow making them taste like actual food. Her simple apple tart, with its pliable crust and ruggedly sliced fruit, captures the French country cooking Pepin learned later in her family-run bistros. His recipes for a crystal clear consomme, for the fried potatoes Savonnettes — shaped like little oval soaps — reflect his classical training in Paris restaurants like Plaza Athenee. His cream-and-cognac-laced chicken — the specialty of New York's legendary Le Pavillon — remind us that he helped introduce Americans to haute cuisine.

These early recipes are rigid and unyielding, often demanding multiple steps to achieve a single effect. They represent the way Pepin cooked when he was young — chronologically and spiritually — and yet the book doesn't cast them into a bin labeled "early life." Rather, they are jumbled among recipes that reflect the excitement his palate must have felt on discovering ingredients such as cilantro and Tabasco sauce, both elements of dishes that suggest his transition to more expanded notions of cuisine. Cilantro, introduced to him by his wife Gloria, who is of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent, mingles with herbs de Provence in a black bean and banana soup. Tabasco zips up a traditionally French stew of lamb and white beans.

Pepin also tries his hand at dishes inspired by other immigrants — think gazpacho and pita pizzas — and at American regional cuisine, like seafood gumbo and a grits-and-cheese souffle.

Today, Pepin calls himself "an American cook," and it surely sticks. His grilled chicken with tarragon butter captures the essence of bearnaise without the fuss. His salmon fillet with basil sauce is a flavorful, brightly colored dish composed of little more than fish, basil and barely warmed tomatoes. In these and other dishes like them — pork chops with mustard and capers — Pepin combines what he brought here with what he learned here, completing his passage to a cuisine that is bold, informal, fresh and of his own creation. It is American.

"Five years after I was here, my mother would say, 'This is really good, but it's not French,'" he says. "The changes are very pernicious, very subtle, very insidious. ... There will always be a French twist to what I do. But I don't know where it is in the technique and in the food itself."

As America changed Pepin, Pepin changed America. If Le Pavillon introduced Americans to fine dining, Pepin and his culinary Rat Pack — James Beard, Craig Claiborne, fellow Frenchman Pierre Franey — encouraged them to move beyond their culinary boundaries, to open their minds and mouths to the new flavors and ideas that characterize American food today. And not just the haute stuff. Pepin's influence also extends to today's chain restaurants, his early experiments in frozen food at HoJo's paving the way for today's mass-produced restaurant food.

But perhaps Pepin's greatest influence, the one we know him best for, came from public television, where both alone and as Ricky to Julia Child's warbling Lucy, he taught us how to cook. How to eat. And that food is home. No matter where home is.

"You can't escape the taste of the food you had as a child," he says. "In times of stress, what do you dream about? Your mother's clam chowder. It's security, comfort. It brings you home."

Salmon Fillets In Basil Sauce

This easy, informal, yet beautifully balanced dish represents the simple food Pepin says he has come to favor over the years. The recipe is adapted from The Essential Pepin, by Jacques Pepin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011).

Salmon fillets in basil sauce. i i
Michele Kayal/for NPR
Salmon fillets in basil sauce.
Michele Kayal/for NPR

Makes 4 servings

4 salmon fillets, about 4 ounces each and 1/2-inch thick, skin removed

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tomatoes, peeled, halved, seeded (optional) and cut into 1/2-inch dice for about 2 cups

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

24 medium fresh basil leaves

Preheat the broiler. Brush the fillets on both sides with the oil. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Arrange on cookie sheet, ready to go under the broiler.

Melt the butter in a large skillet. When it is hot, add the tomatoes and saute over medium-high heat for about 1 minute to warm them. Add the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, the pepper and basil and set aside.

Place the fillets under the broiler about 2 inches from the heat and cook for 1 1/2 minutes. They should still be rare in the center.

Arrange some of the tomato-basil mixture on four plates and place the fillets on top.

Spoon the remaining tomato-basil mixture on top of the fish and serve.

Meme's Apple Tart

This is another of Mme. Pepin's dishes, a tart that Pepin says she made almost every day in her small Lyon restaurant Le Pelican. Its soft, hand-pressed dough couldn't be easier. The is adapted from The Essential Pepin, by Jacques Pepin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011).

Apple tart i i
Michele Kayal/for NPR
Apple tart
Michele Kayal/for NPR

Makes 6 servings

Dough

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons vegetable shortening or lard, at room temperature

1/4 cup milk, heated to lukewarm

Filling

2 pounds Golden Delicious or McIntosh apples (about 6 medium)

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees with a rack in the center.

For the dough, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Add the shortening or lard and mix with a spoon or your hands until the mixture feels and looks sandy. Add the warm milk and stir rapidly for a few seconds, until the dough is well mixed.

Using a sheet of plastic wrap to help you (this is an ingenious tip), fit the dough into a 9-inch quiche pan or tart pan with a removable bottom. With your fingers, press the dough evenly into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Set aside.

For the filling, peel the apples, quarter them and remove the cores. Arrange the apple quarters, cut side up, in circles on top of the dough and sprinkle the sugar evenly over them. Cut the butter into small pieces and dot the apples with the butter.

Place the tart pan on a cookie sheet and bake for 1 hour, or until the apples are browned and crusty.

Let cool to lukewarm, then cut into wedges and serve.

James Beard's Onion Sandwiches

Apparently James Beard served these sandwiches to Pepin one Sunday morning in the mid-'60s. (Hangover food?) Interesting enough for a party, cut them into smaller pieces for elegant hors d'oeuvres. The is adapted from The Essential Pepin, by Jacques Pepin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011).

James Beard sandwich i i
Michele Kayal/for NPR
James Beard sandwich
Michele Kayal/for NPR

Makes 4 servings

8 thin slices firm white bread

6 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

4 1/8-inch thick slices mild onion, such as Vidalia or Wall Walla, about 3 1/2 inches in diameter

1/4 cup minced fresh chives

Arrange the bread slices next to one another on a work surface. Using a glass or a round cutter, cut circles as large as possible out of the slices.

Mix the mayonnaise and mustard together. Spread each bread circle with 2 teaspoons of the mixture. Place an onion slice on 4 of the bread rounds (it should cover them to the edges). Top with the remaining bread circles. Press slightly to make them adhere.

Holding each sandwich in your hand, spread some of the remaining mayonnaise mixture on the outside edges, then roll the edges in the chives until coated. Press lightly to make the chives stick.

Lamb Shanks With White Beans

I think of this as one of Pepin's "transition" dishes. The lamb and white beans make it classically French, its use of water instead of stock, wine or tomatoes makes it spare like the country cooking he grew up with. And the Tabasco .... how much more American does it get? The recipe is adapted from The Essential Pepin, by Jacques Pepin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011).

Lamb shanks with white beans i i
Michele Kayal/for NPR
Lamb shanks with white beans
Michele Kayal/for NPR

Makes 4 servings

8 ounces (1 1/2 cups) dried small white beans or Great Northern beans, picked over and rinsed

5 cups water

4 bone-in lamb shanks (about 14 ounces each)

1 carrot (4 ounces) peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (3/4 cup)

1 large onion, cut into 1-inch pieces (1 1/2 cups)

5 to 6 garlic cloves, crushed and coarsely chopped (1 1/2 tablespoons)

3 bay leaves

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Tabasco sauce

Put the beans in a bowl and soak in the water while you brown the lamb shanks.

Remove most of the visible fat from the shanks. Put them in one layer in a large heavy pot, preferably cast iron, and brown them, uncovered, over medium-high heat for about 30 minutes, turning occasionally until browned on all sides. Transfer to a plate and discard any fat rendered by the meat, leaving only a solidified glaze in the pot.

Add the beans and water to the pot, along with the meat and all the remaining ingredients except the Tabasco. Bring to a boil, skim off the foam, then reduce the heat to low, cover and boil gently for 2 hours. The meat should be moist and tender and there should be just enough liquid remaining in the pot for a moist, thick stew. If there is substantially more liquid than this, boil the stew, uncovered for a few minutes to reduce it. Conversely, if there is too little liquid remaining, add a few tablespoons of water.

Serve 1 lamb shank per person with a few generous spoonfuls of stew. Pass the Tabasco sauce.

Eggs Jeanette

Pepin often talks about this childhood dish served by his mother, Jeanette. It is easy, economical and makes a wonderful first course or light supper with a salad and fresh baked bread. The recipe is adapted from The Essential Pepin, by Jacques Pepin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011).

Eggs Jeanette i i
Michele Kayal/for NPR
Eggs Jeanette
Michele Kayal/for NPR

Makes 6 servings

6 large, hard-cooked eggs, peeled

2 tablespoons milk

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped (1 tablespoon)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil

Dressing

2 tablespoons reserved egg yolk mixture (from above)

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon water

Pinch of salt

Pinch of freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup grapeseed or vegetable oil

Cut the eggs in half as you would for deviled eggs. Remove the yolks and push them through a fine strainer or mash them with a fork. Mix the egg yolks with the milk, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper. The mixture should be moist and hold together. Stuff the whites with the yolk mixture, reserving approximately 2 tablespoons for the dressing (the egg yolk mixture adds texture to the dressing).

Heat the oil in a large skillet, preferably nonstick. When the oil is hot, add the egg halves, stuffed side down, and fry over medium heat for 2 minutes until browned.

Remove the eggs from the skillet and arrange on a platter.

Dressing

Put all the ingredients except the oil in a food processor. With the motor running, slowly add the oil.

Pour the dressing on top of and around the eggs and serve.

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