The Long View: French Gourmand Jacques Pepin At 75, French chef Jacques Pepin has spent the greater part of his life in a kitchen savoring food. But he's not yet ready to put his career on the back burner. Today he's the author of 23 cookbooks and has hosted 12 cooking series. His latest cookbook will be released in October.
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The Long View: French Gourmand Jacques Pepin

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The Long View: French Gourmand Jacques Pepin

The Long View: French Gourmand Jacques Pepin

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Jacques Pepin has wowed fans of his cooking shows on PBS for years. With his magic knife he's carved tiny roses out of tomatoes and little mice out of olives, dicing and slicing with lightning speed.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We've been talking to chefs this week as part of our occasional series, The Long View.

MONTAGNE: And Jacques Pepin is one of the original celebrity chefs.

WERTHEIMER: His star began to rise in Paris in the '50s, where he cooked for Charles de Gaulle and in the kitchens of the city's best eateries.

MONTAGNE: When he arrived in New York in 1959, it only took two weeks before the young French chef was befriended by the new food editor at the New York Times, Craig Claiborne. Jacques Pepin's circle would soon include the dean of American cuisine, James Beard, and the influential food editor Helen McCully, who introduced him to an unknown cook named Julia.

Mr. JACQUES PEPIN (Chef): Helen told me, oh, I want to show you a manuscript here someone sent me. And I look at the manuscript of French cooking and I said this is pretty good. She said she's a real big one woman with a terrible voice. And of course that was Julia. So that's how I met Julia.

Also, and at that time, of course, no one knew Julia Child because she had never done a book and she had never done television. But I remember the first time that I met her, I spoke to her in French more than in English, because her French was better than my English at the time.

MONTAGNE: We have - of course, how could we not - we have a clip of you and Julia Child - "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home."

Mr. PEPIN: Oh yes?

MONTAGNE: From your public television show. Let's go ahead and hear that clip.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home")

Ms. JULIA CHILD (Chef): This chicken, I've washed it with hot water. And if we take...

Mr. PEPIN: I don't wash my chicken.

Ms. CHILD: He doesn't wash his. I think in France they're not as worried about things as we are, are they.

Mr. PEPIN: Well, I live in Connecticut. Pretty far from France.

Ms. CHILD: That's right.

MONTAGNE: Before I ask you about washing chickens...

Mr. PEPIN: But she was funny because many, many times - I mean through many, many years I knew Julia - from 1960 until she died - I never saw her wash a chicken, except from that time. So...

MONTAGNE: Just at that moment she had to wash that chicken.

Mr. PEPIN: Yes. Well, you know, she loved controversy. And when we cooked together, she would tell me taste, and I'd taste. She'd say what do you think. I'd say I think it's fine. She would say it needs salt. And conversely, you know, if I say I think it needs salt, she would say, no, it's fine. But we enjoy that type of bantering.

MONTAGNE: Jacques Pepin could not have envisioned his life as a celebrity chef when he was a boy in the south of France. He was introduced to a professional kitchen in his mother's neighborhood restaurant, but Pepin remembers being introduced to the pleasures of food even earlier. It was the Second World War. Food was scarce. His father was off fighting in the Resistance, and to make sure her sons got enough to eat, his mother sent young Jacques and his brother to a farm for the summer.

Mr. PEPIN: My mother took me to introduce me to the farmer and his wife and she was milking the cows in the stable there. And the cow were smelling. But I remember also the warm milk, which the farmer gave me a glass to drink. And it was really lukewarm and very creamy and delicious. And that was probably one of my first memory of food.

MONTAGNE: Much of your childhood was spent in the midst of a war all around you. There was the deprivation of not enough food. So I gather your mother had to conjure meals out of practically nothing.

Mr. PEPIN: Yes. I mean, my mother - who is still living today - is very miserly in the kitchen. I mean, she can cook anything. But I mean, my father had left to join the Resistance and my mother on her day off would got 30, 40, 50 mile from one farm to the other trying to beg people to get a little bit of food here and there - a few eggs, a jar of jam or some bread or whatever. But you know, we were not that unhappy. For me that's the way life was.

MONTAGNE: In your memoir, you describe your mother as making due in a very creative way. I love the story where she boiled beets to get something sweet.

Mr. PEPIN: Yes, it's interesting, actually. She made sugar with beets, you know, just cooking the beets in water, making it into a puree and reducing the puree, eventually doing a kind of molasses, you know, out of it. And interestingly enough, I remember my brother and I, after the war, asking my mother to do that. And she said, no, I don't know how to do it anymore and I don't want to do it.

And another thing that I would remember from my father was the (French spoken) we called that, the strong cheese, which we still do at home, actually. My wife does every six months or so, she goes through the drawer where the cheese are and scrape out the mold and all of that, put all the cheese together with garlic, white wine, in the food processor to make a paste out of it that often we put on bread and put under the broiler. So again, that would be a dish directly from my father.

MONTAGNE: After the war ended, your mother let you drop out of school when you were 13 to become an apprentice.

Mr. PEPIN: I wanted to get into the kitchen, so that's when I went into apprenticeship in the summer of 1949.

MONTAGNE: So that would have put you at 13 going on 14, but a kid. I mean, it seems to us today like a tough job for an adolescent.

Mr. PEPIN: It is, it is. But I didn't look at it this way, you know, because home was actually a restaurant, so already, you know, I was used to peeling potato and peeling string beans and washing dishes and working in the kitchen with my mother as well as my two brother. It wasn't such a big challenge. In fact, I loved it from the beginning.

MONTAGNE: Do you think that chefs who've never experienced that long apprenticeship, do you think that they missed out on something?

Mr. PEPIN: Yeah, that's an interesting question. Not necessarily, no. We learn very, very differently now than we used to learn years ago, because we learn in a different way. We learn through repetition, through osmosis, you know, looking. The chef never told you what to do. He would say do this, and if you had dared to say why, he would have said because I just told you. That was about the end of the explanation.

So you would work like that for weeks, months actually, and all of a sudden the chef, as it happened to me, told me, OK, you tomorrow, you start at the stove. I was terrorized because I say, I don't know anything about the stove. And somehow I went there and I knew how to do it.

MONTAGNE: This month you celebrated your 75th birthday. Looking back over the many years, back to your mother's kitchen, is there a dish that brings that time back?

Mr. PEPIN: Not one, one...

MONTAGNE: You know...

Mr. PEPIN: ...maybe the greatest thing, the greatest thing of all is bread and butter. I mean, if you have extraordinary bread and extraordinary butter, if I have a bottle of wine and if friends are around, this is what I call enjoying life and cooking together. And I don't think you can cook well or enjoy a meal well unless you're friends with the people that you're sharing it with.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Jacques Pepin. His memoir is "The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen." There's an excerpt at our website, plus the chef's festive recipes for New Year's. Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. PEPIN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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