Chef Jacques Pepin Selects His 'Essential' Favorites From his first cooking apprenticeship at France's Grand Hotel de L'Europe to teaching home cooks how to perfect a cheese souffle on PBS, chef Jacques Pepin's career in food has spanned six decades. He culls his favorite dishes from his years in the kitchen in his new book, Essential Pepin.
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Chef Jacques Pepin Selects His 'Essential' Favorites

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Chef Jacques Pepin Selects His 'Essential' Favorites

Chef Jacques Pepin Selects His 'Essential' Favorites

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Chef Jacques Pepin may be best known for his popular PBS programs, including "Fast Food My Way" and "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home," which he - where he teamed with cooking legend Julia Child. But the French-born chef's career in food began long before he turned out his first tart on TV. He apprenticed in Lyon at the age of 13 and served as personal chef of three French heads of state before he moved to the United States in the late 1950s.

TV: You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

PBS: More Than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food." His new show "Essential Pepin" premieres later this month on PBS. And Jacques Pepin now joins us from New Haven, Connecticut. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

JACQUES PEPIN: I'm delighted to be with you. Thank you.

CONAN: And we've asked for emails for you. Well, just 40 minutes ago, we've gotten 50 of them so far. People know who you are.

PEPIN: Oh, boy. You sure it's for me?

CONAN: I think it's for you. In your introduction to the book, you say the recipes you've created over the last decades are the diary of your life. How so?

PEPIN: Well, you know, it started 50 years ago or so. So the cooking of a young man and the cooking of a, you know, mature man and the cooking of a - an old or older man, like I am now, is kind of different. So it's interesting for me to revisit like an old friend, but it is true that you cook differently. What I am very proud of, very happy in that book that we have a three-hour DVD of technique attached to the book, you know, of all the technique that you can think of, from sharpening a knife to boning out a chicken or doing an omelet or, you know, doing a caramel cage. So those are visually very difficult - visually very good to see because they are very difficult to explain in words and all that. So that video, I think, the DVD, is going to be very good with the book.

CONAN: You'd think a book with your 700 favorite recipes would be pretty easy to do. You just collect them and reprint them.

PEPIN: That's what I thought, to start with.


PEPIN: It didn't work out quite that way. I think that last year there was a big book in the favorite of The New York Time, and they left it the way it was in the '50, '60, '70 probably to show a moment in time. And that was my conundrum. Do I leave it the way I wrote it at that time too? Or do I change it so that it's useful and people can do it now? And I chose the second option. So it entailed a fair amount of changing and retesting and - the type of fat that we use now, the amount of fat, the time of cooking, especially on vegetable. All of that is quite different than what we did 20, 30, 40 years ago.

CONAN: I was going to say probably a lot less heavy cream and butter.

PEPIN: Yes, yes, less. Much less.

CONAN: I was interested to read, in your introduction, your mom had a restaurant in France when you grew up, but this was during the Second World War and after the Second World War, obviously a time of great privation, a lot of things you just couldn't get. What did you learn from her?

PEPIN: I learned to be extremely miserly in the kitchen.


PEPIN: I don't throw anything away. You know, I've been married 45 years. I mean, it was our anniversary a few weeks ago. And I remember, at the beginning, my wife born in New York City from a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father, a real New Yorker. And I remember cooking a chicken or something else, and then I go on the road for a couple of days. I come back, and she had all the thing in front. The chicken is still in the back, the leftover. And we would have an argument. Why didn't you use that first and all that? I can't stand to throw anything away. She learned fast, you know? After a couple of years, when I came back, the refrigerator was very clean. So she discarded before I came back home.


CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Jacques Pepin, a longtime chef and cookbook author. His new book is "Essential Pepin." And he's about to debut a new television program on PBS by the same name. 800-989-8255. Email: What have you learned by watching cooking shows on TV? Jason is on the line from West Jefferson in North Carolina.

JASON: Yes, thank you. I just wanted to tell you how much of an honor it is to speak to you, Mr. Pepin. He is largely responsible for me realizing how much fun cooking can be.

PEPIN: Good.

JASON: Between his program, Graham Kerr, and a few of the other television chefs, I realized that food was more than just sustenance. That it can actually be enjoyed. It could be an event. It could be adventurous. It could be fun. And it has genuinely enriched my life.

PEPIN: Yes, you're absolutely right. And it - especially sharing. This is what a family is all about, you know? You know one another, sitting around the table, you know, at night. And it's very, very important, I think, for the kid to spend time not only around the table eating with their parents, but in the kitchen. I mean, when my daughter was a year old, 2 years old, I hold her in my arm and she stirred the pot. Since she stirred the pot, she, quote, "made it," so she was going to taste it. And now I do the same thing with my granddaughter, who is seven years old. So yes, you see the sharing occupation, and it's very, very important, certainly in our family.

JASON: And I believe that in a lot of ways, it's something the society has lost with convenience foods and such a rushed lifestyle. We don't spend the time around the kitchen table. We don't spend the time in the kitchen with our families. That is such a valuable bonding experience.

PEPIN: It's true, but, you know, if you use the supermarket the right way, and I did two series on television called "Fast Food My Way." And that last book "Essential Pepin," I mean it used to be that you had to start at the beginning and practically kill the chicken, when I was an apprentice and pluck it and so forth. Now, you know, you use the supermarket, basically, as a prep cook. You know, I can get two breasts, skinless, boneless, breast of chicken, prewashed spinach, pre-sliced mushroom, I have a no-stick pan. And within a minute, two minutes, three minutes, I can do a dish, a very fresh food, fresh - with using the supermarket, you know?

JASON: And despite the number of years that it's been, I still to this day remember the difference between a French omelet and a country omelet because of you.

PEPIN: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, and enjoy your dinner.

JASON: I plan to.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye.

PEPIN: Good.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Alicia(ph) in Rochester, Minnesota.

ALICIA: Hi. Thanks so much for taking my call. It's so nice to hear you, Mr. Pepin.

PEPIN: Hi, Alicia. How are you?

ALICIA: I'm doing great. Thank you. We met back in the mid-'90s when you and Julia were doing your book tour from "Cooking at Home."

PEPIN: Uh-huh. Yes.

ALICIA: And you were just the most gracious, nice, kind person. And I still have the photograph of the three of us in my kitchen as inspiration over my stove.

PEPIN: I hope my wife is listening.


ALICIA: But what I wanted to say that I learned from you was knife skills. That's something that I think unless you go to a culinary school or unless you take some specific classes, most home cooks don't know how to use their knives properly and keep them sharp. In fact, just this morning as I had my coffee, I watched an old episode of "Fast Food My Way" and you were chopping garlic at lightning speed and then spreading it to the side and then chop, chop, chop and spreading it. And it's just wonderful. And that changed the way I cook.

PEPIN: Yeah, but you see, that's exactly why I did that tape, that three-hour DVD tape, Alicia. And I think the first technique of all is sharpening a knife. And then, after I go on from, you know, peeling a carrot to peeling asparagus to doing garlic, vegetable and then with eggs and then with fish and with shellfish and with poultry and with dessert puff paste and so forth. So that's a whole (unintelligible) itself, and that I think is very important.

CONAN: Alicia, thanks very much for the call.

ALICIA: Thank you.

PEPIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Just along that line, this from Vanessa by email: My husband and I learned Jacques Pepin's way of getting garlic out its papery wrappering(ph) and how to mash it down with the knife and chopped it up not using a garlic press; we called that, and footage of Pepin's chopping an onion, the money shot.

PEPIN: Oh, boy.


PEPIN: Well, that's, you know, you can use a garlic press. It's perfectly fine. However, it takes you longer to clean the real machine with all those tiny holes and to clean out the table anyway.

CONAN: Let's go to Margaret(ph). And Margaret is with us on the line from Middle Tennessee.

MARGARET: Hello. Thanks for taking my call. The first thing that I remember learning about cooking from a program on television was learning to break an egg with one hand from Audrey Hepburn in that movie.


MARGARET: And I was eight years old and I went in the kitchen and just commenced breaking eggs and did it. And it gave me the confidence as a child, move forward and learn things. And then when you all came on television, I was ready to go. I wanted to do it all.

PEPIN: That's good. Well, it's a very good point, because very often...

MARGARET: (Unintelligible) you blessed us greatly by showing us things over and over and over so we could all learn them at home. Thank you so much.

PEPIN: Yeah. It's a question of confidence, yes. If you get that little bit of confidence, and a glass of wine with it, and that's fine. You're ready to cook.

CONAN: Margaret, thanks very much. I wonder, Jacques Pepin, have you ever learned anything from a movie or a TV show?

PEPIN: See, that's a good point. From TV shows, certainly, I don't remember exactly what, but for me I always learned whether I go to a restaurant or I eat with friend or I look at food or I travel or I'm in Africa. And certainly for - from TV show - all cooking show, you always want(ph) a way - learn something. Sometime you don't know what not to do (unintelligible) what to do.


CONAN: I suspect you're right. Here's an email from Linda: I've been a fan of Chef Jacques about 15 years. He taught me how to boil a perfect egg, truss a chicken. That man can truss a chicken in about 15 different ways and bone a chicken, which seems impossible but not when Jacques shows you. He is ooh la-la cute.

PEPIN: Oh, boy.


CONAN: Getting (unintelligible)...

PEPIN: Oh, eggs, eggs is very important. It's one of the greatest foods that you can have. And most country in the world, you know, so-called, you know, poor country of the world, whether it's Africa, South America, eggs is really the main diet. I mean, it's a beautiful protein, better than meat even, and there is so many way of doing eggs. And I could be on an island with an egg, a chicken, a glass of wine and be happy, you know? So boiling an egg the right way seems simple, you know, hard-cooked eggs, but to do it the right way, it's not that easy. There is a few trick to it.

CONAN: Jacques Pepin's new book and television program have the same name, "Essential Pepin." He's joining from New Haven. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Claudia is on the line. Claudia with us from Denver.

CLAUDIA: Hi. It's such a pleasure. I really - I'm so surprised. I can't believe I got through. I'm blind...

PEPIN: Hi, Claudia.

CLAUDIA: ...and I learned to cook from you just by listening and not being afraid of changing ingredients and trying things out. So you know, when I'm cooking, it's like I'm having a dance with the food in my kitchen, you know, it's the rhythm of cooking. The other day I made this mussels, roasted with fennel. Normally I would put parsley but I only had fennel and garlic and these things. And so I threw it all together, and my friends were like, oh, where's the recipe? How much do you need to have? I said, oh, no, no. You just throw it in and see what happens. And so I really appreciate the sort of spontaneity that you have with food, and I really enjoy that. So I'm looking forward to your DVD.

PEPIN: Well, thank you. Thank you very much. And, actually, the right way, you know, I feel that when someone doesn't know how to cook, I mean, if you do a recipe, you should probably follow the recipe to do justice to whoever wrote the recipe. And if it turned out good, you're probably likely to do it again. And the second time you take a faster route. Maybe the third time, you still take a look at the recipe time of cooking, and by the fourth time you (unintelligible) and improve the recipe, you like it with a little more tomato or cooked a little less or more. And a year later, you don't even remember where it came from. There is that gradation. And it has become your recipe, you know, and that's the proper way of doing it.

CONAN: Claudia, thanks very much.

CLAUDIA: Sir, thank you.

PEPIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Jim, and Jim is on the line with us from Kansas City.

JIM: Yeah, I just have one really quick comment. And I just - I really appreciate the kindness and graciousness and the patience that he had with Julia. And I still enjoy watching the show just for the chemistry. And you are a gracious man, and thank you so much for the show.

PEPIN: OK. Thank you. Thank you, but you know, I met Julia in 1960, you know? I came here at the end of 1959. And a few months after, and I met James Beard as well as Craig Claiborne (unintelligible) the New York Time. The kind of trinity of cooking, you know, James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne - just to show you how small the food world was, extremely small at that time.

So I became friends with Julia, and then I have been teaching at Boston University for 30 years, and she lived in Cambridge, of course, so we cook together a great deal. We met. We eat together. We had fun. And then we started doing shows, so she became a very dear friend.

CONAN: Here's an email about her from Nancy in Charlotte. The best thing I learned from a cooking show was many years ago from Julia Child's "The French Chef." I learned it's OK to drop a duck on the floor, pick it up, clean it off, and continue cooking. Things happen. Food does not have to be perfect.

PEPIN: Yes, it's right.

CONAN: I wonder, did you see the movie "Julie and Julia"?

PEPIN: Yes, I did. Actually, I lecture on it a couple of time. The movie started in 1949 and finished in 1961 when she published "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," so it's a great deal of her time in France. And Julia used to kid me that we started cooking together because she came to France in 1949 and I went into apprenticeship in 1949. Of course, I was 13 years old. But the time depicted at the time was very accurate, and I thought it was terrific.

CONAN: And I think that Meryl Streep was just amazing. She (unintelligible) Julia in that movie. I don't know how she did it, but a great movie.

Let's see if we get Tiffany in. Tiffany calling from Castle Rock in Colorado.

TIFFANY: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to say thank you. My husband and I both came from a background of cooking, and we were looking for a custard one time and just couldn't do it. We record your show almost religiously and came across one at a time when you had made a custard in it. It turned out to be the best thing in our dinner party that night.

PEPIN: Well, great. When it's good like that, you don't give me credit. You say this is what I brought. That's my recipe. That's the way it works. Only if it's not too good, you say, I don't know. I took the recipe from that guy there, you know?


TIFFANY: No, it was great. Your technique helped us figure out how to keep the eggs from overcooking. It was great. We really appreciate and love watching you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Tiffany. Let's see if we can go next to this email from Curry(ph) in Buffalo, New York: I've been a fan of Jacques for many years, enjoyed the many different shows he had on PBS. The very best ones were the ones he did with Julia. Those shows were hilarious. The tremendous friendship they had was apparent on every show, coupled with the great talent in the kitchen. It will never be equaled. Thanks, Jacques, for sharing your knowledge and your expertise. Excuse me, that was Donna from Buffalo, New York. And...

PEPIN: Thank you. And, you know, the interesting part in that, like I did that new series for "Essential Pepin" now, and the new series that I do at KQED in San Francisco is 26 show of half-hour. Usually, when we do the series - and my daughter did a few show with me. My granddaughter even did a couple of show with me. And usually, I mean, when you come, you have the recipe with you, or at least you may change them a little bit along the way, but you have the manuscript, so the back kitchen and all that know where we're going.

When we did that series with Julia, we had no recipe. We discuss about, OK, let's do stew one day or let's do eggs or let's do whatever, but we didn't have actual recipe. So we started cooking like you cook with friend or with your spouse, you know? So I'm thinking one thing or another and cooking together.

CONAN: Jacques Pepin, thanks very much for your time.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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