February 23, 2005
My Interview With Jacques Pepin
My interview with Jacques Pepin
TV's master chef Jacques Pépin has gone from La Technique to le fast food.
By Bruce Cole. Published February 2005.
If, when cleaning a leek or dismembering a chicken, you hear a distinctive, French-accented voice in your head telling you precisely what to do next, don't be alarmed. It's just Jacques Pépin-or, rather, one of his many tips you've absorbed from years of watching him on TV-floating to the surface. Starting in 1991 with Today's Gourmet, he's hosted 11 series for KQED; his latest, Fast Food My Way, premiered in October 2004. But the 69-year-old Pépin is also quite the Renaissance man (with an MA in French lit from Columbia University, no less) who, despite his Gallic upbringing and heritage, has an astute take on today's American culture-as we found out when we spoke to him by phone from his home in Connecticut.
Foie gras has been in the news, especially here in California, where a law was just passed to ban, eventually, its production. What do you think of all the hoopla?
It's a tempest in a teacup, you know. Most of the people against foie gras have never even been on a farm. If it was traumatizing in any way, it would do a lot of damage to the animal and to the liver, which would make in inedible. If you want to talk about torturing animas, go see the way they raise chickens. They blind them and cut off their beaks so they can't fight. The noise in a factory chicken farm is atrocious-this is why eggs have such a high level of cholesterol. They found out years ago that putting acoustic tiles in the room to lower the noise cut the cholesterol level by 10 to 15 percent.
You've been a proponent of sustainable cuisine-have you ever considered doing a cookbook or a TV show that features sustainable methods of raising food?
No, because for me that is just part of the equation. I use organic food when I can, but I'm not going to stop eating when there isn't any. I would have an argument with Alice [Waters] because if an ingredient is not organic, she doesn't want it. Me, I'll take a tomato if it's an extraordinary tomato, even if it's not organic, over an organic tomato that has no taste whatever. People think that because [something's] organic, it's extraordinary. I've had lousy organic food.
For years you've taught at the French Culinary Institute in New York and at Boston University. Are students these days more concerned with fame and fortune than with just learning the basics?
Oh, yes-probably one out of two are at school because they want to be a celebrity chef. They will come in for an interview and say, “Well, I'd like to do a book like you and a television show like you, so who do you think I should call?” like there is some secret number. It still gives me a shot in the arm, though, to work with students.
Your books La Technique (1976) and La Methode (1979) were combined and reissued four years ago [as Jacques Pépin's Complete Techniques]. Are they still relevant to culinary students today?
Although I certainly don't cook the same way now, the techniques haven't really changed. The way you shuck an oyster, beat an egg white, bone out a chicken and make an omelet are still the same. It was very difficult to get La Technique published because nobody wanted to take on a cookbook, but at least if you got one published you were guaranteed that everyone would look at it. Last year, there were like 2,200 cookbooks published, which is totally overwhelming. I must receive 60 to 80-sometime more-manuscripts each year asking for a quote. Who has time to look at those things?
French cuisine has long been the benchmark for sophistication and innovation, but recently, Spanish chefs have gotten a lot of attention. Do you think the new Spanish cooking is going to take French cooking's place in the next decade?
Certainly what someone like Ferran Adria [of the restaurant El Bulli, near Barcelona] is doing is cutting-edge type cuisine-it's amazing in many ways; I don't even know what it is. But this is not the type of thing that you want to eat all the time; you could not anyway. I would do an analogy with haute couture in France. When Gucci comes out with a new collection in the fall and you see how those models are dressed, you almost laugh because you think, Who's going to wear that stuff? But somehow it trickles down to another level and makes it's mark. To a certain extent it's what happened in the ‘70's with nouvelle cuisine, and now we don't realize how much we are indebted to it.
You've spent a lot of time in San Francisco while filming your cooking shows at KQED. Anywhere you particularly like to eat out?
Without doubt, Roland Passot [La Folie], because he's from my hometown [Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyon], and he's a great friend. I just had an extraordinary meal with Mark Franz at Farallon. It was very straightforward, and he emphasized the quality of the ingfients. Unfortunately, a lot of young chefs are getting too sophisticated and are adding, adding, adding to the product, instead of stopping back a little bit and letting it talk.
Posted by Bruce at February 23, 2005 05:39 AM