This story appeared in Serendipity Magazine's October/November 2020 issue, and we're excited to share it with our readers on Food52
Jacques Pépin has a confession: “I am not a morning person,” he says. “I get up at the crack of 9 a.m. When you’re a restaurant person you never go to bed before 12 o’clock.” Still, it’s hard to believe the French master chef, who will be 85 this December, allows himself any downtime, even for sleep. How else would he have accomplished such a monumental amount in his life to date?
Pépin, born in Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyon, France, began his career working as an apprentice in his hometown, then eventually went on to Paris’s famed Plaza Athénée and New York’s historic Le Pavillon. He has authored more than 30 cookbooks; he’s been honored with 24 James Beard Foundation Awards; and he’s hosted 13 public television series. He’s been the personal chef to three French heads of state, written for publications including The New York Times and Food & Wine, has taught for 35 years in the Culinary Arts Program at Boston University, and served for 30 years as dean of special programs at the International Culinary Center in New York City. He has even toured and taught on cruise ships and was named the executive culinary director of Oceania Cruises. “If I stopped doing things, I’d get depressed and unhappy,” Pépin says.
Throughout his jam-packed career, Pépin has been a visionary while remaining rooted in tradition. His cooking shows became models for culinary television long before Top Chef and Chopped were a thing: He is perhaps best known for his PBS series with his longtime friend Julia Child, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, for which he won a Daytime Emmy. And his landmark books on culinary craft, La Technique and La Methode, have served as textbooks for countless chefs. “Technique is very important for me,” Pépin says. “[You create] manual dexterity by doing things over and over. As a professional chef it has to become part of your DNA. That’s why when I’m on TV I can talk to people and my hands are moving. I don’t have to concentrate on what I do — it’s automatic. You can do something 1,000 times and still learn something.”
His latest book, Quick and Simple, contains more than 200 recipes, all with the goal of making cooking at home easier. In it, Pépin suggests quality convenience foods and how to use them, supplies for your pantry and your freezer, and even the go-to utensils and equipment you should have in your kitchen. The philosophy: “Selectively mixing fresh with canned, bottled, or frozen foods can result in great dishes,” writes Pépin.
Sharing With Others
While many people struggled to adjust to a new normal during the pandemic, Pépin adapted easily. He harnessed his end- less productivity by creating instructional cooking videos from his Madison, CT, kitchen. Nearly every day, he shares them on his Facebook page with his followers. “People look at [the videos] and thank me for helping them, and that’s very rewarding in many ways,” he says. “Many said they didn’t use to cook and now have gotten more into it. I think people are getting closer to nature and their family and cooking, and [there’s] the sitting down and sharing of food and discussion, which is the most important.”
Often, Pépin tells his viewers, “Be well” or “I hope you share it with your family and spend time together at the table.” These sentiments, and his sign off, “Happy cooking!,” capture the essence of Pépin. In chef circles he’s known for meticulousness and craft, while he also exudes warmth, joyfulness and a love of family. He’s been married to his wife, Gloria — who he affectionately calls “Little One” — for more than 54 years. He has cooked alongside his daughter Claudine on television and has written books with her (Jacques Pépin’s Kitchen: Cooking with Claudine and Encore With Claudine). He’s written a book with his granddaughter Shorey Wesen (A Grandfather’s Lessons: In the Kitchen With Shorey). And he has directed much of his focus to giving back through the creation of the Jacques Pépin Foundation, the brainchild of his son-in-law, chef Rollie Wesen.
The foundation, founded in 2016, supports community kitchens and helps them provide culinary training to those with barriers to employment, such as low income, low skills or homelessness. “We wanted to teach people who are disenfranchised by life so they can learn the basics of cooking and work in restaurants,” Pépin says. The Foundation has partnered with more than 100 community kitchens, offering grants, educational tools, equipment and culinary skills and technique training— ultimately helping people gain access to jobs and better health.
When reflecting on which chapter of his life he’s cherished the most so far, Pépin can’t seem to choose. “I’ve enjoyed it all, especially the diversity of it,” he says. For now, he looks forward to creating content for his legion of Facebook followers and, of course, spending time around the table with his family. “I don’t want to cook and eat by myself,” he says. “You cook for your lover, friends, kids. Cooking is maybe the purest expression of love.”
For the Love of Painting
The multitalented chef’s love of painting began in the 1960s, when he was pursuing classes toward a Bachelor of Arts degree and Master’s degree at Columbia University in New York City. “There were a couple elective credits I could take, so I took a class in sculpture and one in drawing,” Pépin says. “That kind of gave me a bug.” These days, his paintings — punctuated by cheery, lighthearted subjects — have garnered so much attention that he sells original artwork and prints on his website, jacquespepinart.com. “I have like 100 paintings of chickens,” he says, referencing his favorite subject. “I also paint a lot of abstracts and flowers.” As it turns out, painting is quite similar to cooking: “When you cook, you taste and you adjust until you like it and it’s just right,” he says. “When you paint, it’s the same way. [But] I have much more control in the kitchen than on the canvas.”
What's your favorite tip or technique you've learned from Chef Pépin over the years? Let us know in the comments!