Dear Mr. Pépin

March 27, 2012

This is the fifth installment of Sunday Dinners, a biweekly column from our own Tom Hirschfeld featuring his gorgeous photography, stunning Indiana farm, and mouthwatering family meals.

Today: Tom pens an achingly beautiful letter to one of his culinary heroes, Jacques Pépin.

- Tom

Dear Mr. Pépin,

I made a recipe of yours last night. It wasn't the first time I have made this recipe; in fact, I have made it several times. But it has been far too long since it has graced our table, and rest assured that this will not happen again. Just in case I haven't been clear, it was beyond delicious, as always.

I remember the night I watched you make it on TV. It must have been about three in the morning -- I was still working in the restaurant business and it had been a long night on the line. Now I was home, my wife fast asleep in bed, and I sat in the living room with a beer in my hand winding down on the couch. I was flipping through a food magazine, and doing the same with the channels on TV.

At the time I hadn't seen but a couple episodes from your many series because our local PBS station didn't carry them or because they were on at times when I wasn't around. But here in the wee hours of the night you were in front of the camera with your heavy French accent, your broad smile, and all, as unmistakeable as the sparkle in your eyes. You caught my attention right away.

I watched as you peeled shrimp, showing me how to pinch the tails between thumb and forefinger, wiggle, and finally gently pull as the tail meat slipped out of its casing without any waste.

Then you sliced a handful of the freshest white mushrooms with such speed and accuracy it could have been a magic trick. You wasted no time doing the same with a couple of green onions.

All the while, you were discussing and telling the audience why you were doing things the way you did them. Like the time I watched you make cauliflower soup using the entire cauliflower, not just the white florets. You told us how the leaves were full of flavor and nutrients, and how in France it would have been a crime to throw them out.

What I watched that night was not the norm -- I had seen enough food television to know that. There was no "Bam!," no yelling at young chefs until they cried, no one telling me I can't cook at home because I am not as skilled as they are. I didn't even hear the words "organic," "local," or "sustainable." No, you didn't need to say those words to teach them.

With you, I found someone doing the hard job of quietly but realistically teaching people how to cook and be successful in their own home kitchens. What I had before my very eyes was a man passionate about food, the table, and living. Someone helping people to use and understand simple, easily obtainable fresh ingredients that would deliver great taste at dinner time. Someone extremely talented in the kitchen, who understands how food works and who has spent years building on the techniques he was taught as a child.

Most importantly, I saw a person who understood that if people are successful in the kitchen they will continue to cook, and maybe even start to like, enjoy, and use these skills for the rest of their lives.

You are and continue to be a wonderful role model. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Tom

Jacques Pépin's Shrimp Gratin

Serves 4

1 pound raw shrimp, size 26-30, peeled and deveined
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup white or cremini mushrooms, wiped of dirt and julienned
2 green onions, chopped
scant 3/4 cups bread crumbs
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup dry white wine
kosher salt and fresh ground white pepper

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

27 Comments

chefrockyrd June 17, 2012
I just saw this and had to comment even though you wrote this a while ago. it is a wonderful tribute to a terrific person. If you have not by now, you should send it to him. He is the genuine thing, and would appreciate it. <br />I was fortunate to take classes with him years ago in NY when I was studying to be a chef. The classes were demo classes with the students watching. <br />They were just great and I remember watching him with awe, I could not take my eyes off of him and his beautiful hands. Besides having the ability to teach, he shared so much of his knowledge with us. <br />I just watched the video you had attached and have made his Meme's apple tart many times. That pastry is wonderful.
 
Lena B. April 3, 2012
Jacques literally taught me most of what I know about cooking through his excellent PBS shows. My favorite are those with Julia Child, their energy and passion was completely infectious. He is by far my favorite TV chef, with his down to earth style and warm smile. Any Jacques fan should read his book "The Apprentice" about his early restaurant days in France (and the US). I'm beyond thrilled to be seeing him speak in a few weeks in San Francisco and would be happy to pass this letter his way, Tom. My only question for Jacques is how he managed to raise such a food-illiterate daughter :)
 
ironstring April 3, 2012
I had the absolute joy of meeting Mr. Pepin this year at my bookstore; he'd come in to do a signing of some books in our back room (no time for a personal appearance, alas) right before a restaurant appearance, and I happened to be the manager on duty to help him. He was charming, funny, and everything he appears to be on TV. Everyone in the store will probably tease me forever for the way I bounced around after our brief conversation about cooking and cookbooks, but I couldn't care less. He was a delight.
 
languagegirl April 3, 2012
What a beautiful letter, you put it so perfectly. Send it to him!
 
Lorraine F. April 2, 2012
We are so lucky to have Jacques share his recipes with us on TV and in his books. The classic recipes he teaches will always be my go-to recipes. I still watch Jacques and Julia on PBS reruns and am amazed at how they complimented each other although they had completely different kitchen philosphy. The old recipes will live on forever. Thanks Tom.
 
ctgal April 2, 2012
Thank you so much for reminding me of this recipe. I have the book from this television series and I have made it several times. It's perfect! And now I'll make it again this week. And your description of his shows is perfect. He taught me how to do things that I've been doing for years in a better, faster and easier way. He has introduced preparations that I would have never thought of. And the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye always made smile right back at the tv screen. I don't watch cooking shows, but, oh, how I love his!!
 
Cecilia M. April 1, 2012
Ditto...Pepin has been my favorite chef and TV mentor for years and years...over 25 years ago with his book Everyday Cooking. Your letter is perfect and reminds me too how special he is.
 
GregoryBPortland April 1, 2012
I meant to say Jacques and Lidia are the only two TV chefs demonstrating the art of teaching cooking on TV.
 
GregoryBPortland April 1, 2012
Tom--nice tribute to Mr. Pepin. There are only two really outstanding teachers showing the craft of cooking in clear, accessible terms--Lidia Bastianich and Jacques Pepin. Jacques is a master with a knife--his speed and accuracy, as you've noted, is awesome. Both Lidia and Jacques have he calm and the genuine desire to make you a better cook. Neither preaches. They have certainly made me a better cook. It was generous of you to remind us.
 
Kateq April 1, 2012
Me too!! I love Jacques Pepin. And I have such respect for him. He has taught me, us so much and in such a generous and non-judgmental way. How lovely to read your tribute.
 
honeyk March 28, 2012
I have followed Jacques Pepin for years....a true master. Thank you for the lovely story. <br /> <br />Made this last night and absolutely delicious. So easy to prepare it was ridiculous. This is a keeper! <br />Just goes to prove that most times less is more even in cooking.
 
arielleclementine March 27, 2012
loved this, and love jacques pepin- i think of him every time i split open a leek to rinse the dirt out. a wonderful, inspiring teacher- like you!
 
Oui, C. March 27, 2012
Tom - I had the good fortune to cook with Jacques while enrolled at a program at BU years ago, and I 'm happy to report that he was true to your image of him in every way. In the kitchen he was an excellent mentor, he was patient, supportive and had a great sense of humor. Thanks for another terrific and thoughtful post. - S
 
Author Comment
thirschfeld March 27, 2012
That is some good fortune Oui!
 
sygyzy March 27, 2012
Beautiful letter, Tom and right on point. Jacques was a master and taught a whole generation to love food and cooking.
 
Author Comment
thirschfeld March 27, 2012
Thank you sygyzy
 
HalfPint March 27, 2012
Tom, this was a lovely letter. You expressed what most of Jacques Pepin's fans have always felt. He is a wonderful teacher. He even got my mother (an excellent cook) to go out and make the same meal that he had just instructed. This was the ONLY time in my entire life that my mother wanted to cook anyone else's food. <br /> <br />I met him at a special party that PBS held for the end of taping of his and Claudine's show. So kind and generous (and very tiny). I agree that he would appreciate this letter.
 
Author Comment
thirschfeld March 27, 2012
That is a great story about you mom. What a great memory to have.
 
flutephobia March 27, 2012
Can I just echo this completely? I learned to cook by watching Jacques on PBS. His encouraging manner coupled with his jaw-dropping technique made cooking a fun challenge, and his sensibility guides my taste through today. Long live Jacques! Thank you!
 
Author Comment
thirschfeld March 27, 2012
That is great to hear!
 
Shalini March 27, 2012
A heartfelt letter, like you were talking to a friend. I find the video of M. Pépin and his daughter fascinating. Thank you for sharing, and for the shrimp gratin recipe.
 
Author Comment
thirschfeld March 27, 2012
Thanks Shalini!
 
fiveandspice March 27, 2012
Oh, I just sighed the happiest little sigh. Lovely, Tom. Thank you for sharing.
 
Author Comment
thirschfeld March 27, 2012
Thank you fiveandspice
 
ChefJune March 27, 2012
Oh, yes (since this system won't let me edit my earlier remark) I've saved the recipe and will be serving it to my loved ones VERY soon. They adore both shrimp and mushrooms. ;)
 
Author Comment
thirschfeld March 27, 2012
So glad to here. I hope they enjoy it.
 
ChefJune March 27, 2012
Tom: you should send this link/letter to Jacques. He would REALLY appreciate it.