Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craft

by Gary Meyer

“Jacques Pépin really was the first person to land on the American scene and say technique matters, craft matters,” says journalist Fareed Zakaria.

AmMastets_PBS_PEPIN_590wThe new documentary, Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craftproduced and directed by Peter L. Stein and narrated by Stanley Tucci, premieres nationally Friday, May 26 on PBS as part of the 31st season of American Masters (check local PBS station listings for repeat showings). It is also available on-demand and online at American Masters’ Chef’s Flight along with other shows in the series about Alice Waters, James Beard and Julia Child.

Two of his favorite recipes, Poulet à la Crème and Baked Alaska are offered on EatDrinkFilms here.

Interviews with Pépin’s wife Gloria and daughter Claudine, culinary stars and media personalities including José Andrés, Daniel Boulud, Anthony Bourdain, Tom Colicchio, Rachael Ray, Marcus Samuelsson, and Fareed Zakaria, offer insights about the man, who with his catchphrase “happy cooking” has always emphasized honesty of ingredients, simplicity of approach, and a joy for sharing food with loved ones.

Pépin, the second of three sons, was born in 1935 in Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyon. The film traces Pépin’s journey from his childhood in the countryside of wartime France, where his family’s tradition of entrepreneurial women running homegrown restaurants propelled him into an early culinary career.

You can’t escape the taste of the food you had as a child. In times of stress, what do you dream about? Your mother’s clam chowder. It’s security, comfort. It brings you home.”

At the age of 13, Pépin leaves home to begin a formal apprenticeship at the distinguished Grand Hôtel de l’Europe. His first break comes at 16, when, as the sole chef, he cooks the fireman’s banquet in the alpine resort town of Bellegarde, a success that results in his first newspaper photo op. “I start to realize that I could put some of myself in the food. It didn’t have to be exactly the way my mother wanted it to be,” says Pépin, recalling this pivotal moment in his life.

Age 16.jpg

Jacques Pépin, age 16, preparing the Fireman’s banquet in the resort town of Bellegarde.  Courtesy Jacques Pépin

Nearly 17, Pépin moves to Paris, initially without a job, and eventually works at dozens of restaurants learning about classical cooking. At Hotel Plaza Athénée he trains under Lucien Diat where the emphasis is on technique. Four years later he is drafted into the Navy but because his brother is already on the front he is assigned to stay in Paris as a cook at Navy headquarters where he creates special dinners for the top brass becomes the personal chef for three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle.

Jacques Pépin (center) and colleagues from the kitchen hit the Champs Elysee, Paris, 1950s. Courtesy Jacques Pépin

Cooking is the art of adjustment.”

But Pépin understands that in the late 1950s, the cook, even if “first chef,” is really at the bottom of the social scale and viewed as the help. Not content cooking in French palaces, Pépin decides to move to the United States in 1959.

“I was excited about going abroad, by learning a new language,” says Pépin. “America was a golden fleece, you know, it was the Promised Land for many people after the war, and me included.”

Jacques Pépin and Julia Child, c. 1980s. Courtesy Jacques Pépin

In New York, Pépin lands a job at Le Pavillon, the most influential French restaurant in the country, and soon meets the three people he calls the “Trinity of Cooking”: Craig Claiborne, food editor of The New York Times; Beard; Julia Child. In later years, he partners with Child on a television series, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, for which he and Child win a Daytime Emmy in 2001.

While at Le Pavillon, Pépin is courted for the position of “first chef” in the new Kennedy White House, a position he turns down. Instead, he goes to work in the kitchens of Howard Johnson’s hotel and restaurant chain (1960–70) where he learns about mass production, marketing, food chemistry, and American popular food.

Fortunately, I knew the cardinal rule of getting on with one’s fellow cooks. It applies in any kitchen and can be summed up in two short words: bust ass.


Jacques Pépin prepares fish on the set of Jacques Pépin Heart and Soul.                              Photo by Kevin Byrne / Courtesy KQED

In 1974, a near fatal car accident is the catalyst that pushes Pépin’s life in a different direction as writer, teacher, and ultimately a media star. With his early landmark books on the fundamentals of culinary craft, La Technique (1976) and La Methôde (1978), and television shows, Pépin ushers in a new era in American food culture.

An American citizen for more than half a century, at age 81, Pépin continues to crisscross the country teaching, cooking, speaking, consulting, and enjoying the celebrity generated by 14 television shows, nearly 30 cookbooks, and accolades including the French Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor.

“You look at Julia Child and she was introducing you to a world around food and the dishes themselves,” says Dana Cowin, former editor-in-chief, Food and Wine. “But what Jacques did was he deconstructed how to do it so that you could feel empowered. It’s the greatest novel of empowerment, but it happens to be a cookbook.”


Jacques Pépin carves a ham on Jacques Pépin Heart and Soul.                                       Photo by Kevin Byrne / Courtesy KQED

I am a glutton. I’ll eat whatever is there. Pizza. I love hot dogs anywhere. I’ve got nothing against any of that. If I feel like eating, I eat. I don’t feel guilty about it at all.

The film is produced and directed by Peter L. Stein, a Peabody Award–winning documentary filmmaker who first started working with Pépin in 1989 as producer of what became Pépin’s landmark public television series Today’s Gourmet, and who went on to oversee seven seasons of cooking programs with Pépin in the 1990s. “Coming back into Jacques’ life after all these years to help tell his remarkable story has been a real privilege,” says Stein, “Especially now, in our food- and chef-crazed culture, to be able to reflect back and see his career as pivotal in transforming the way America cooks, eats, and appreciates the role of the chef in America.”

Jacques Pépin and his best friend, Jean-Claude Szurdak, in an early magazine photo shoot.     Photo by © Eugene Cook

“Pépin authored some of the first American cookbooks not to focus on menus or recipes, but rather on the fundamental techniques of cooking,” says Michael Kantor, executive producer of American Masters“When you watch him interact with food, he is like an amazing magician — but a magician who will not only disclose the tricks of the trade, but teach them to you so you can amaze your own audience.”

A display of Jacques Pépin’s cookbooks at Omnivore Books on Food in San Francisco.          Photo © Jennifer Huang

Pépin’s many books are available at local bookstores such as Omnivore Books on Food in San Francisco. They can also be ordered from Indiebound and Amazon.

(Adapted from the Production notes provided by KQED, WNET and PBS.)

Read Mark Taylor’s insightful review.

The American Masters site.

The Artistry of Jacques Pépin website explores the art work created by Pépin.

Follow Jacques on Twitter

Join Jacques on Facebook

Peter L. Stein is a Peabody Award-winning documentary maker, based in San Francisco, who has produced nonfiction narratives for television, film, theater, museums and online. During 11 years at PBS station KQED, he created a wide range of documentaries and series for national public television, including the six-hour series Neighborhoods: The HiddeImage result for peter l. steinn Cities of San Francisco, which garnered a Peabody Award for “The Castro,” which Peter wrote, produced and directed, and several regional Emmy Awards for “The Fillmore” (writer/producer) and “Chinatown” (executive producer). His many culinary productions, as producer and/or executive producer, have received three James Beard Awards (the so-called Oscars of the food world) and include seven series of programs he produced with Jacques Pépin, beginning with the landmark premiere seasons of Today’s Gourmet. He is consulting senior producer for The Valley, an upcoming PBS series about the history of Silicon Valley (produced by Kikim Media). Stein is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard University and maintains an active career as a film festival programmer and public speaker. Peter is the Producer, Director and Co-Writer of American Masters – Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craft

More at www.peterlstein.com.

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