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In Praise of Pepín: France's Second Greatest Gift to America

Make no mistake: Jacques Pepín is the single greatest cooking instructor in the history of food television.
12/17/2015 04:10pm ET | Updated December 17, 2016
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Jacques Pepín turns 80 years old on December 18th. He will celebrate that momentous occasion at home. With his family. They will cook the meal together. And celebrate life on this day as they do on so many others, by sharing food and wine, laughter and love.

Among other accolades, he has been called a living legend, a master and an icon. All deserved. Make no mistake: Jacques Pepín is the single greatest cooking instructor in the history of food television. In an era when cooking shows have mostly devolved into competitions, countdowns and travelogues featuring repulsive foods consumed in dangerous places, one man stands above from the rest. As he has for three decades on the small screen, Jacques Pepín teaches people how to cook.

I should know. I got hooked early on the genre by binge watching The Galloping Gourmet (Graham Kerr) in the early 70's. I was so smitten with his show that I ended up going to culinary school 30 years later to earn a professional cooking degree, an experience that culminated with an internship at the fledgling Food Network, where I helped produce segments for Robin Leach, of "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous" fame. By that point, I had viewed hundreds of episodes of The Frugal Gourmet, Justin Wilson ("ga-run-tee"), Natalie DuPree, Martin Yan (Yan Can Cook), Paul Prudhomme, Martha Stewart and Julia Child and anyone else making anything to eat on television.

Pepín never did it for the fame. Or the fortune. It was his calling. Both of his parents made their living with their hands. His mother owned a restaurant, where he worked as a very young child, before and after school, and his father was a cabinet maker. By the age of 13, Jacques was a culinary apprentice in a hotel kitchen. At 17, he was moved to the French President's residence, where he became personal chef to the first of three Presidents he would serve. He never considered it a glamorous position. It was simply "manual labor," but he loved it.

Having saved enough money to take a vacation in America, he came here by boat when he was 24. He fell in love with the USA and decided to stay. Offered a job to cook for President Kennedy, he chose instead to work for the Howard Johnson's restaurant chain, best known for fried clams and paper placemats. Jacques wasn't motivated by glamour or notoriety, but by the value of the learning he could attain working for a company that was mass producing meals. Concurrently, wanting to improve his English, he heard there was a school in New York called Columbia University. So he walked there and enrolled in a high school equivalency program. He followed that with a Bachelors degree and a Masters from Columbia, while working at HoJo's.
[I interviewed him some years ago in this video.]

Encouraged by prominent industry friends (James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey, among others) to write and conduct cooking demonstrations, he spent a lot of time on the road teaching classes in tiny cooking schools across the country. That eventually led to appearances on local public television stations. Pepín has hosted 14 season series since then. Perhaps most well-known was the one in which he and Julia Child cooked together, winning an Emmy Award and James Beard Award in 2001. His current program, Jacques Pepin Heart & Soul -- accompanied by his 29th book! -- will be his last, sadly. But as in every one that preceded it, Pepín stresses the importance of, and demonstrates deliberately, proper technique.

"I certainly don't cook the same way I did 40 years ago, but the technique remains. And that's what the student needs to learn: the technique." ~ Jacques Pepin

Food TV has exploded since those early days, creating a vast army of celebrity chefs. Yet not a single one among them is the equal of Pepín in terms of teaching technique. (Among the hundreds of examples online to choose from, he shows how to make a proper French omelette in this one.)

Although much has been written about Jacques Pepín, the chef, he is also a funny, generous, talented artist and loyal family man. In spite of his impressive credentials and numerous accomplishments, Jacques does not take himself too seriously. Just this past week, Pepín's sense of humor was on full display as he was interviewed on NPR's "Not My Job--Three Questions For Chef Jacques Pépin About Jockstraps." [If you want to get a kick out of him, check out the exchange here.]

People who know him best will tell you that he "does everything for everybody." Quietly, quickly and without self-promotion. I didn't know him well at all, but had once asked if he would sit on a panel together with Danny Meyer and Gary Vaynerchuk that I was organizing to raise money for The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He didn't hesitate for a second, and we raised close to $10,000 in one evening for the cause. Jacques has always given of himself, most notably in the area of teaching. Aside from serving as a Dean of Special at the International Culinary Center, Jacques and Julia Child founded the Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy program at Boston University. Also a gifted painter, some of the proceeds from his beautiful artwork are donated to various organizations.

A devoted family man, Jacques has been married to the same woman for 49 years. Although he has cooked on TV with his loving daughter, Claudine, as well as his granddaughter, Shorey, cooking at home is his preferred activity. He recently said, "My greatest ritual is sitting every night at the dining-room table with my wife and sharing our meal and one, sometimes two, bottles of wine and discussing the events of the day." When Claudine and her family visit, everyone will gather in the kitchen, each assigned their own responsibility in assembling the meal they will sit and enjoy together. I'm no psychologist, but it must say something positive about his parental influence that his daughter married a professional chef.

No pretense. No preening. No posturing.

He's not about foam, fusion or fanfare. He eschews the fancy and favors the simple, most happy eating "extraordinary" bread and butter, soup and salad, chicken and eggs. Cooking was never about celebrity. It was work to him, but what glorious work it was. "We're mashed potato makers," he has said, "but we're lucky, we get to do what we love." I think he's happiest when cooking, not simply because he loves to cook, but because he experienced profoundly from the very beginning that food brings joy and creates powerful memories that forever connect family and friends.

Americans will always be grateful to France for the Statue of Liberty. For me, and an entire generation of chefs, culinary students and wanna-be cooks, I thank France for the national treasure that is Jacques Pepín. Happy Birthday, Jacques! You have been the gift to us.

And as he would say, "Happy Cooking."