Bay Area Bites recently got a chance to sit down with Jacques Pepin, one of the most beloved “celebrity chefs”. In Interview with Jacques Pepin Part One we talk about food trends, the celebrity chef phenomenon and cookbooks. Next week check back for Part Two to read about Pepin’s favorite meal, favorite gadgets and the difference between food in America and France.
You’ve seen a lot of trends from nouvelle cuisine to low carb, is molecular gastronomy the next food revolution?
People like Ferran Adria at El Bulli in the North of Spain are breaking new ground. When you go there and eat that food you often don’t even know what it is. It’s a little bit like when I was in China eating Buddhist food. Everything is some type of bean but one dish tastes like duck, another tastes like fish. It’s a cuisine of deception to a certain extent. If you gave Adria’s food to a Spaniard in the street, he’d have no idea what it is. That being said, he has done stuff that no one has done. I think it is akin to haute couture. When you see the new collection of Gaultier you start laughing. Somehow it trickles down and goes somewhere. That type of cuisine will trickle down. If you look at what we’ve done with nouvelle cuisine, it was a big revolution but many of the things that were revolutionary at the time are common ground now. It does have to make sense, it’s not a question of putting raspberry ice cream on a slice of Roquefort cheese just because no one has ever done it, there’s a reason why no one has ever done it. For a young chef, the idea of doing something shocking can be irresistible but I’m much older now and I like something which tastes good whether it is new or not. I tend to take away from the plate much more than I add, which is a normal process I think.
Are we too obsessed with food in this country?
Depends where you live. If you are in Iraq or Biafra (Nigeria) or many other places in the world, all people want is some protein so they are not that concerned about over-carbohydrating themselves, they just want to grab something to eat. We fuss so much about a dish, we torture it so much to make it appealing, to excite your taste buds, when at the same time 2/3 of the world’s population is dying of hunger. There’s something wrong with that picture. Morally something is wrong. So yes, we can become too obsessed with food here.
If you compare the world of food now to the way it was, I mean there were over 2,000 cookbooks published last year and in the last 15 years, probably 20,000 books specifically about dieting and we are now 1/3 fatter than we were 20 years ago when it started. There’s something wrong there. It used to be that you went to the restaurant before going to the theatre. Now the restaurant has become the theatre, people go there to be seen, to experience new trends, and to discover new chefs. It is really an obsession compared to the rest of the world where people usually eat at home and eat in a restaurant maybe once a month. Just look at what’s in the supermarket. When I first came here 40 years ago there were two kinds of lettuce, iceberg and romaine. There were no leeks, no shallots, no oriental vegetables, and no fresh herbs. You had to go to a specialty store in New York just to get regular white mushrooms.
What do you think about the celebrity chef phenomenon?
It’s terrific! I’m a beneficiary so I’m not going to can it but I don’t take it too seriously. When I came here in 1960, I was offered a job at the White House to cook for John F. Kennedy and then I was offered a job at Howard Johnson and I went there instead. But it was a decision which made sense at the time. I had been the chef of the president in France (Charles de Gaulle) but I had never been on the radio or in a magazine. The chef was in the kitchen and never came into the dining room. When I was invited to the White House, I had no idea of the potential so it’s not a decision which was so difficult to understand at the time. On the other hand, with Howard Johnson I had no idea of the food, no idea of the production, no idea of the chemistry of food, no idea of American eating habits. So I was learning something, and that’s why I went.
I don’t like to go out to dinner when people are shoving food in my mouth. Sometimes I just like to go out and have a taco and a beer somewhere. 35 years ago, chefs were really at the bottom of the social scale. No good mother would have wanted their child to be a cook, they wanted them to be a lawyer or an architect or a designer or whatever. Now we are geniuses.
Your latest book,”Fast Food My Way” seems to try to dispel the notion that great cooking has to require a lot of time and effort. Has your own style of cooking changed?
The myth is that this is the way Jacques Pepin cooks now. I’ve always cooked this way. In the span of a week, I could spend five hours in the kitchen doing puff pastry or doing stock and the day after I’m in a hurry and I do something out of the refrigerator. I could put one recipe into slow food, one recipe into normal, and one recipe into fast foo–throughout the year it’s what I do. This is not something that is new or that I never cooked this way before. I’m not special, I’m sure you do the same thing, sometimes you have time and sometimes you don’t. In the US we tend to always want to categorize things so much–slow food cookery, 8 hours, microwave oven, regular stove.
Do you look at cookbooks for inspiration?
Not for inspiration but I look at the Larousse Gastronomic or Joy of Cooking or an old anthology book like that to check a point. Inspiration comes from eating in a restaurant or you look in a magazine or you talk with friends and it triggers something. I came from the airport and I had a bite to eat at Postrio and he gave me a scallop that was wrapped in a very thin slice of bread and sauteed and that was a good idea. It reminded me of when I was working at the Russian Tea Room in New York and we used to do a breast of chicken that we dipped in eggs and we dipped it into a little cube of bread or brioche and sauteed it. I will probably do something like this, but maybe with fish. So you have an idea like this that you see and it transforms itself, you filter it through your own aesthetic.
Interview continues here.