MADISON, Conn. — When he was 13, he left his home in France to start a kitchen apprenticeship, wearing short pants because he wasn’t old enough to wear long ones. At 23, he became chef to then French president Charles de Gaulle. In subsequent years he cooked in the finest restaurants, became a TV cooking personality, wrote book after book (more than 30), helped launch a food studies program at Boston University, collected two dozen James Beard medals, and a French Legion d’Honneur.
Today, Jacques Pépin, at 86, has a lot of life to look back on. In his latest, and what seems his most personal, cookbook, “Jacques Pépin Art of the Chicken: A Master Chef’s Paintings, Stories, and Recipes of the Humble Bird,” published this month, he reminisces about the various turns in his career, and the people he met, by telling tales that all involve one of his cherished chickens.
He begins at home in Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyon, during the Second World War, when he was 7. He and his boyhood friends, always hungry, kidnapped a chicken from a neighbor and roasted it over an open fire by the river. They wrapped it in clay from the riverbed. “We retrieved the hardened block of clay from the embers of the dying fire and smashed it open with stones. The feathers and skin stayed glued to the clay, leaving behind the meat for us to enjoy. It might not have been a triumph of haute cuisine, but we enjoyed the results immensely,” he writes. Chicken was such a luxury that his family rarely ate it.
Pépin, a teaching chef well versed in the science and history of food, has always been admired by his colleagues in the industry, those on the way up whom he taught, and those at his top level. But it’s only in the last few years that his cooking has reached millions of new fans. During the pandemic, he started his own cooking videos, right in his home kitchen here, and they took off. The only other person in the room was a videographer.
“The man is magical in his ability to renew and reinvent himself for every new decade, every new moment in food,” says his former editor Rux Martin, whose husband, Barry Estabrook, worked on the “Art of the Chicken” manuscript with the chef.
Pépin is sitting in his kitchen, on one side of a large granite-topped island. The other side is where he cooks, and where his longtime photographer and Connecticut neighbor Tom Hopkins, who began working with the chef four decades ago, got behind a video camera and started shooting over his shoulder.
The videos took root when Pépin’s daughter Claudine, president of the Jacques Pépin Foundation, an organization that supports culinary students and training programs, suggested that he offer recipes using pantry and freezer supplies. “All things people can relate to,” she told him. Claudine posted them on her father’s Facebook page and he now has 1.5 million followers. “The pandemic caused a lot of people to go into the kitchen,” says Pépin.
His book editor, Sarah Kwak of Harvest, an imprint of William Morrow, says, “I had grown up watching him teach and cook on TV — much like how his fans are connecting with him with his videos on Facebook now.”
A video on how to cook steak got over a million views, and it isn’t unusual to see 500 favorable comments on an episode. He never begins with a mise en place with prepped ingredients. He chops everything as we watch, and his knife skills are a joy to behold — lightning quick.
One viewer wrote that Pépin makes him feel like a kid watching Mr. Rogers. “You make me want to learn,” said the fan.
Pépin began his TV career in 1982 with “Everyday Cooking” at WJCT, the Public Television station in Jacksonville, Fla. A few years later, he moved to KQED with “Today’s Gourmet.” There were 13 seasons of shows, including “Fast Food My Way.”
He started teaching French culture and cuisine at Boston University and later Claudine became a student there. He taped TV shows with his dear friend, Julia Child, in her Cambridge kitchen. Together, the two, along with Rebecca Alssid of Boston University, created the Master of Arts in Gastronomy at Metropolitan College in 1991 (full disclosure: this reporter teaches food journalism in the program). He and Child taught cooking and culture together; he still teaches in the Culinary Arts Certificate Program.
Though he had stopped school young to become an apprentice, later he earned a BA and an MA at Columbia University in New York. After completing all the course work for a PhD in 18th century French literature, he left because the university said his thesis on food in literature wasn’t a good enough academic subject to consider. “I proposed starting in the 15th century,” he tells me later on the phone, “ending with the madeleine of Proust.” When the university dismissed his thesis, he says, “I was working at the time, so I said OK, I’m leaving.”
This was an era, he once explained, “when if you wanted mushrooms, you bought them in a can.” Columbia later awarded Pépin an honorary doctorate.
When he and his late wife, Gloria, entertained, he kept track of all the menus, and illustrated them with fruits, vegetables, and flowers. “Only after I had acquired a thick stack of these mementos did I realize that an unusually high percentage of my drawings depicted chickens, often in comical, mischievous poses,” he writes.
“I haven’t been painting as long as I have been cooking,” he writes, “yet it is over half a century ago that I picked up a brush instead of a knife.” His whimsical paintings appear throughout the book — famous Bresse chickens, along with red chickens, black chickens, roosters, and more — and he’s made kitchen tiles from his sketches. He pulls out a scrapbook of menus from decades ago and each page is framed by his art.
Roast a chicken like Maman, simmer it in bouillabaisse, saute it with mushrooms for Chicken Chasseur (a De Gaulle family favorite), tuck the flesh into a pot pie, turn it into comedian Danny Kaye’s chicken salad, or grill it with herbes de Provence, as his younger brother, Bichon, did in his country restaurant near Lyon. It’s all here, from the mundane to the extraordinary: the famous chicken with truffle slices under its skin, cooked inside a pig’s bladder. It was the specialty of Eugenie Brazier of La Mère Brazier, and “one of the most sought-after dishes in Lyon,” writes Pépin.
What makes “Art of the Chicken” different from ordinary cookbooks is chatty recipes without exact measurements, as if Pépin were explaining to a friend how he made something. He knows that people will never prepare some — like the dish from La Mère Brazier — and he decided a no-ingredient-list format was ideal.
The chef lives in this idyllic Connecticut town in a former 1920s brick factory. His miniature poodle, Gaston, is often by his side. The kitchen is crowded with utensils, and there’s a wall of cookware, some of it copper, but besides that, nothing fancy. He owns devices most home cooks have, including stainless steel-lined copper, rather than old-fashioned tin, the way copper pans were traditionally made. “I always use new equipment,” he says. “Even [19th century French chef] Escoffier would have used a food processor if he had one.”
Framed photos line the hallways, one from his 20s at the elite Plaza Athénée in Paris, where he’s pictured with the kitchen brigade, others with James Beard, Julia Child, Alsace-born French chef André Soltner, former New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, President Barack Obama, author M.F.K. Fisher, and a hundred more. Behind the house is a professional studio for shooting shows and behind that is a boules court for the French game pétanque, which 40 to 50 locals play. Seven have home courts and entertain the group.
The unstoppable chef, who is culinary director of Oceania Cruises, is sailing with them soon to the Bahamas, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. He sets up menus and works with chefs on the ship, where there’s a restaurant called Jacques.
When he was in his 20s in the celebrated Le Pavillon kitchen, he received two job offers from dining room regulars; one from Joseph P. Kennedy, who was looking for a French chef to cook at the White House, the other from Boston-born Howard Deering Johnson, who owned a large chain of restaurants. Howard Johnson’s made family fare, entirely from scratch, in vast quantities. Pépin’s friend Pierre Franey, who worked for Johnson, needed an assistant, and offered him $120 a week and daytime hours, weekends off. Pépin writes in his autobiography, “The Apprentice,” that work in a French restaurant, no matter how prestigious, meant being buried in the basement. The staff spoke their native language to one another, drank together after hours, and might as well have stayed in Paris for all they were learning about American life.
He turned down Kennedy and accepted Johnson. He didn’t go to the White House, he says, “because I’d already worked for three French heads of state.” The White House job would mean being hidden in yet another kitchen. “No one ever asked who the chef was.”
How times have changed. You don’t have to buy mushrooms in a can anymore.