MADISON, Conn. — As the early October sun cast unexpected warmth across his white-and-blue tiled kitchen walls, Jacques Pépin offered up a secret: After the death of his wife in 2020, the long-celebrated French chef admitted, he often felt unmotivated to cook for himself.
“It’s just me,” Pépin told the Boston Globe during a recent interview. “After 54 years, we sat down at night with a bottle of wine and shared our dinner. It’s the one thing I miss the most.”
Gloria Pépin died in her bed in 2020, surrounded by family. She was 83 years old. Born in New York City to a mother from Puerto Rico and a father from Cuba, she traveled to Cuba while still in high school and ended up fighting in the Cuban Revolution, according to a post shared on her husband’s Facebook page.
Her personality was straight forward and unapologetic, Pépin said, with a dry sense of humor and a strong will. She and Pépin met while he was working as a ski instructor at Hunter Mountain in New York. Though she was already an excellent skier, she signed up for lessons just to spend time with him. They married in 1966.
Despite Pépin’s world travels and non-stop schedule, the couple made sure to sit at the table every night for dinner and enjoy their meal and a glass of wine. With Frank Sinatra or Charles Aznavour singing in the background, they would often dance together in their kitchen.
“When Gloria was alive, I would spend more time carefully plating our dishes,” he said. Now, dinners alone are more simple. “I’m happy with just a bowl of soup these days,” said Pépin. “I’m left with something a little more essential. I don’t need embellishments anymore. All of that is part of me cooking now, as opposed to me cooking 30 years ago.”
Cooking simply is also the new theme of Pépin’s new book, “Jacques Pépin Cooking My Way: Recipes and Techniques for Economical Cooking,” which was published in late September. In the book’s introduction, he explains that economy not only of food, but of time and money, can reflect the cook’s comprehension and intelligence of the craft. He compares cooks who do not waste ingredients or motions in the kitchen to “a well-choreographed ballet.”
Being thrifty is second nature to this iconic chef. Pépin grew up in France during World War II, when there was not much to eat. Government coupons for butter or meat were available only about once per month. You didn’t waste anything, he said his mother taught him. “You use it all.”
In the 1980s, he penned a regular column for The New York Times called The Purposeful Cook, where he wrote recipes and offered cooking tips to feed a family of six on a budget. It’s where the idea for his latest cookbook was born.
When possible, he purchases the exact quantities of ingredients, in order to avoid waste, which he considers different from leftovers. A good cook “is never apologetic about leftovers,” said Pépin. Even after years of television and cookbook success — he has published more than 30 so far — he and his wife would make “fridge soup” to use up produce before it went bad, simmering wilted lettuce, a few carrots, and “whatever else I had” in water before adding pasta to complete the dish.
“So even though I had many other types of food, cooking economically was always part of it,” said Pépin.
In “Cooking My Way,” Pépin includes some of his own childhood favorites, such as a spin on one of his “mother’s standards,”a meat-and-potato ragout. Having grown up in Bourg-en-Bresse, a part of France famous for chickens, he learned to how use all parts of the bird — including the heart and gizzard, which he uses to make soup for a light and affordable dinner.
He credits his wife’s Puerto Rican family for his Black Bean soup, and for a dessert recipe of guava with cream cheese and mint. Such recipes are a sign that he’s more than just a French chef.
“When you open my book, you see a black bean soup with bananas... a Southern fried chicken, a lobster roll from Connecticut, and then sushi on the next page,” he said. “So, after so many years of cooking in America, I’m probably the quintessential American chef.”
Pépin told the Globe it was “probably true” that some people made cooking at home too complicated instead of allowing themselves to cook simply. He offered some advice: “When you cook a recipe for the first time, you should do it exactly the way it’s written down,” he said.
By the third or fourth time, you can start customizing it — adapting the recipe based on what you already have in your kitchen instead of constantly buying new ingredients. “A year later, you don’t even remember where that recipe came from because you massage it enough so that it reflects your own senses, taste, and the esthetics,” he said.
In “Cooking My Way,” Pépin shares his thoughts and tidbits from his life, like how penne is one of his favorite pasta since it holds its shape and absorbs the flavor of other ingredients easily. Or how he occasionally goes clamming near his house, “digging my toes into the sand to feel for the buried bivalves.” He considers the ribs from the breast of veal to be one of the tastiest (and most inexpensive) cuts, and he sometimes buys pesto by the jar from a grocery store — just like the rest of us.
In late September, Pépin’s was honored for his life’s work at Johnson & Wales University’s 50th Anniversary Gala in Providence. After so many decades of being a chef, Pépin told a room of students, alum, and celebrity chefs that “you have to love this business to do it.”
“As a young chef getting into this, you won’t make much money. You work Saturday and Sunday, during the holidays, you work late at night. This is a taxing, difficult job,” he said. “But if you love it, it is worth it.”
Though nearly 88 years old, Pépin has slowed down only a little. He attends book signings, is involved in the nonprofit Jacques Pépin Foundation (which supports culinary students and training programs), and still teaches America how to cook via videos on his Facebook page, which has 1.7 million followers and is managed by his daughter, Claudine. And he occasionally still travels for work.
“Well, I am the culinary director of a cruise line,” he laughs, referencing his role with Oceania Cruises, where he sets up menus and works with chefs on the ship, which has a restaurant named after him.
Still, many days end in his home kitchen, alone, cooking a “fridge soup” or recalling a meal with Gloria. “Cooking for someone is the greatest expression of love,” he said.
That love is evident throughout “Cooking My Way,” which also showcases Pépin’s whimsical paintings. Some are calming scenes of his kitchen, or of country views with white-painted homes dotted along rolling hills. Others are of his menus from big family and special-occasion dinners he and Gloria hosted at home, with chickens, vases, vegetables, lemons, and wine glasses painted along the borders and wine labels peeled off of the bottles served at home. (Worth noting: They rarely cost more than $15.)
After more than half a century the collection of menus, many of which still have messages from guests written on the back, fill 12 scrapbooks in his kitchen. He still looks through them for inspiration.
“My mother, my two brothers... Many, many people who are gone today. Now, my wife,” said Pépin. “That’s a whole life of memories.”