In the culinary world there may be no better combination of Frenchman and New Englander than Jacques Pepin. As a legend of American cuisine, Pepin was recently a featured guest at Les Dames d’Escoffier’s annual “The Next Big Bite” event in New York City. He was introduced as “possibly the greatest cooking teacher on the planet.” While his career and collaborations are part of the nation’s culinary history, it’s not hard to recognize our region’s particular influence on him, and his on us.
At the event, Pepin discussed with me his being a New Englander and the career milestones that took place here. He is, of course, a prolific cookbook author and cooking show host, remembered for his collaborations with Julia Child. Pepin has shaped Boston University’s culinary arts and gastronomy programs, where he has taught for over 30 years. Longtime residents remember his pioneering work with Howard Johnson hotels and family restaurants, starting in 1961.
Pepin has lived for four decades in Madison on the Connecticut coast and says he “absolutely” considers himself a New Englander. Still, it’s natural to wonder how much “French” inflection is in his New England cooking, especially with such notable experience cooking in French restaurants and for French president Charles de Gaulle.
“I never thought of integrating or fusion,” says Pepin. “After 30 cookbooks, I’m considered the quintessential French chef.” But, he says, pointing to his cookbook (“Jacques Pepin Heart & Soul in the Kitchen”), “on page 32 you have black bean soup with banana and cilantro; the next recipe is Southern fried chicken, next clam chowder, and then lobster roll. So I’m probably the quintessential American chef.”
The New England virtues of thrift and lack of pretension befit Pepin. Raised during World War II and the privation of postwar reconstruction, he learned to make due. He was an apprentice at age 13 and did not start his formal higher education until he came to the United States in 1959. Along with being “frugal in the kitchen,” he forages for mushrooms, dandelions, and wild leeks on his 4 acres.
His knowledge of local seafood could be the envy of survivalists. “For an event last week I went to Hammonasset Beach with my net to scoop up tiny minnows. Press on their bellies, roll in flour, and deep-fry. They would cost a fortune in France, Spain, or Italy.”
He also prepares bluefish, skate, croaker, and porgy. “I used to catch these but now I rely on the generosity of local fishermen who bring them to me along with local clams and oysters.”
No conversation with Pepin is complete without him rhapsodizing about lobster rolls and clam chowder. It harkens back to his decade with Francophile Howard Johnson, on a mission to spread New England favorites including fried clams and other seafood nationwide.
Howard Johnson started the first restaurant bearing his name in Quincy. But Pepin has to remind people that it was not a fast food chain. “There was table service, prime beef, prime lamb, clam chowder, high quality things. It was one of the first to place restaurants near highways.”
Since then, of course, much has changed. “New England food has gotten more refined. I can give you 10 restaurants that I go to now that didn’t exist 40 years ago, from Bar Bouchée, a French restaurant, and Clam Castle where I get a good lobster roll. Boston was kind of a gastronomical wasteland, but not any longer. There are fantastic restaurants.” Eastern Standard is a Boston favorite. He also liked the recently closed Les Sablons in Cambridge.
“It used to be if you had a bad review in The New York Times or Boston Globe, it would kill a restaurant. Not anymore. People try restaurants, if they like them they e-mail their friends. People are getting used to good wine, bread, and cheese. They rely on their own tastes much more than they used to. People find out about restaurants and judge them more independently.”
So what should the food pages be reporting? “The mission is always the same, to let people know where there is a good restaurant for a good price and quality. Give them good information.”
Pepin remains a traditionalist when it comes to New England classics like the ones he keeps mentioning. “There are so many chefs, and everyone wants to blow your mind. Everyone wants to do something different,” he says
“There are different types of creativity. Working with a recipe and making it slightly better and slightly different and getting into the taste — that’s creativity for me. It is more important than changing all your vegetables and adding six different types of herbs on top,” he says.
“I look at, for instance, the New England clam chowder, the real one with the roux, the cream, for the model.”