I went to hear Jacques Pepin give a talk, and at first I didn't think I was going to be able to hear much of what he had to say. The Carnegie Music Hall here in Pittsburgh was pretty much filled, even in the 2nd balcony, and his French accent, combined with some acoustic muffling, had me straining to understand every third word. Eventually the random noises settled, and I adjusted to the accent. It was a pleasant evening spent with an interesting, and admirable fellow.
So that the magnitude of my shallowness is apparent, let me note before I say anything else, that even from our perch above, you could see what a handsome guy he is-we should all look so good at 71. This is not the result of a life of leisure. M. Pepin was already working in the kitchens of his family's restaurants when he was 11.
He left school at 13 to begin his 7 day a week apprenticeship in a hotel kitchen, and has been ever since enthusiastically cooking, running the kitchens for several French presidents, developing ideas for Howard Johnson's, opening restaurants, writing highly regarded books about cooking, teaching and performing, and incidentally, for his own satisfation, simultaneously completing a graduate degree in 18th century French literature at Columbia. Yikes. Most of his talk concerned these matters, about which you can read further in his engaging autobiography, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, and another volume, due to come out shortly. It's fascinating stuff
M. Pepin really came into his own, though, during the question and answer period. Exhibiting the open mind which has led him to absorb and incorporate his wide range of experiences into his individual approach to food and cooking, he fielded questions at very different levels of sophistication with respect, courtesy and humor.
Asked what he "thought of organic foods", he was enthused, while offering some cogent remarks and predictions about prices and availability for masses of Americans. He noted that, as compared to Europeans, there were, of course, Americans whose exposure to foods was much more limited. But, he also noted, because of the more provincial nature of european cooking, there were many Americans, interested in food, who had a much wider range of food experiences than the average European.
When he first came to the United States in the early 1960's, he had to go to a specialty store to buy fresh mushrooms. Now, there are 6 different kinds in his Shop and Save-though most of the time none of them taste like much of anything...
Asked about the experimental foods and foams of El Bulli and the like, he explained that he personally was more interested in a tasty dinner. But he also noted, that like haute couture, which seems so strange on the runway, this kind of cooking will most likely find it's way, in influence, much altered, into our common experience, eventually. In this, and in his anecdotes about Craig Claibourne, Julia Child, and other famous food people he has worked with and known, he shone with a generosity of spirit, openness, good humour and genuine enthusiasm which was a real pleasure. I was so glad I went. A very cool guy.
And just so you don't think he's, you know, one-dimensional, or anything, that's a picture of one of his paintings, cribbed from his website, up there in the corner.