Face Time: Jacques Pepin

December 16, 2011

Before Paula and Rachael, there was a French dreamboat on your TV screen and alongside Julia Child, teaching you to make a country omelette. Jacques Pepin, 76, now issues his most complete recipe book, “Essential Pepin” ($40, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), featuring more than 700 of his favorite recipes and an instructional DVD on technique. We talked baguette and the good old life with the Dauphin of French food.

Why did you decide to compile your best recipes in one volume?
It wasn’t my idea, but I had over 2,000 recipes to choose from, and the idea was to leave them just as they were. Exactly what I did 10 years ago, or even 30 years ago. So I chose 700, and we added the DVD, which is very important. It’s a course in technique and cooking in itself.

You taught America to cook.
Well, I don’t know about that!

You did! Do you consider yourself more of a teacher or chef?
That’s a good question. Probably more of a teacher now. I’ve been teaching at the French Culinary Institute for 25 years now. When I write a recipe, I always think of simplifying it or explaining it to make it comprehensible.

At one point, you were the personal chef to then-President of France Charles de Gaulle. What did you learn from cooking for world leaders?
The chef was really at the bottom of the scale. When I served the president in France, I dealt with Madame de Gaulle, of course, to set up the menu; I served many heads of state — Eisenhower and others. But in that day, the cook was in his place in the kitchen, and that was about the end of it. If there is something wrong, someone might see you in the kitchen and complain. But the cook was never seen.

What has been your driving philosophy as both a chef and a teacher?
Probably simplicity of recipe. Maybe I’m still French, in that sense. I try to break down a recipe to make it simpler. Even a recipe that I did years ago, I say, “Why did I do that?” I can do it much simpler. Quality of ingredients is also important.

You’ve seen culinary culture change so much over past decades. What do you say to people who are kind of overwhelmed by the foodie world?
I tell them don’t worry about it, because I am just as overwhelmed as you are. Relax, have a glass of wine [laughs], roast a chicken, do a tomato salad and you’ll be happy, you know.

You’ve said in the past that tastes get simpler with age. What are your favorite dishes now?
Bread and butter. If you can have the most extraordinary bread in the world and the most extraordinary butter, it’s hard to beat.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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