For Pépin, Impromptu Comes Easy

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Jacques Pépin sits in the back of a Toyota Prius outside the Giant in Brentwood, holding a bag of groceries he has just shopped for, and confesses to having absolutely no idea what he'll do with its contents.

But here's the difference between you, me and Pépin: He doesn't need to know. Not yet, anyway. He has 15 or 20 minutes before he'll unload at The Post's kitchen, sharpen his knives and start shredding cabbage and peeling apples. Then and only then, once his hands are involved, it'll come to him.

"This is how I cook on the weekdays," says Pépin, 72. "Yes, I sometimes take the weekend and make something ambitious, but most days I go to the market, I see what looks good, I buy things, I come home and I cook. That's it."

For Pépin, you see, there are no do-overs, no second takes. Whether it's on the set of his new public television show ("More Fast Food My Way"), in his home kitchen in Connecticut or in a cooking session at the end of a long book tour, it's start to finish, in a flash. No second-guessing, no turning back. And he rarely makes the same thing twice.

"It's really easy for me," Pépin's producer, Tina Salter, said from her office at San Francisco's KQED. "He goes up there and just cooks. He just does it. The hardest thing, honestly, is dragging him out of the back kitchen and getting him into makeup to start shooting."

You get the feeling that it has always been like that for Pépin, who, in the five decades since he moved to the United States from France, has become one of America's most beloved cooking legends. On his first TV audition in New York in the late 1960s, in fact, he naively arrived unprepared to cook. So right before the camera started rolling, he rummaged through a garbage can to cobble together the discards of the tryouts before him. He grabbed some butter and eggs from the fridge, whipped up an omelet and got the job. (The show never aired, and it would be decades before his television career would really take off, leading to famous regular appearances with his daughter, Claudine, and his most famous co-star, Julia Child.)

Pépin's from-the-garbage-bin story, which he recounts in his 2003 autobiography, "The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen," makes us wonder: Did I pursue the wrong angle with him? Maybe I should've taken him dumpster diving.

Instead, I went a slightly more respectable route, enlisting him to lead a loosely defined, budget-oriented shopping trip to the Giant. As he poked, prodded and sniffed his way through the produce, seafood, meat, dairy and -- at long last -- wine aisles, Pépin showed the same genial nature and improvisational spirit that his students, colleagues, fans and readers have come to know so well.

When he arrived in Washington last Wednesday, he was sleep-deprived at the end of a 16-city tour for the PBS show and its companion book. He was also desperately missing his wife, Gloria. Despite the fatigue, at the Giant he displayed a sharp memory for prices. Those tomatoes on the vine? $2.79, "the same price as at the other market." Flanken-style chuck short ribs, at $3.99 a pound, were cheaper: "That's a good price there."

You don't get to cook for three French heads of state without having a discerning eye. Sure enough, Pépin inspects carefully. He looked for the acorn squash (79 cents a pound) that felt heaviest for its size, and he squeezed and pressed on packages of browned artichokes in a day-old bin before deciding they weren't worth buying, even for less than a dollar. His frugality at one point bordered on the mischievous: He peeled off the outer, wilted and slightly browning leaves of a huge Savoy cabbage (49 cents a pound), tossed them aside and took the pristine rest of the vegetable. "We'll let them have the garbage back," he said with a sly grin.

In one purposeful stroll around the periphery of the store, he was not only picking through kielbasa and mussels but also good-naturedly handling the polite interruptions of fans. "I started cooking because of watching you instead of cartoons on Saturday morning," gushed Sammy Steward, 38, a chef-turned-filmmaker who had spotted Pépin back at the apple display.

"Well, now I feel responsible," Pépin shot back.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company