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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.

At the cash register, once we used a Giant discount card, the total came to less than $24, including wine: the makings, in Pépin's hands, of a huge meal and then some.

It all came together back at The Post in less than 45 minutes. And I didn't even ask him to go quickly.

Fast food Pépin's way entails some of the most astonishing knife skills I've witnessed in person. In promoting his new book, Pépin likes to talk about "the supermarket as my prep cook," providing pre-sliced fresh mushrooms or pre-cut squash to jump-start a weeknight meal. But the fact is, such things save Pépin mere seconds, because his hands are quicker than any Cuisinart.

Once the groceries were sorted out, he started by running the Shun cook's knife he'd picked up from the kitchen counter across the back of a paring knife instead of a honing steel. "The back of a plate is good, too," he said, picking up one and turning it over to demonstrate. "It's porcelain, harder than steel."

Was he stalling for time, trying to figure out a plan? If so, he's an excellent actor; perhaps he was showing off the talent recognized by the directors of TV's "Ugly Betty," on which he made a recent cameo. ("I had never seen the show before," he said.)

He jumped into prepping Golden Delicious apples with a simple combination of butter, sugar, lemon peel and water. While the apples were baking, he minced and smashed garlic cloves into a paste, then shredded about a third of the Savoy cabbage and tossed it with a garlicky Dijon dressing.

Half of the package of kielbasa went into a pan with oil and was paired with the other two-thirds of the cabbage for a quick saute. He peeled and cut up the acorn squash and cooked it until tender in a covered pan with water, then added vinegar and honey to give it a sweet-and-sour glaze. He pan-fried the short ribs, then cut store-bought nan into strips the size of the ribs. He washed baby bella mushrooms ("Do it right before you use them, and don't let them sit in the water"), then blurred them into perfect julienne. He sauteed them with Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi sauvignon blanc ($4.50 a bottle), poured from his glass.

The dishes, five of them, came out one after the other, and Pépin hardly broke a sweat. He sprinkled the squash and cabbage dishes with garnishes of parsley or carrot, spooned dollops of sour cream onto the apples and constructed open-faced sandwiches out of the nan, short ribs and mushroom mixture.

He probably would have done it in half the time if I hadn't kept interrupting with questions about techniques and amounts. But even that was a breeze. When he would take a big pinch of salt with his fingers, he'd drop it into a teaspoon measure, where it would level out. Exactly. Every time.

We ended up with a hearty, seasonal, rib-sticking meal for six, plus a bonus dish, plus some leftover sausage and butter. The slaw's dressing was addictively pungent, the baked apples were custardy and perfumed with lemon, the kielbasa had crisp edges, the cabbage with them was almost caramelized, the squash was beautifully browned and a little tangy, and the tender short ribs were, well, a revelation. I'd never had them any other way except slow-cooked.

"Neither have I," Pépin replied as he cut them into pieces between the bones and grabbed forkfuls of the meat, juice-soaked nan and mushrooms. "Not bad."

Not bad. Especially considering that this was a man working on a few hours' sleep, anxious to get back to his hotel to rest up for a program and book signing at the Smithsonian that night.

What would he have done if he had been brighter-eyed and bushier-tailed?

"Easy," he said. "Six dishes."

"Jacques Pépin: More Fast Food My Way," produced by KQED, airs locally on WETA, Channel 26, at 4 p.m. Saturdays; and on Maryland Public Television, Channel 67 and Channel 22, at 2 p.m. Saturdays.

All 26 episodes can be watched and 53 of the book's recipes can be printed at http://www.kqed.org/w/morefastfoodmyway.

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