Julia Child and Jacques Pepin have spent much of their adult lives teaching French cooking to Americans. Sauces and estouffades. Mousses and meringues.
But guess what they make when they're at home. Roast chicken. Scrambled eggs. Hamburgers. Pan-fried steaks. Mashed potatoes.
This is not to say they're just like you and me. The chicken is perfection and the scrambled eggs creamy and the steaks as French as French can be. But anybody who learns proper technique and practices, they implore, can do the same thing--and have a terrific time in the process.
"You should learn the craft of cooking, so it's all natural," says the woman whose unmistakable voice has delighted just about everyone who's ever watched a cooking program. "It's a joyful experience."
It's even more fun, they maintain, if you cook with a friend or family member, which is what they demonstrate in a new 22-week PBS television series and companion book, "Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home." Friends for decades, they are now crossing the country telling people cooking is really not all that hard.
"We wanted to make good food accessible," she says. "Recipes are not engraved in stone."
"More than anything else we want people to feel happy and comfortable cooking," he says, the French accent still lingering 35 years after he became an American citizen. "We want to demystify the process. You find out that if you burn the chicken, you're not going to go to the guillotine."
That's easy for them to say.
Sitting in an elegant suite at the George Hotel near Union Station, adored by their fans, they are genuine culinary superstars. She, more than anyone, has transformed the way Americans think about French cooking. He has inspired millions of viewers with his seemingly effortless mastery of culinary technique. Their first joint appearance on television, "Cooking in Concert," drew the largest audience of any single cooking segment.
Isn't it likely that their roast chicken--even if it is burned--or their mashed potatoes will taste a lot better than yours or mine? And for that matter, do we even stand a chance? Don't the demands of today's world make it really hard for working people to find the time to learn to be a good cook?
The whole premise of "Cooking at Home" is that with a little effort (and enough practice), serious home cooking is more than possible.
"How hard is it for somebody to buy two chicken legs, saute them, add a couple of potatoes and some cut-up zucchini and garlic, cover the pan, and in 35 minutes, you have dinner?" asks Pepin.
That said, neither one of them is starry-eyed about the likelihood of newcomers to the kitchen starting from ground zero and mastering multi-stage procedures in today's world. So, instead of the original idea for the series/book, which was "Cooking the Classics," the programs focus on dishes within reach of just about anybody who's willing to take a little time.
"You have to suit modern life," says Child.
"Start with something simple."
"It seems to be what people want," says Pepin.
Besides, it's what they think is important. "After the exaggeration of nouvelle cuisine and food going in so many directions, we went back to something less sophisticated, more secure, more substantial," he says. "Things you can eat over and over again without getting tired of them."
Their emphasis, therefore, is on proper technique and taste, not originality or presentation. "Who cares if something has never been done before?" says Pepin. "You don't have to torture yourself to show your imprimatur in the field."
They are a graceful pair. Good-humored and highly intelligent. Endlessly complimentary and deferential to one another. Interested in what the other has to say. "We must have started cooking about the same time," says the 63-year-old Pepin delightedly when he hears Child, 87, say she began her foray into French food in 1949.
But their lives and culinary experiences have been different. Taking advantage of that, the series/book is structured in a Her Way/His Way approach. And there are differences, though they pretty much agree about the state of cooking, food shopping and the kinds of food they cook at home.
To focus the project, each made a list of those foods, as well as a list of some techniques each thought were essential. She felt it was crucial to show how to carve a chicken. He wanted to be sure they demonstrated knife skills. Then, from chopping garlic to assembling a chocolate roulade, they demonstrate "their" home cooking.
Mastering all of that, of course, is unrealistic for most people. Could they make a list--like the lists of pantry staples and kitchen equipment found in many cookbooks--of dishes that are essential? Dishes that, if mastered, would demonstrate pretty good knowledge of skill and technique?
Interesting idea. Why not? But first they consider the really basic equipment, like a stove and a sink and a food processor. Right. "And a couple of good knives," says Pepin.
"And a good pot--not a whole series," he continues. "My mother had one pot, called a "faitou" that she used for roasts and stews and boiling water for pasta. And maybe a grill pan too. We have more equipment in America than in Europe."
A bottle of wine next to you is a good idea too, they both agree. "This should be fun," he says. "It shouldn't be torture each time you cook."
What about actual dishes?
"Leek and Potato Soup," she volunteers, plunging in. "You can practice your knife skills, and freeze what's left over.
"And roast chicken. And fish meuniere."
"In a nonstick pan," they say.
And green beans (blanched and buttered) and broccoli and cauliflower (blanched and served with a good sauce). "You'd be surprised how easy it can be," says Child.
"And you have to learn how to make a good vinaigrette," says Pepin. "With a little [French] mustard; you can make it in a jar, keep it in the refrigerator, and you'll have dressing for a week. And with pre-washed mesclun, salad too."
"A flat omelet and scrambled eggs," he proposes. "They're fun, even if they're a littled crooked or more scrambled."
"And a pot roast," she says. "If you can do a pot roast, you can do a stew. Don't forget the stew. A lamb stew. A beef stew. They're all made the same way. And once you do a stew, you can braise, and that's essential because the cuts of meat are less expensive."
"And fruit too," he says, "A baked or poached pear. That's not a big deal."
What about dough? Hmmm. Maybe not for this list. "You want dishes that are gratifying and rewarding," she says.
Like crepes. "Mix flour and eggs and melted butter, and then you can do a crepe in a minute and a half," he says. "They're not difficult . . . . Well, maybe a little more difficult."
"You can turn them into different things," says Child enthusiastically.
Then it's back to basics with potatoes. Boiled, mashed and baked. "Mashed potatoes are terribly important," she says. "Very important," he agrees.
"And broiled chicken and a pork chop for kids," she says.
"And a rack of lamb," he says. "And a pan-fried hamburger, and a steak and a piece of fish or chicken."
"What about a simple bechamel sauce--an old-fashioned sauce for cauliflower au gratin," she wonders. "With egg whites beaten into the sauce, it's a souffle--though maybe that's a step up from the basics," she says. "And a hollandaise--though that's probably a step up too."
"It's important to discuss the food you're eating, too," she continues. "If you're having a white wine with a dish, taste it. Ask yourself why did I pick this kind of wine. It gets people thinking about it."
"And tasting," he says. "So it's important to eat at good restaurants here, and go to Europe if you can . . . . And to read a recipe entirely and plan a little.
"The point is to build people's confidence," he says. "Continue doing a dish over and over again. And then you have the skill, and your confidence will build.
"It doesn't matter how you bring people in [to cooking]. You just have to recondition yourself. Have friends in that you know are interested in food and try cooking with them. Learn a little bit about wine too, and maybe become a wine snob. Who cares?"
If they sound upbeat, they are. There are a few things that distress them, of course: the lack of knowledge for starters. "And the fear of cooking and the fear of eating," he says. "There are some people whose diet still revolves around five dishes."
"And the fear of fat," she says, appalled. "People should eat smaller portions."
But mostly, they see progress.
"I'm pretty optimistic," he says. "When I apprenticed, cooking from scratch meant attending to the fire and keeping it going and getting it the right temperature. And plucking chickens. Now less and less, it's hard even to see a whole chicken. And mushrooms are already sliced." (They were only available in cans when he came to this country, he says.) "And the supermarkets have never been as beautiful."
More people build enormous kitchens, they agree. And more people are cooking--even the crew of the show. And more people appreciate fine restaurants. "Now people are cooking on weekends as a hobby," she says. "And good food and wine are a status symbol. In the old days a man would have bought his wife a mink coat; now he takes her out to good restaurants."
The number of cooking shows and the vast number of cookbooks that come out each year lead them to believe there's more interest in cooking. And the prevalence of high-quality coffee beans and artisanal breads impress them too. "It's the same thing that happened to vinegar and oil 10 or 12 years ago," he says.
Even the quality of fine sliced supermarket bread is a reason to rejoice. "For a sandwich, some artisanal breads are hard to chew," says Child.
Not to mention the way chefs are viewed in this country these days--a situation they view with some amusement. "Twenty-five or 30 years ago chefs were in off a black hole somewhere," says Pepin. "Now we are geniuses. Now we are rock stars!"
"Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home," executive producer Geoffrey Drummond, airs on WETA-TV Channel 26 on Saturdays at 5:30 p.m. The $40 companion volume to the series, written with David Nussbaum, is published by Alfred A. Knopf.
CAPTION: Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, with their new TV series/book--"Cooking at Home"--underway, say they are optimistic about the future: "Now people are cooking on weekends as a hobby," says Child. "And good food and wine are a status symbol."