MADISON, Conn. — During the pandemic, Jacques Pépin’s knives did not dull. The French chef concocted more than 250 cooking videos on Facebook, where he now has 1.6 million followers. Recently, he finished an 11-day cruise where he was the entree, so to speak, hosting demonstrations while an all-Pépin channel streamed in travelers’ staterooms.
Still debonair if a bit creakier, Pépin turns 87 in December. He is among the last of the first wave of culinary legends who became household names — Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey. For four decades, he’s been a constant in many American kitchens. Pépin democratized formal technique. He instructed legions of American professional and home chefs, not in a constellation of exorbitant white-cloth restaurants but through cookbooks, and hosting 13 separate public television series.
Pépin may have made his name as Child’s TV kitchen comrade, but he has evolved beyond Poulet à la Crème and Maman’s Cheese Soufflé, while still celebrating the yumminess of both. He understands that a modern chef embraces change — even the microwave and Instagram.
Mention retirement and he looks mystified, possibly annoyed, an eyebrow cocked: “Retire from what? Retire from doing what I love? Retire from cooking?”
And he is always publishing. His latest: “Jacques Pépin Art of the Chicken: A Master Chef’s Paintings, Stories, and Recipes of the Humble Bird.” It is a book most fowl. This gallinaceous volume — possibly his 32nd, who can keep count? — includes a gallery of his paintings of chickens, anecdotes from his remarkable life and recipes that are more story than instruction.
As its title suggests, “Jacques Pépin Art of the Chicken” celebrates his paintings, which he has done for five decades, and his lifelong love of the chicken — the Bresse bird that’s a delicacy from his home region near Lyon. “Proust had his madeleine. I have chickens,” he writes. “As a chef, I stand in awe of the humble bird’s contributions to world cuisine. As an artist, I marvel at the iridescent colors and varied beauty of its plumage.”
Like any true French chef worth his sel, Pépin has no issue adoring and cooking the same “gentle, convivial and docile” beast. His portrait of “Stately Chicken” faces his recipe for Gizzards, Gizzards and More Gizzards. Pépin no longer keeps chickens on his property — too much travel, too many tenacious raccoons — but collects fresh eggs from a neighbor. How he loves eggs! He writes: “If you asked me to choose a single ingredient that I could not do without, it would likely be the egg.”
Pépin originally created his paintings — mostly oils and acrylics — for himself and for menus. Though painting is a hobby, he isn’t shy about showing off his work — in his books, at a local library exhibition and for sale to partially benefit the Jacques Pépin Foundation, which supports teaching diverse and marginalized students culinary skills to help secure gainful employment. Painting “remains forever as a testament to your creativity,” writes Pépin, a member of an informal celebrity artisans league that includes George W. Bush, King Charles III and Tony Bennett.
Paintings are everywhere in his house, a former brick factory that he once shared with Gloria, his wife of 54 years. She died in December 2020, and photos of her blanket the walls. There are frequent mentions of her in his latest book — which is dedicated to Gloria — though not of her passing. How did he fare during the pandemic? “Not well,” Pépin says barely above a whisper, his 8-year-old miniature poodle, Gaston, resting in his lap.
His longevity and ever-expanding catalogue of books allowed him to update lessons in print, to teach new cooks and to reach younger audiences. “Cooking changes all the time,” he says over a glass of rosé. (With ice!) Pépin changed, too. “He gets new vegetables. He tries new things. He’s always curious,” says his friend, photographer and videographer Tom Hopkins. “As he gets older, he embellishes less and simplifies more.” For lunch, Pépin feasts on a tomato from his garden, cradled in olive oil and blessed with coarse salt.
“I’m very Cartesian. I like to break down a recipe and show how it is done,” he says. “The paradox here is that I can do that recipe five times, and I will never do it exactly the same way but it will come out the same way. When you work in a restaurant, you don’t have a recipe. You do it from training, from instinct. It’s about adjusting balance.”
His Chicken Bercy recipe, offered without measurements, relies on the home cook’s instincts. It reads in its entirety: “This classic chicken preparation is made by cutting chicken into pieces and sautéing them with shallots and butter until all the pieces are uniformly and nicely browned. After that, it is deglazed with a dry white wine, some demi-glace is added, and finally it’s garnished with sliced mushrooms and small pork sausages and finished with a splash of lemon juice and a piece of butter.”
When a chef pens a library of more than 30 books, it’s understandable that recipes may be revised and stories retold. Why not? Novelists revive characters all the time. Pépin’s latest book revisits tales shared in his 2003 memoir, “The Apprentice,” not to be confused with the TV show that helped launch a presidency. Pépin and his editor, Sarah Kwak, decided that for this book, they would abandon formal recipes in favor of art and stories. “This feels more intimate. He’s talking you through it. It’s how he would tell you to make something when you’re eating with him,” she says.
As he chats readers through recipes for chicken Kiev, chicken liver mousse, eggs en Cocotte and other gustatory delights, Pépin shares the tale of his rise to culinary glory. He left school at age 13 to begin the arduous climb through the ranks of professional French kitchens. He proved to be a remarkable success. In 1959, he arrived in the United States. The plan: Stay a year or so to learn English. He has lived here ever since.
“I’m very existentialist this way,” he says. “You make a decision in life that you’re responsible for, and it may send you into an entirely different area. That’s what life is all about.”
Pépin turned down an offer to become the White House chef creating state dinners for Jackie Kennedy. Instead, he opted to work at Howard Johnson’s, perfecting chicken pot pie for the masses. Then again, Pépin had already served as chef for President Charles de Gaulle.
He regrets not a single fried clam. He worked at HoJo for a decade, rising to executive chef. The experience taught him about American industrial kitchens while exposing him to a more diverse workforce, which he champions through his foundation. It allowed him to study at Columbia University at night. Ultimately, he earned an undergraduate and a master’s degree in French literature.
In 1974, he crashed his car into a deer. The accident nearly killed him and put an end to cooking full time in professional kitchens; endless hours on his feet were no longer an option. The gastronomic existentialist adapted. He became a restaurant consultant. He authored cookbooks. He discovered television. Television discovered him. Audiences were besotted. He collected an Emmy (resting on the fireplace mantle), and 16 James Beard Awards, many for his television work. Does he still eat venison? But of course.
A great irony of Pépin’s culinary odyssey is that while his television partner and occasional comic foil Child became synonymous with French cooking in this country, the immigrant from Bourg-en-Bresse quickly embraced the bounty of his new home and its gamut of international cuisine. His recipes came to extol supermarket staples. In the fridge, he keeps the caviar next to the beer.
The caviar, he stresses, is not beluga but a far more affordable paste blend of roes, marketed with his endorsement. Raised in modest circumstances during World War II, the son of a cabinetmaker and a mother who was a professional cook, Pépin admits to “tightfistedness” and discards little, freezing vegetable tops and chicken bones in milk cartons to use later for stock.
“A recipe is a moment in time,” he says, changing constantly in its execution and evanescent. A meal provides pleasure and then — poof! — it’s gone, a memory. “I so wish I could taste the food that I cooked when I was 25 and cooking for de Gaulle,” he sometimes tells his daughter, Claudine.
He eats almost everything, provided it doesn’t feature too much heat, cinnamon, nutmeg or coconut. “I’m pretty much a glutton,” he says. He’s not one to complain in restaurants — imagine the despair it would cause — but Pépin is no fan of “punctuation cooking,” nouvelle cuisine run amok with squeeze-bottle calligraphy. “They touch the food too much. You don’t want to torture it.”
He has relaxed his cooking, but not his style of entertaining. Pépin is a member of a spirited boules club that plays weekends from June to September and consists of about 40 players. He maintains a court on his property, situated between his two full kitchens. Games and festivities last from 1 p.m. well into the evening. When he hosts, it’s a sit-down dinner, prepared by three people: Pépin, his daughter and son-in-law.
“It is a very precise and organized thing. There are passed hot and cold hors d’oeuvres,” Claudine says. “We have to have a first course, served on a separate plate. Maybe there is a cheese course, and salad or dessert. We have stemmed glassware and cloth napkins. That’s up to 200 plates.” Cleanup extends into the wee hours.
When she dared to suggest that they use paper napkins, she recalls, “I got the look,” though she did succeed in substituting bamboo plates for china. Pépin, who abhors wasting food, plans the shopping and menus so efficiently that, Claudine says, “we never have any leftovers. Ever.”
This season, he is promoting “Jacques Pépin Art of the Chicken” on television, at talks and book fairs. “I’m very old. I’m going to be 97 in 10 years,” he says. Yet this book will not be the final word on a cooking career that has endured for more than seven decades. It’s not even his last word on chicken.
He recently submitted the manuscript for his next book — to be published next fall — which will return to a more conventional form: fewer chickens, recipes for budget-minded cooks (those who share his “tightfistedness”), with measurements. And paintings, though not as many.
Jacques Pépin Art of the Chicken
A Master Chef’s Paintings, Stories, and Recipes of the Humble Bird
By Jacques Pépin
Harvest. 228 pp. $30
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.