In the pantheon of food, there are certain legendary pairings. Salt and pepper. Mac and cheese. Gin and tonic.
Julia and Jacques.
As in Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, two of the most prominent and charismatic culinary figures in American cookery, to borrow a term from the lexicon of Child, the legendary cookbook author and public television mainstay.
They were friends and colleagues whose names and legacies will be forever intertwined in the minds of many, so it’s only fitting that Pépin — himself a prolific writer, educator and TV cooking instructor — is the first recipient of the Julia Child Award.
The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts announced the honor Thursday evening at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which houses the popular installation of the kitchen from Child’s Cambridge, Mass., home.
Child, who died in 2004, established the foundation in 1995. This year it created the award in her name to recognize someone “who has made a profound and significant difference in the way America cooks, eats and drinks.” Pépin was selected by a panel of people who knew Child: Darra Goldstein, Williams College professor and founding editor of Gastronomica; Russ Parsons, columnist and former food editor at the Los Angeles Times; New England chef Jasper White; Nancy Silverton, co-owner of Osteria Mozza and other restaurants in California and Singapore; and Jim Dodge, director of specialty culinary programs at Bon Appétit Management.
Along with the recognition comes a $50,000 grant that Pépin will give to a food-related nonprofit organization.
French native Pépin, 79, will be in Washington on Oct. 22 for the open-to-the-public gala being held in his honor. (The first Smithsonian Food History Weekend is Oct. 22-24.) In a phone interview from his Connecticut home, he reflected on the award, his legacy and his great friend. Edited excerpts:
How do you think Julia would feel about this award?
I think she would be very happy about it. She was always interested in education and teaching. She was always happy to help someone to start, and she did for many young women and men.
Why do people often think of you together?
We thought about cooking in more or less the same way. We did argue all the time, which is what good friends do. Sometimes we emphasize those differences on [“Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home” ], but those are really minimal things. On the whole, we thought the same about cooking: the importance of good ingredients, the importance of a simple, well-done recipe, certainly the emphasis on taste rather than presentation and of course that food is meant to be enjoyed with friends and family.
You and Julia would improvise recipes on the air, but that seems different from a lot of the scripted shows today.
And there is a great deal of competition in cooking now — reality-type of shows. It’s kind of the opposite of what cooking is. Because cooking brings people together. Everyone is the same around the table. Cooking is for joy, and there is a great amount of love that you put in it.
You’ve done 13, soon to be 14 cooking shows. What other thoughts do you have on TV?
I think that at PBS, we still kind of teach people how to cook, and basically that’s what I do. I’m not an actor. I cook the way I do, and that’s it. And some people love it, and some people don’t care about it, and some people probably don’t like it. Some people look at me I’m sure and say, “That guy is really boring over and over again,” and it’s fine with me. You cannot please everybody. I knew that Julia was very, very strong into having a good time on television — enjoying life and food and wine were very important to her, but then at the same time to try and teach something.
What advice do you have for other on-air chefs?
We are who we are. Being yourself is much easier. You don’t have to pretend anything.
What else is coming up for you, and what else do you want to accomplish?
I have that new series coming out in the fall in October [“Jacques Pépin Heart & Soul” ] with the book. I don’t know whether I will do another series with a book like this, because particularly the book is a lot of work. But I’d still like to do things probably with my granddaughter. I wanted to teach her cooking.
Between this award and the 80th birthday celebration the International Association of Culinary Professionals held in your honor in the spring, it’s feeling a lot like the Year of Jacques.
I am going to be 80 years old in December, so it started last October when I was still 78. It started at [San Francisco public television station] KQED because we were taping that new series. We did a special for PBS that will come out in the fall. We did that with Lidia Bastianich, Ming Tsai and Rick Bayless, all of them celebrating my 80th birthday. I just came back from a cruise; I am culinary director of Oceania cruise line. I was there doing some cooking demonstrations and lectures, too, and all of a sudden the lights went out, and then the whole room starts singing. They bring a big cake, and I say, “Oh my God, again, again.”
So you’re feeling pretty good after your stroke, which kept you from coming here for the IACP party?
I almost went actually to Washington, but it was three days after that happened to me. I was in the hospital overnight, and I came back [home] the day after. I was practically normal. I was very, very lucky.
How will it feel to see Julia’s kitchen at the Smithsonian during the upcoming gala?
I’ve seen it, and to tell you the truth, for me it’s pretty freakish. Because everything is behind the glass, and I know that table and those chairs, and everything’s kind of like a tomb. When they took that kitchen to the Smithsonian, the night before, I did a dinner in that kitchen — which was the last meal done there — with the students at BU. We had a very nice menu. I had a seat at the table next to Julia.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
Legacy, it’s a scary word. I hope that people will smile if they remember me. I remember teaching in the jail at Connecticut. They introduced me as a cook, which is what I am. Introducing me this way, those people in jail could relate to that. They could relate to me. They could understand what I was doing, and I cooked with them. I hope people will remember me like that — just like a guy that maybe they learned a couple of recipes from and brought some pleasure in their life.
Recipes from Jacques Pépin:
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