Jacques Pépin is more likely to blush than to brag, but when it comes to success, he’s had it right from the start. “If you want success, follow the chefs.” says Jason Fried. Calling them the very smartest business professionals, Fried identifies chefs as great models for entrepreneurs due to their awareness of the power of sharing. Chefs understand that it is not about outspending your competition, but rather out sharing, out teaching and out contributing. While others cling to the knowledge they have accumulated, chefs give it away freely in cook books, cooking shows and even directly to other chefs. Despite this, and arguably due to this, their restaurants thrive. Hungry for more insight on this fresh thinking, we tracked down the iconic culinary craftsman, Jacques Pépin.
With his warm personality and sharp expertise, Jacques has been a tour de force in the French culinary arts for over half a century. Before arriving in New York in the late 50s he had served as the personal chef to General Charles de Gaulle and worked in the finest restaurants in Paris. Once stateside he worked at the famed Le Pavillon which led to his decade-long term leading research and food development at Howard Johnson. Author of a multitude of bestselling cookbooks, awarded Best TV Segment and Best Culinary Video by the James Beard Foundation, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, he was one of the original celebrity cooks, long before over 400 cooking shows flooded the networks and every actor in an apron was crowned a genius. He has shared home-cooked meals with Julia Child, plays pétanque with Morley Safer and was offered the position of first-ever Executive Chef of the White House (he declined).
On the telephone from his Madison, Connecticut home (fully equipped with his own version of an atelier: a guesthouse-turned-second-kitchen to entertain the constant inflow of film crews and photographers) we were able to discuss education, simplicity, craftsmanship and why chefs share.
AR — I wanted to explore the question of why chefs share. Chefs will promote their recipes, everything is there, the ingredients are there, it’s known, it’s visible, still, we don’t perceive that chefs feel that by giving away a recipe or technique it makes them vulnerable.
Jacques Pépin — The truth is, cooking is giving. It is a form of loving when you cook, perhaps the most genuine form of love, whether for your child or your mother or your friend or lover or even for yourself. It is giving, therefore, you cannot cook indifferently. If you are a good technician you can certainly make plenty of food and run a kitchen, but that does not make you a good cook. Technique is not enough. No more than it is for a sculptor or a painter. Being a good cook requires that you give something away, but not in a negative way.
You aren’t concerned with giving away what you know?
I have worked with many chefs and have written many cookbooks, people can take your recipe and do whatever they want with it. It will never be exactly the same because I am who I am and they are who they are. A recipe is like a sheet of music, it will always change depending on who is reading it because each has their own unique tempo and style. No one can really steal who you are and what you do. They can get ideas and learn from you but then they will do whatever they want with it. The bee will go to a series of flowers to make his own honey.
A recipe is like a sheet of music, it will always change depending on who is reading it because each has their own unique tempo and style.
The notion of the chef as a prima donna, jealous of their recipes and so forth, is relatively recent and relatively untrue (though there are always a few bad apples). You will never meet anyone more giving than a chef. They’re always excited to help you, show you and encourage you.
With the increased interest in the culinary arts, how can a young cook distinguish him or herself from the rest?
When I teach at Boston University I’ll tell a class of 50 “We’re going to do the perfect ___ today.” I’ll tell them we’re making, for example, a roast chicken with butter potatoes and a salad and that it has to be done exactly the right way. They’ll all go to the stove and duplicate what I made. I always have to insist that they not attempt to blow my mind with something exciting and innovative. You don’t need to try to be different. I have 50 different students, so I am going to have 50 different roasted chickens. It is a fallacy for young chefs to feel the need to torture themselves trying to be different. Cook well, cook from your heart, cook from your gut, cook as yourself and you will be different. I’m not saying you’re going to be better...but you will be different.
We live in a very entrepreneurial time—do you find it difficult to teach students who have strong ideas before they have strong technique?
I remind young cooks that they can’t go into a kitchen expecting to change the chef. First of all, you’re not going to be able to change them. Secondly, you shouldn’t. You are there to learn from that person and absorb his or her style and taste and be shaped by it. Then you work with the next chef and another and another, after five or six years of this you have amassed a wealth of styles and techniques to draw from when you have your own kitchen.
You’ve written a number of ‘technical’ volumes, including La Technique in 1976, La Méthode in 1979, and most recently in 2012, New Complete Techniques. As a craftsman, how important is mastering traditional techniques?
We don’t cook the same way as we did 35 years ago, the cooking times have sped up (like everything else) and the recipes are going to be different, but the techniques are always current. The way you beat an egg white, or make an omelette, or peel an asparagus, is the same now as it was 50 years ago. Regardless of who you are, learning proper techniques takes out some of the drudgery of cooking and makes your life easier. For professionals it is much more than that. It is essential. If you are not a strong technician you will never be able to serve people à la carte, you need that speed. There is no cheat or shortcut for excellence. It takes years and years. People would rather only work at it for six months, but regardless of where they are doing it, it will take years of repetition to perfect it.
Would you say that there is a trifecta of technique, empathy and craft, or the art of it all, that makes a chef great?
Exactly. Technique by itself never enough. Not to say that it isn’t incredibly important to have skill, confidence and speed, the knowledge in your fingers—you need that without question. It’s the first level. When I teach at The French Culinary Institute [now called The International Culinary Centre] in New York, we start there. At that point, whether they have talent or not is not important because you haven’t got the hands to express that talent. Painters can spend years in the academy learning the best way to mix pigments and hold your palette knife or brush and complete hundreds of canvases, but that doesn’t necessarily make you a great artist. “Learn the rules so you may break them properly.” In cooking we still master the traditions before we innovate. That is how you create sophisticated work.
Food has become increasingly prominent in our culture, whether it’s people taking pictures of their meals, or taking an interest or active role in where their food comes from, supporting independent farmers and having real conversations about agriculture and food production. What do you make of this trend?
It has always been like this for me, but when I came to America half a century ago I met up with [fellow chef] Alice Waters who had been buying her ingredients at a market; the writers went crazy because she was buying ‘organic’ food. I was thinking “What is the big deal?” It had been like that all my life, my parents were organic farmers, of course the word ‘organic’ didn’t yet exist. Keep in mind, neither did chemical fertilizer, insecticide, pesticide or fungicide, so every farmer was an organic farmer.
America enjoys extremes. They have a slow-cooker that takes six hours to make a meal, or a microwave oven that takes six minutes. They have giant carrots or tiny underdeveloped carrots. It’s always one extreme or the other. Now people are going berserk with organic. You go to some organic restaurants and you are flamboyantly handed a carrot with an entire biography. The carrots name is Josephine and she was born on the 17th of March. Come on, give me a break, it’s a carrot. [laughter]
Indeed. The late David Rakoff called it ‘cultural excess.’
The thing is, it’s a serious thing. It’s a lifestyle and it shouldn’t be taken to such burnout extremes; people going berserk and then when they’re tired of it, forgetting about it. I think another contributor to the food craze is the overwhelming political correctness we live and are faced with. When so many things are offensive, food is the only thing left that we can safely talk about. There are no political, societal or economic implications to talking about food.
Speaking of discussing, debating and, more broadly, learning, it could be said that the culture of sharing is particularly well-formed in the format of education used by chefs. Apprenticeships have started garnering attention as a strong model for entrepreneurial learning, a tradition that is nothing new in the cooking world. You have written on many occasions about your experience as an apprentice and it’s effect on your career. What can the world outside the culinary sphere take from this model?
Teaching in an academic setting, people pay a fortune to attend so we cater to them, we explain things to them carefully and repeatedly because they pay that price. It’s a totally different way of teaching and therefore a different way of learning than the way we learned.
As an apprentice, the chef never told you anything. You were taught only by a sort of learning-osmosis. We never learned the trade, we stole it. If you asked, for example, what type of sauce that was, they’d reply it was a “Nonotte,” which doesn’t mean anything. If you had asked any question, especially “Why?” the response would be “Because I told you so.” You would work like that, without a name (your name is ‘you’ during that time) for at least a year before you could ‘graduate’ to the stove. They believed that the best way to learn was side-by-side with your mentor, watching and building up responsibility over time. Knowledge was not delivered, it was taken hungrily. It may be the best way to learn when you’re young. It’s different than the adults we teach now, especially those starting their second career and expecting to learn to cook the same way they learned to become a lawyer or an accountant.
As an apprentice, the chef never told you anything. You were taught only by a sort of learning-osmosis. We never learned the trade, we stole it.
Though, not everyone wants to start at the very bottom rank and slowly work their way up a hierarchy of status and responsibility.
Yes, this is the time of instant gratification. Particularly outside of Europe. When I came to teach here in America they took the two-year program we had done in Europe and made it into a six-month course. We were able to do it, but it’s because people don’t want to go through the gruesome process we used to go through. When I go to the school in New York and I see people graduating after six months, they can do more than I could after my three years of apprenticeships, I could not do a quarter of the things they know how to do, but their hands aren’t as fast. They know everything they need to know to get started behind a stove, but it will still take years to develop the muscle memory, confidence and speed that my apprenticeship ingrained into me. There’s nothing you can do about that, it takes time and repetition to make it part of your DNA.
Do you think technology plays a part in their development? Being able to watch endless videos of chefs in action and have access to all of that knowledge?
Yes, though there are certain things even the Internet cannot prepare you for. The heat of the kitchen, the pressure of the chef’s presence, there are sensual aspects that no amount of passive visuals can replace. Recently I heard a talk from a food historian who said that there are currently over 400 cookery shows on television. I don’t know if that’s exact or not, but it is madness to think that hundreds of these shows exist right now.
The life of a cook is different now than what it used to be. I’ve been in kitchens for 60 years, certainly at that time, even 30 years ago, any good mother would have wanted her child to marry a lawyer or a doctor or an architect, but definitely not a cook. In terms of chef celebrity, the only time anyone would want to speak to a chef in my time, was if there was something wrong. It was a humble vocation. But now the whole thing has changed. Now chefs are being crowned as geniuses. I’m not complaining, it’s terrific, but sometimes some people take it too seriously. We are mashed-potato makers. That’s what we are.
In an Op Ed you wrote in The New York Times about your experience at Howard Johnson, you concluded: “it saddens me that New Yorkers looking for this kind of gentleness and simplicity will soon have to find it elsewhere.” Why is simplicity, gentleness and humility important?
Perhaps simplicity is part of growing up. When you’re young you’re full of energy and you want to add and add to the plate. As you mature you start to take things away. You start to appreciate simplicity in a new way. You calm down and focus.
As for being humble, the truth is, while I had been a chef to the French President, I had never been on the front page of the newspaper or a magazine. No one really knew I existed. I served important people, like Eisenhower, Nehru, Tito, but they would never come to the kitchen and give kudos to the chef.
When I came to New York City I was introduced to James Beard and Julia Child who brought me to work at Le Pavillon. I did not see it as better than any of the places I worked at in Paris, but I was happy to try new places and learn new things. From there I started work for Mr. Howard Johnson [a regular client at Le Pavillon] I learned about production, marketing, the chemistry of food and American eating habits—all of these things that I did not know much about.
Seems like a rather humble career move, and unexpected given your already illustrious experience. You spoke in that Op Ed about Mr. Johnson allowing you to experiment with the recipes and test out ways to make them better.
Yes, Mr. Johnson gave Pierre [Franey, fellow chef] and I carte blanche to test the recipes and make adjustments. We started cutting down on margarine in the recipes and replacing it with butter, using fresh ingredients rather than dehydrated or frozen ones, and even switching to fresh stock that required 3 000 pounds of veal bones. It was a very positive experience. After about ten years there I went on to open my own restaurant called La Potagerie on Fifth Avenue, then I was a consultant for The Russian Tea Room for years, then I was brought on to take charge of food operations at the [then new] World Trade Centre. I could never have done those jobs without the experience from Howard Johnson.
Ideas can start anywhere and transform into anything; creativity is relative and inevitable.
It speaks to the value of experimenting with different environments and setups, both exciting and humble.
Everyone was humble until ‘nouvelle cuisine,’ then you started getting chefs out of the kitchen and into the dining room.
How did that affect the industry?
There was a shift in the status of food. It became fashionable and prestigious. This led to a criss-crossing where men invaded the sanctity of the domestic kitchen which was traditionally a woman’s space, and women have now gained access to the professional world of cooking. In my first classes, 35-40 years ago, 99% of the classroom was made up of women. Occasionally there would be one guy. Now I walk into a classroom and see that 85% of the students are men. That was in the academic world of cooking, but in the professional world it was predominantly men. Now it’s the opposite.
Do you have the sense that your students are mostly entrepreneurial in that they want to open their own small restaurants, or do they want to join the big establishments?
Oh yes. Chefs now are entrepreneurs. Even when they start small, some will go on to open 10,15 or 20 restaurants. Think of Danny Meyer or Mario Batali. Before, the chef was behind the stove. Period. However, things are more open now. It is no longer the case that a cook will study French technique only to go work the stove in a French restaurant. There is a broader range of styles to experiment with, particularly in America. We have a number of very successful chefs that came out of the French Institute, from Bobby Flay to David Chang to Dan Barber. They learn the French technique, then go on in their own direction with the skills in their hands.
So the boundaries have broken down a bit over the years?
Yes, this is America. That’s how it is here. There aren’t the same groups and separations as before, there is no ‘ethnic majority’ so to speak. In that sense, it opens your mind. When you work with friends and other chefs you stimulate each other, or you give each other ideas. Ideas can start anywhere and transform into anything; creativity is relative and inevitable.
At the end of the day, there is only one reason to cook: to sit down around a table with friends or family and eat what you cooked. It’s a very basic human act, to share food. It’s part of who we are and what we do. Food has no value unless it is shared.