Jacques Pepin celebrates his 80th birthday this month. The renowned French chef-author-teacher started cooking at his family's restaurant even before he signed on, at age 13, to be an apprentice at the Grand Hotel de L'Europe in his hometown of Bourg-en-Bresse. That means he's had seven decades of culinary experience and a career that's taken him from personal chef to President Charles de Gaulle to director of research and development for the Howard Johnson Company to the host of 13 cooking series on public television and author of more than two dozen cookbooks.
His birthday has occasioned Pepin to write a new cookbook, "Heart & Soul in the Kitchen" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the companion to what Pepin says is his final PBS show. (It airs on WNET/13 on Sundays at 2:30 p.m.; on WLIW/21 on Saturdays at noon). We talked to Pepin last week at the International Culinary Center in SoHo, where he is dean of Special Programs.
Q: You've written thousands of recipes in your career. What's the secret to a good recipe?
A: It's funny. I never saw a recipe before I came to America. My mother never wrote a recipe, and in the French kitchens where I trained, there were no recipes -- except for pastry. When I'm writing a recipe, there's so much freedom to taste and adjust and improvise -- with this shrimp-burger recipe, for example, I only put the burgers on a bed of zucchini because I must have had some zucchini around. But once the recipe is written, it's set. Philosophically, writing it destroys it, you know?
Q: How strictly should people follow recipes?
A: Well, again to be philosophical, to really follow a recipe you can't follow the recipe because your shrimp may be bigger or drier or saltier than mine. You have to taste and adjust to get the same result. But practically, I think people should do the recipe at least once the way it was written before trying to change it. It's only fair.
Q: How important is getting the same result?
A: The mark of a great restaurant is when every dish always tastes exactly the same. When I was 14, my father took me to Fernand Point [chef-owner Point's Michelin-starred restaurant, La Pyramide, near Lyon]. I had the foie gras en brioche [goose liver baked inside a brioche roll]. Years later I took my daughter Claudine to the restaurant and that dish had not changed.
Q: Are you saying that a restaurant's food should not be determined by who is in the kitchen?
A: It should not matter. I can close my eyes and remember how to make the chocolate soufflé at Le Pavillon [the influential French restaurant in New York where Pepin worked from 1959 to 1960]. And all of the cooks at Le Pavillon could make that soufflé and you would not be able to tell who made it.
Q: Where does creativity come into play?
A: These days, a chef wants to sign each dish, say "I'm the one who made it." But to me, creativity is not the mixing of incongruous ingredients. Creativity is in the refinement of a dish. How to make it simpler, finer. When I teach, I sometimes say to the class, "Today we are going to do a hot dog." I don't actually do it, but the point is, you can always do a better hot dog. Brown it better, use better bread, better mustard.
Q: What does it take to be a great chef?
A: First, technique. That's the dumb part. Anyone can learn technique but you have to do it well, you have to do it fast. You have to become a craftsman. And if you have talent, you can take it to a higher level.
Q: What exactly is that talent?
A: It's taste. The capacity of discernment and the ability to improve a dish. The ability to innovate. Not every chef has this talent. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Thomas Keller -- these are guys who can do it. But nowadays all chefs are under great pressure to innovate, to create something different and make the diner say, "Wow! I've never seen anything like this before."
Q: Any pet peeves about modern restaurant cooking?
A: I wish they would cook the vegetables. Not cook the haricot verts [string beans] to be khaki-colored like my mother did, but they need four or five minutes to taste like they should. Also, this punctuation cooking . . .
Q: Punctuation cooking?
A: You know, where the plate has all these periods and commas and question marks on it. The chef uses one of those squirt bottles.
Q: What are your thoughts on culinary fusion?
A: It needs structure and balance to work. Again, a great chef can handle it, but you don't want someone putting raspberry ice cream on a bed of Roquefort cheese just for the shock value. But, you know, fusion comes naturally in America. In France people eat 99 percent French food, same in Italy and Spain. But here in America we have people from all over the world cooking their own foods. My wife Gloria's father is from Cuba, her mother is from Puerto Rico. At home I make chirashi [Japanese raw fish on rice], filet of sole with pico de gallo [a Mexican tomato relish]. I guess I am more of an American cook now than a French cook.
Q: You've always been mindful of healthfulness in your cooking. How do you keep up with changing nutritional advice?
A: I remember 15 years ago giving classes and people telling me they could only eat one egg a week. Or how for years we were gorging ourselves with margarine, which we now know is worse for you than butter. If you have a specific health problem, yes, you may need a special diet. But I look at old people in Sicily, in Croatia, on Crete. They never go on any type of diet and they live forever.
Q: The quality of food in America has improved so much in the last few decades. How important are ingredients to the finished dish?
A: Look, you can't be an extraordinary restaurant without extraordinary ingredients. But when I cook at home I am buying the same kind of ingredients that everyone buys. If I can go to the farm, terrific. But I'm not a snob. There are four supermarkets near my house [in Madison, Connecticut], ShopRite, Stop & Shop, Big Y and Bishop's. And mostly that's where I shop.
Q: OK, here's your big chance to share some parting words of wisdom about cooking.
A: Cooking is meant to bring people together. It's not a competition. I don't want my guests to have a revelation at the table, I just want the food to be really good. Have a glass of wine. Have two. Relax.
Eggs in Pepper Boats
One day I decided to cook eggs in sweet peppers with a bit of cheese and cilantro. It made a great lunch dish. I used the long, pale green peppers sometimes called banana peppers. Poblano and cubanelle peppers also work, especially if you want to add a little heat.
2 cubanelle, poblano, or banana peppers (about 4 ounces each)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons water
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons grated cheddar cheese
4 extra-large eggs, preferably organic
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
About 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves
1. Split the peppers lengthwise in half and remove the seeds and the stems if you want. Arrange them cut side down in a large skillet and add the oil, water, and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and cook, covered, over medium heat, turning occasionally, for about 4 minutes, or until the peppers are softened somewhat but still firm.
2. Remove the skillet from the heat and, if necessary, turn the peppers over so they are hollow-side up. Place the cheese in the peppers. Break an egg into each one and sprinkle the eggs with the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt and the pepper.
3. Return the skillet to the stove, cover, and cook over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, until the egg whites are set but the yolks are still runny. Transfer to plates, sprinkle with the cilantro and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.
Cannellini Bean Dip
I like to offer guests a little treat when I'm serving drinks, and this dip is always welcome. My pantry is never without canned beans, from cannellini to black beans to large butter beans. The garnishes make the dish look more attractive -- and more like a classic hummus made with chickpeas.
One 1-pound can cannellini beans, drained (about 1 ¾ cups)
1 large garlic clove, crushed
½ cup diced bread
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon water
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/3 cup reserved beans (from above)
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon poppy seeds
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
3 or 4 tostadas or hard taco shells, broken into wedges, or toasts or rice crackers
For the dip:
1. Reserve 1/3 cup of the beans for garnish. Put the remaining beans in a blender or food processor. Add all the remaining ingredients and process until very smooth, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula a few times if need be to help combine the ingredients.
2. Transfer the dip (you should have about 2 cups) to a shallow serving dish and create a well in the center.
For the garnishes:
Put the reserved beans in the well in the dip and pour in the olive oil. Sprinkle with the paprika, poppy seeds and parsley. Serve surrounded by the tostadas or tacos, toasts, or crackers. Makes 4 servings.