Carlin Stiehl for the Boston Globe via Getty Images
“Proust had his madeleine, I have chicken”, writes Jacques Pépin at the beginning of his new memoirs. Pépin, who has been cooking since the age of 13, says that no ingredient brings him more joy than chicken. Except — maybe — the egg.
“As a chef, I am impressed by the humble bird’s contributions to the cuisine of the world. As an artist, I marvel at the iridescent colors and varied beauty of its plumage,” writes Pépin.
In the kitchen, he can turn scrambled eggs into dinner for 50 or a simple, delicious meal for one. With his brush, the fowls become expressive and colorful – sometimes they look like majestic birds and sometimes they look like pineapples.
Now 86, Jacques Pépin is the recipient of a Lifetime Emmy Award for his various television projects, 16 James Beard Awards and the French Legion of Honor. He cooked with Julia Child and for former French President Charles de Gaulle. Pépin is the author of more than 30 cookbooks and has spent his career showing millions of Americans how good food can both nourish and spice up our lives.
His new book is called The Art of Chicken: A Master Chef’s Paintings, Stories, and Recipes About the Humble Bird.
Jacques Pépin spoke about his long career and his art with Scott Simon of NPR. The following are excerpts from that conversation, edited in multiple parts for clarity and length.
On Cooking, Eating, and Painting Chicken
Being born in Bourg-en-Bresse, for me the Bresse hens are considered one of the biggest hens in France. They are beautiful white hens with blue legs and red crests, so blue White Red — the color of the French flag. Anyone who comes to Bourg will have chicken. From cold chicken in aspic, to chicken with cream and tarragon, to pâté. It is a very democratic meat. There are truck stops to three-star restaurants with truffles under their skin.
I realized I was doing a lot of chicken illustrations so I decided to do a chicken book.
There are similarities [between painting and cooking]. Without a doubt, I’m better in the kitchen because I’m better trained. When you work in a restaurant, someone orders sautéed chicken with morels, whatever. And then 15 minutes later you have another order and you have like six, eight, 10 orders of the same dish, the same night, it won’t be exactly the same. It might be a little thicker. It looks a little dry, you put two tablespoons of water. I react to the appearance of food. Taste, adjust, taste, adjust.
And to a certain extent the resemblance to the painting, for me. When I start a painting, I often don’t really know where I’m going, but at some point it takes me. And then I react. I put this color, this shape just because it feels good. So similar, to some extent, to the cooking process.
Cooking for French President Charles de Gaulle
At the time it was another world. The cook was really at the bottom of the social scale. You tried to sneak out the door to see the guests, but if anyone came into the kitchen, it was probably to complain about something.
When dealing with state dinners, as with [President] Eisenhower, then you usually deal with protocol. Otherwise, on weekdays, on Mondays, I usually sat with [Madame Yvonne de Gaulle] and make the weekly menu. And certainly on Sunday they were very devout Catholics. So after church was family dinner, kids, grandkids and so on. So at that time they ate what they wanted, how they wanted. Madame de Gaulle [would say]”I want a leg of lamb, not too rare, it’s not good for the president.”
I remember the Minister of Foreign Affairs came back from Russia with, like, three boxes of two kilos each of beluga caviar. So we had caviar in the kitchen for a while. And to some of presidential hunting spots, hunting ground at Rambouillet and so on, sometimes they would bring me, like, eight, 10, 12 pheasants. That I had to pick to make pâté. Otherwise… it was pretty commonplace.
In the kitchen with Julia Child
I had a friend of mine, Helen McCullough, a food editor. Helen said to me, “Oh, I have this woman from Boston here. She’s coming next week. Do you want to cook? I said, “Yes, of course.” She said, “She’s a very tall woman. She’s got a terrible voice.” So it was, of course, Julia. So we became friends in 1960. So we were friends for half a century, basically. And that means we argued all the time, but we also drank a lot of wine.
Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
I started doing a show at KQED. I did 13 series of 26 shows. So that’s hundreds of shows. [After the first two shows] they said, “You have to do it in time. It’s too expensive to edit.” So it was like 29 minutes of cooking, I had like three recipes to make, sometimes four. So you have a guy walking by with a sign: 14 minutes, 12 minutes, 9 minutes, 3 [minutes], wrap. So it could be quite stressful. When we did it with Julia, she said, “OK, we’re going to cook and when it’s over, we’ll let you know.” I think some shows were longer than an hour.
The second thing is that usually when you do a TV series, you come with at least a manuscript for a book so that the scullery has an idea of what you’re going to do. There, we had no recipe. She told me to make a list – a list of what you want to do. I made a list of, I don’t know, 80 or 100 recipes. And she did the same. And I think maybe three of my recipes made it in all [laughs]. But I didn’t care. With Julia, we had no recipe, no deadline. We had a bottle of wine. So it was a fun show.
What he’s cooking today
[I still enjoy cooking], maybe not as much as before. You know, your metabolism changes, certainly at my age. When you’re a young chef, you tend to add to the plate. To add more filling. Add this, that. As you get older you have this type of process where you eliminate more and maybe get closer to something more essential.
If I have a nice tomato left over from my garden, some coarse salt and some olive oil, I don’t need any more embellishments. So, yes, I still cook, but very simple stuff. I ate clams last night. Old fashioned pork trotters with breadcrumbs and mustard on top.
I have another glass of wine, put the bread on the table. It’s less sophisticated than my [late wife Gloria] would have done – she would set the table all by herself with flowers and so on. But we set the table anyway and sit down and enjoy a meal.