Over the decades, Jacques Pépin has prepared award-winning meals in some of the world’s most renowned kitchens, starred in more than a dozen cooking shows, including on PBS with Julia Child, and authored more than two dozen cookbooks. But what’s his true passion?
One of the world’s best-known chefs, the 83-year-old Madison resident has been creating works of art on canvas and paper for nearly as long as he’s been crafting masterpieces on plates and tables. In addition to flowers and vegetables, fowl shows up again and again in Pépin’s paintings. A section of his website, the Chicken Coop, displays dozens of his paintings of chickens and roosters. Why the proclivity for poultry?
“Bourg-en-Bresse, where I was born, is famous for their chickens,” the French-born master says.
Pépin’s latest book, Menus: A Book for Your Meals and Memories, is a kind of diary for meals and memories, its pages framed with his illustrations. “It’s a combination photo album and scrapbook … guest lists, wine labels,” he says.
We recently spent a morning with Pépin and his creative partner, photographer Tom Hopkins, at Old Saybrook’s Alforno restaurant, its wall decorated with his artwork. Under the watchful gaze of a chicken or two, Pépin talked about the sometimes divergent practices of cooking and painting, his opinion on modern cooking shows, Child’s playful approach to television, and the time he passed on being executive chef at the White House to cook at Howard Johnson’s.
Your work is reminiscent of Chagall. Speak to your technique and influences.
I’ve been painting since 1962, ’63. I used to use only oil, now watercolors and acrylics too. I’m inspired by Picasso, Matisse, different artists. Cooking and painting, both [are] working a lot with senses. Proust spoke of “effect memory” — smell, taste. In cooking, you taste, you add, you taste, you add. In a restaurant you might have to make a particular dish eight times in one night, and it’s never the same dish every time. A recipe is restrictive, but you’re still attempting to duplicate a taste, not a typewritten page. Painting is not like following a cookbook. A bit of blue indigo, some yellow cadmium … I can’t paint this way. It’s unconscious. I don’t fight where the canvas takes me.
Are you fluent in other mediums?
[Hopkins interjects: What about the dogs in clay?]
Oh, yes. At Columbia University [in the early ’60s], I took a drawing and sculpture class. I produced many sculptures then. A sculptor is currently working on a bust of me, and he gave me some leftover clay. So I replicated my poodles, Paco and Gaston. I’d like to work more in large sculpture, wood; my father was an ebonist, a fancy cabinet-maker. But it’s too labor intensive. I’d need a mechanical support system, like Chuck Close has!
An interview with you must reference Julia. Share an anecdote that is not widely circulated.
She used more butter than anyone I’ve ever seen! Land O’ Lakes was a sponsor of one of our PBS shows (their unsalted butter, best on the market at the time). On one occasion, the president of Land O’ Lakes asked if he could visit the studio and sit in on a taping. Julia and I were starting with an apple galette, using butter, of course. So I was tasked with making the dough, Julia was peeling apples. An hour before taping, Julia announced she was going to prepare a dough as well. And out from under the counter she produced a can of Crisco! We’d never used Crisco on the show before! She liked to prank the sponsors. She did the same thing with Kendall-Jackson. We drank a lot of wine onstage. The people from Kendall-Jackson appear, and we were preparing meat. I asked her if she wanted a cab or merlot with the meal? “I want beer!” she proclaimed out of the blue. She was a character.
What are your thoughts on the myriad competitive cooking shows these days?
Anthony Bourdain said if Julia were just starting out today, no one would put her on TV. [Laughs] In 2008 I was a guest judge on Top Chefs. But it’s not really my thing. I don’t like to criticize; I don’t enjoy that particularly. Gordon Ramsay, very antagonistic. No good kitchen is run that way, you cannot teach that way, you have to give a lot of yourself. A real kitchen, like Per Se in New York, it’s like a ballet … people working behind the stove, no noise. After 10 minutes, any director would say, “This is so boring, shut off the cameras!”
Would you ever do another show? Or too exacting?
A show is really not that much work. I did 11 series of 26 shows each with PBS over 35 years. Twenty-six shows in not even two weeks … three or four shows a day. Much easier than doing a book.
Would you run another restaurant?
No, too much work. I help other restaurateurs when I can. I was with Howard Johnson’s for 10 years. We used to make 3,000 gallons of chowder at a clip. In 1960, I was up for the executive chef position at the White House under Kennedy, and simultaneously offered an opportunity at Howard Johnson’s. I picked HoJo’s! Declining the White House was not as bold as some people think. I was a consultant for the Russian Tea Room for a number of years, I set up the World Trade Center’s commissary in 1973 or ’74, I opened up La Potagerie on Fifth Avenue in 1970. I could never have done those jobs without the training I received at Howard Johnson’s.