Recently Jacques Pépin, the acclaimed French chef, veteran of PBS cooking shows, friend of Julia, author of many brilliant cookbooks, dean of special programs at the French Culinary Institute in New York City and general culinary living legend, took the stage at Cal State Northridge's Valley Performing Arts Center to give what turned out to be a cooking demo.
Pépin's sous chef for the evening was his daughter, Claudine, herself a veteran of cooking shows with her father, and for almost two hours the pair showed the surprisingly small audience how to properly cut up vegetables and fruit and truss a chicken. The demo was as much a comedy show, with knives, as it was a tutorial in classic cooking techniques. And to say it was a joy to watch is a vast understatement, rather like saying that Pépin once made snacks for Charles de Gaulle. Which, of course, he did.
Pépin, who is now 78, has a cookbook to promote, Jacques Pépin: New Complete Techniques, which was published in November, and thus the man has hit the road on yet another book tour. This is somewhat less astonishing if you put it into context.
Pépin started out as a 13-year-old apprentice at Le Grand Hotel de l'Europe in his hometown of Bourg-en-Bresse near Lyon, working harder than most of the rest of us do now — and certainly most of our jobless teenage children will for a long time — when he was still in what were charmingly called short pants. He moved to Paris to cook when he was still a teenager, and before he came to the United States in 1959, he'd cooked at Maxim's in Paris, served in the French navy and been personal chef to three French heads of state. If you have not read Pépin's justly bestselling 2004 memoir The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, maybe you should.
Pépin and Claudine took the stage and proceeded to demonstrate how to properly cut up an onion, how to cut up a cucumber (Pépin: “Do we have any Band-Aids here?”), how to chop parsley — even how to anchor a kitchen towel to your apron. They did this all without fire or heat of any sort, as the auditorium stage didn't have any. They cut and peeled vegetables, trussed a chicken, made a plate of quick-cure gravlax and — perhaps the most impressive — Pépin fabricated a chicken not by demonstrating his (pretty great) knife skills but by pulling it apart with his hands.
Through it all, Claudine provided assistance and running commentary: “You're not going to throw the knives, right?” As well as asides to the audience: “You taught me this!” she noted on more than one occasion, when her father took issue with some (probably imaginary) error. “No, really, how many of you cooked with your parents?!”
Throughout the procession of vegetables, Pépin dispensed kitchen tips. Re onions: “The sharper your knife, the less you're going to cry. Unless you cut your fingers.”
That Pepin would return to an emphasis on basic technique makes sense, as he authored what is probably the definitive book on the subject, La Technique, an almost-500-page illustrated treatise, way back in 1976. The new book is more user-friendly, as befits the current generation of home cooks who maybe don't have the basic skills that their parents or grandparents had.
The basics suit Pépin, who honed his explanatory technique in front of PBS cameras. As he approaches his 80th year (“63 years in the kitchen!”), he's as adroit and no-nonsense as ever onstage, dispensing wisdom along with the fundamentals. Rinse raw onions to lessen the fumes and to make them taste “softer.” Peel your asparagus. Use the underside of a ceramic plate to sharpen your knives if you don't have a steel. Don't throw away scraps — save and freeze them for stock.
This last bit of advice was something the chef repeated, noting how current home cooks waste too much food. As he and Claudine cut up the leeks and asparagus and tomatoes, he offered the bits to the audience: “Someone can take that home and make soup.” After demonstrating how to peel an apple, the bright skin spiraling off the fruit, Pépin noted that he would dry the skin in the oven and use it to make tea. After he fabricated the chicken, he asked, “Anyone want to keep the bones?”
Pépin kept going for almost two hours, demonstrating how to make mayonnaise, then fix a broken emulsion. He made roses out of butter, more from tomato peels. He fluted mushrooms, recalling how he liked to fashion them into intertwined fish (“I did that during my Baroque period”). He fielded questions from the audience: Don't throw away wilted lettuce, sautée it or make it into soup; the best knife is not about the brand but what feels comfortable in your hand. “It's kind of like sneakers; you can buy beautiful ones, but you really need ones that fit well.” He sliced raw salmon (keep the skin and roast it), seasoning not the fish but the plate, and made quick-cure gravlax.
After the show was over, Pépin and his daughter answered a few lingering questions from the clearly devoted audience. A truly great meal? One that one cooks at home and shares with friends and family. Contemporary cuisine? “Presentation is relatively unimportant to me. … It's punctuation cooking; I don't want question marks” on the plate. Nouvelle cuisine? “Tiny unborn vegetables. If too many people have touched it, you don't want to eat it.” On the critics? “Food critics should be blind.” On current menus? “They'll bring you a carrot and say, 'That carrot's name is Judy.'”
And, finally, how does Pépin, at almost 80, look as good as he does? “When I take my pants off, I look like James Beard.”
At which point the chef's daughter handed him a glass of wine, Pépin proceeded to hand out whatever he had left on the demo table to the audience, and he walked to the edge of the stage to sign books. Imagine what the man could have done with a working stove.
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