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The Greatest Chefs: Jacques Pepin

Quote for Today: “You can’t escape the taste of the food you had as a child. In times of stress, what do you dream about? Your mother’s clam chowder. It’s security, comfort. It brings you home.”  Jacques Pepin
Jacques Pepin

Jacques Pepin

One of the greatest chef’s the world has ever seen, Jacques Pepin, was born on this day in 1935.  As a child his parents were restauranteur’s so he was introduced to commercial kitchens and life behind the stove at an early age.  During World War II, Jacques and his brother were sent to rural areas to live during Germany’s occupation of France.  This lonely time introduced Jacques to fresh vegetables, meats, dairy products and a wide array of fruit right from the source.  

After the war, the boys returned home and the family continued in the restaurant business.  Jacques father was a gentle giant, who was loved by the clientele and took care of the front of house and the wines.  Jacques’ mother was a spitfire and did all the cooking.  Mrs. Pepin was always going a hundred miles an hour and had a knack for taking over restaurants, fixing them up, providing great food and service then selling them for a profit.
At thirteen, Jacques quit school and became an apprentice like everyone in France who wanted to be a chef at that time.  Four years later, he moved to Paris to work under Lucien Diat at the Plaza Athénée as well as Maxim’s and Fouquet’s.  1956 found Jacques working for his country in the French Navy. Through his contacts he quickly moved up and found himself as the personal chef for three heads of State including Charles de Gaulle from 1956 to 1958.

Jacques Pepin & Friends

Jacques Pepin & Friends

In 1959, Pepin found his way to the United States.  He immediately was introduced to Pierre Franey and began working at La Pavillon, the finest French restaurant in the United States.  During this time he met and became friends with James Beard and Julia Child.  Shortly thereafter Jacques found himself facing a dilemma.  Joe Kennedy and Howard Johnson were regulars at La Pavillon.  Joe wanted him to be the White House chef and Mr. Johnson wanted him to join forces with Pierre Franey to develop consistency in his hotel chain restaurants.  Despite the allure of Camelot, Jacques chose to accept Howard’s offer where he worked more than a decade.  Over the years, they developed an almost father and son type relationship.  The death of Mr. Johnson in 1972 was a blow to Jacques and changes in the company’s leadership and policy prompted him to move on.
Jacques opened his own restaurant with the help of investors named La Potagerie on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.  The restaurant focused on soups and simple desserts at reasonable prices and quickly became a hit.  Soon they were selling over 100 gallons of soup a day. I guess you could say he was the original “Soup Nazi” despite being French.  By 11 a.m., people were lined up half way around the block.  They served between 400-600 people everyday and around 800 on holidays.  Minimum food and labor costs made the place very profitable.  Although large corporations such as Coca-Cola and General Mills wanted to buy them out, his partner’s greed got in the way and the missed out on a financial windfall.  
Julia Child & Jacques Pepin

Julia Child & Jacques Pepin

A near fatal car accident in 1974 left him hospitalized for many months and in no condition to stand over the stove for 16 hours a day.  From here, he went from a working chef to a teacher and author.  With the encouragement of Julia Child, Jacques began traveling the country passing on his knowledge.  He then made his way onto television where he earned an Emmy with Mrs. Child for Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home.  He has written twenty plus cookbooks many of which have been on the Bestseller List.  Tom Colicchio of Top Chef fame and founder of the Craft Restaurants has said La Technique written by Jacques in 1976 opened the way to his becoming a chef by teaching him to cook without recipes.  The 2003 book, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen is my personal favorite.  This autobiography makes you feel as if you knew his whole family and many friends in the food industry.  The list of Jacques’ friends, coworkers and acquaintances is a Who’s Who list of the food world since 1935.  Writing this blog makes me want to read this book for possibly the 5th time.  Happy Birthday Chef Pepin!   

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