Jacques Pépin has been doing a lot of interviews lately, and for good reason. He’s got a new cookbook, Essential Pépin, that boasts more than 700 recipes, not to mention Pépin’s 60-odd years of accumulated knowledge. But what stands out most in the chef’s numerous interviews is not so much the book itself—it’s Pépin’s 22nd—but the utter modesty of its author.
Pépin has cooked for world leaders, won a Daytime Emmy cooking alongside Julia Child, and received his mother country’s ultimate civilian recognition, France’s Légion d’honneur.
Two of his earliest books, La Technique and La Methode, inspired a generation of chefs—a teenaged Tom Colicchio was an early fan of both—and are still used as textbooks for teaching the fundamentals of French cuisine. Pépin’s 13th show on PBS, also called Essential Pépin, premiered last week. And he’s a dean at The French Culinary Institute, where he and his fellow deans André Soltner and Alain Sailhac form a sort of Gallic holy trinity.
Pépin, in other words, has every right to have long ago succumbed to the ego and hubris encouraged by our cultural obsession with celebrity chefdom. But to say that the chef, who turns 76 in December, has resisted seems beside the point: Rather, he appears to view such temptation as completely irrelevant. “I was asked several times to go to Food Network,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this month, “but at the same time they did not want me to continue with PBS.” Like Julia Child, he explained, “I’m very faithful to people when things are going well and they’ve been nice to me. I don’t really have to cow to the sponsors. In fact, I don’t even have the right to work with the sponsor, not that I’m such a purist.”
The fact that he’s not a purist—among other things, Pépin is a fan of nonstick pans and microwaved bacon—is another part of what makes him such a welcome alternative to typical celebrity chefs, who tend to be defiantly lowbrow (Paula Deen, Sandra Lee), unassailably highbrow (Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz), or stridently and self-consciously badass (David Chang: Momofuku I-IV). Pépin’s all of these things and none of them, a chef who is a legend among legends but doesn’t have anything to prove, and is a badass simply for doing his job and doing it well for six decades. If he has any agenda at all, it’s to share the joy he takes from food and cooking with others, and to instill in them the importance of learning the basics, no matter how unsexy.
“This is the age of instant gratification,” he told radio host Leonard Lopate last week. “We used to spend a great deal of time in the kitchen, repeating, repeating, repeating so that those techniques kind of become part of your DNA, practically.” A beginning chef’s task is simple, Pépin explained: “All of those years you just say, ‘Yes, chef,’ and you absorb.” It’s because of his work that so many American home cooks have learned this basic lesson—not to mention how to hold a knife—and for that reason alone Jacques Pépin is a national treasure.