Legendary French chef Jacques Pepin moved to New York in 1959 and worked at one of Manhattan’s most storied restaurants, Le Pavilion, before transitioning to the Howard Johnson Company, cookbook writing, and television. He most recently appearing alongside daughter Claudine and granddaughter Shorey on Essential Pépin. We spoke with Pepin on April 12 at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival, and he shared insights that hint at how he’s cultivated culinary success.
Did you play any sports in high school?
I never went to high school. I left school when I was 13 years old to go into apprenticeship, and when I left home, home was actually a restaurant where my mother was the chef. So from age 5, 6, I don’t remember anything else but the kitchen. At that time, when we were in school, we didn’t even have a regular ball to play soccer. We played in the street. Being a kid now is very different.
Is there anything you don’t enjoy eating?
Not really. Every time I’m hungry, I eat.
Do you remember what your very first night was like working in a professional restaurant kitchen?
As I said, from my mother’s restaurant to going into apprenticeship when I was 13, I wouldn’t remember the first night, but I remember nights in New York after I came here in 1959, so it was a long time ago. After five years in New York, it was different food, different language, everything. It takes a little while, but I did not intend to stay, and I’m here 53 years later.
Do you enjoy listening to any sort of music when you cook?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Classical music, like I did this afternoon. Jazz, and a lot of French soul. Edith Piaf, Éva Marton, Charlotte Gainsbourg and so forth.
Is there anybody you’ve never cooked with before that you would like to cook with?
Anyone that I’ve never cooked with before that I’d cook with? Anybody that I cook with is like my wife, my best friend, my daughter. This is who I like to cook with and share the food, and my granddaughter.
Claudine Pepin: If you could cook with somebody, you know who you’d want to cook with? Plato.
Well Plato would be very good. I do enjoy philosophy. Plato would be very good.
Claudine Pepin: Nietzche would be very boring.