Our 8th Annual Fine Wine Dinner & Auction is just around the corner on Tuesday, April 24. To celebrate Jacques Pépin's involvement with this year's event, University Settlement Board Member Nancy Drosd hosted a champagne reception for fellow board members and supporters of University Settlement. The New York Times Magazine ran an article detailing Pépin's culinary work and his move to working with University Settlement.
Table Talk ι Frère Jacques
By: Abby Aguiree ι April 6, 2012
The New York Times Magazine
Jacques Pépin: more French than American, or more American than French? Let's review the particulars. He learned to cook as a teenager in his parents' restaurant in Lyon and, by the age of 20, was commanding the kitchen of Charles de Gaulle. (French!) At 23, he moved to the United States and took a job flipping burgers at a Howard Johnson's on Queens Boulevard, then spent a decade at the Howard Johnson Company, mastering the art of mass food production. (American!) Several television shows and 27 cookbooks later, he holds a daytime Emmy and both a Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and Chevalier de L'Ordre du Mérite Agricole, two of France's highest honors. (American?)
Debating the question was something of an on-camera parlor game for the Bourg-en-Bresse-born omelet magician and his good friend Julia Child, with whom he hosted the popular goofball series "Julia and Jacques" in the late 1990s. That he does not care for marshmallows in his mashed sweet potatoes must be because he is French, Child teases in one episode. In France, people use leftover chicken fat to sauté potatoes, Pépin explains in another; "sensible people here do the same thing, it's not only the French," Child protests. And then there was the matter of washing chickens.
"I have washed this chicken with hot water," Child says, manhandling a wet bird.
"I don't wash my chicken," Pépin tells the camera.
"He doesn't wash his," she says. "I think in France they're not as worried about things as we are, are they?"
"Well, I live in Connecticut," he says.
As it happens Pépin, now 76, still lives in Connecticut, still oversees a great deal at the French Culinary Institute and still churns out cookbooks, most recently "Essential Pépin," published last year. What he does not often do is lend his celebrated cuisine to charity events. Which makes an auction dinner he is headlining later this month for University Settlement, a 125-year-old nonprofit that serves immigrants on the Lower East Side, a very rare occasion indeed. Pépin explained the move Thursday evening, at a Champagne reception for board members and supporters of the agency, at a private residence overlooking Central Park.
"I have an immigrant story," he said. "Most people come here for economic reasons, or religious reasons, or racial reasons, or gender reasons, or one of those things. I had a good job in Paris, but America was, and still is, the golden fleece." He raised his Champagne flute. "And I've done very well!"
In a grand downtown loft and former manufacturing space, 82Mercer, on April 24, some 150 guests will be treated to Pépin's gratitude in five courses: amuse bouche of mushroom soup; spring fava beans, morel mushroom vol-au-vent, and crab salad; beef carpaccio with basil pesto; spring lamb stuffed with sage mousse and paired with a leek gratin and potato purée; and a selection of chocolate desserts prepared by that other Jacques of note, Jacques Torres. A wine program headed up by Scott Carney will include a sommelier seated at each table.
The menu bears some resemblance to the meals he prepared for Charles de Gaulle, Pépin noted. "I'd do a consommé, a roasted leg of lamb properly done, a gratin of potato, a salad, some cheese and then maybe a caramel custard or one of those things," he said. "But in that case Madame de Gaulle would tell me, 'Don't cook the meat too rare, it's not good for the blood of the president.'"
So why, after cooking for three French heads of state, did he turn down an offer to cook in J.F.K.'s White House, choosing instead to sling hot dogs at HoJo's? "It was more exciting to me," he said. "I was in a new territory. Working with the chemists I learned words like 'bacteria,' 'chloroform' and 'specific gravity' or whatever. Also I learned mass production, marketing, American eating habits and American food. I could not have run any of the restaurants I opened later if I hadn't had the training of Howard Johnson."
Pépin does find some latter-day culinary developments here perplexing, like California's banning of foie gras ("Totally ridiculous"), the fetishizing of organic ingredients ("What's the big deal?") and the larger foraging rage ("This is new?"). Growing up in France, he says, all food was organic; hunting for wild herbs and mushrooms, too, was de rigueur. "I mean I've been to restaurants where they come to take your order and produce for you the carrot and say, 'That carrot is named Matilda, and it was born on the seventh of,'" he broke off, rolling his eyes. "Give me a break! Just give me the carrot."