Sep 26, 2014 Anchorage Press
Food and Memory: Iconic Chef Jacques Pépin visits Anchorage
Cooking and selling food on the streets and family-owned restaurants in Veracruz has sustained my family since the Mexican Revolution. As a kid in the U.S. I would channel surf and inevitably land on PBS cooking shows. That's where I first "met" Julia Child and Jacques Pépin (or just Jacques, I've decided to be on a first name basis with him throughout this article). They helped me down a very democratic smorgasbord of tasting experiences, so imagine how excited I was to interview Jacques and his daughter, Claudine on their visit to Alaska. They were here as part of Alaska Public Media's strategic programming to bring up notable chefs for speaking, classes and demonstration engagements.
Apart from the cooking connection I felt with Jacques, I was also intrigued by his story. Jacques, like me, is an immigrant. He came to the U.S. in 1959, and brought with him skills, expertise and a determination to find his place in the world. Along with Julia and the likes of James Beard, Richard Olney and Alice Waters, Jacques has changed how America eats and how it thinks about food and ingredients. He has brought the culinary arts out of the folds of other disciplines into it's own place of cultural prominence. Not only was I excited to meet Jacques, I was nervous, worried I would forget my questions.
I arrived at Sacks Café on G Street where another reporter and I were greeted by Jacques and Claudine. Once my nervousness was in check, I remembered all the things I wanted to ask. I needn't have worried. Jacques and Claudine were gracious, funny and smart and we quickly found a common language and cultural similarities. Gloria Pépin, Jacques' wife of 48 years and Claudine's mother, is of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent. The geographical ties led us to chat in Spanish for a brief moment, and I learned that Gloria's arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) is unparalleled.
Jacques' life has been full. His success, like that of Julia Child's, is due in part to an honest approach to cooking, and openness to new ideas. For Jacques cooking is not a job, it's a way of life. He paraphrased a saying that home is where you find your childhood culinary heart, where the tastes and smells bring love and comfort, reassuring you of your origins. He has brought this philosophy to us via television programs produced by KQED in San Francisco and more than two-dozen cookbooks. Jacques said that his books are thematic in the sense that some are concerned with technique, others with economics/cost, others with health/nutrition, and the most recent, More Fast Food My Way with time. In the latest book, Jacques creates recipes that take advantage of the prepared ingredients available in the market-such as pre-washed vegetables and expertly cut meats-and combines these with traditional techniques to guide the cook at home in making delicious food in a timely manner without compromising flavor or health.
Jacques and Claudine walked through their history, and in doing so, gave a wonderful account of different spaces, changing times, and key people. Jacques spoke about his stint as the head Chef for French President Charles de Gaulle, about the coordination of meals based on political and diplomatic parameters. Jacques reminisced especially about the Sunday dinners with the de Gaulle family and Madame de Gaulle's direction for these feasts.
I found a particular kinship with Claudine. Beyond our mutual pursuit of Political Science, we were both trained by our respective mothers to identify food through our senses. In my case, when I came home from school my mother would ask me to taste whatever she was making and then tell her what was in the food, what ingredients, herbs and seasonings. When Claudine came home from school, Gloria would ask her to identify the smells and also decipher the composition.
In preparing for the interview with Jacques and Claudine, I watched a number of online shows featuring them in the kitchen. I was delighted by the dynamic between them, on camera and across the table from me. Their interactions are playful and loving but also on point about, as Claudine says, "technique, technique, technique." How one uses this technique to bring creativity and tastiness into the kitchen is unique to each cook's traditions and inventiveness. Jacques and Claudine are open to the world and don't shy away from experimenting or venturing into new culinary frontiers.
Like Jacques, my father was a self-made person. He was an orphan in Mexico City and never received a formal education. Nevertheless, he made himself into a well-read and resourceful businessman. Education was of the highest priority in our family because-like my grandparents' Revolution and my father's experience on the street taught us-education is the best way to maximize opportunities and learn to relate to the world.
Jacques received his Masters from Columbia University in 1972 in French Literature. I was curious about how his studies fit into his culinary career. When I asked, his response was beyond candid and germane, it was compelling. Jacques said that as a cook, one is at a lower social rung, and (at that time) no one wanted their daughters to marry a cook, they wanted them to marry someone with an education, like a doctor or lawyer. By his own admission, he had "a complex" about his lack of education. After earning his degree, he decided to go back to the culinary world, but, as he said, "without a complex". I took this to mean that his education reassured him that we all put our pants on one leg at a time. Being free of stigmas and insecurities makes us into stronger and kinder people.
My grandmother, who didn't know how to read or write, but was one of the more eloquent speakers I have ever known would always remind me that a truly educated person didn't use the power of education to oppress others, that education gave one a way to talk to everyone with respect and humanity. Jacques' candor and intelligence shines through and extends to those around him, reminding us that food is a language that foments all the good things of which human beings are capable.
I look forward to Jacques' and Claudine's upcoming projects, both together and individually. Jacques paints and draws and will be releasing a book of his artwork. Claudine's book Kids Cook French: Les Enfants Cuisinent en Francais will be available in the spring of 2015. The book is bilingual and features her Dad's artwork. Jacques has a new show through KQED in San Francisco called, "Heart and Soul." The series will be comprised of 26 episodes cooking with various people including his granddaughter, Shorey. It will be great to see what the next Pépin generation brings to the table and what new memories are born.
With the temperatures dropping and permission from the author, here is a recipe for this Alaskan fall from Jacques himself:
Hearty Vegetable Bean Soup
From: More Fast Food My Way Episode 213, http://www.kqed.org/w/morefastfoodmyway/recipes.html
As soon as the outside temperature dips below 50 degrees, I can't wait to make this vegetarian soup, which is ready in about half an hour. What goes into it is usually determined by the contents of my refrigerator: onions, leeks, scallions, carrots, celery, and salad greens are all good. Canned beans make it sturdy enough for a main course.
For a comforting lunch or dinner, serve with grated Gruyère on top and chunks of country bread as an accompaniment.
4 servings (about 6 cups)
4 cups water
1 medium leek, split, washed, trimmed (retaining most of the green), and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 2 1/2 cups)
1 cup peeled and diced (1/2-inch) carrot
1 cup peeled and diced (1/2-inch) white turnip
1 cup diced (1/2-inch) celery
2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 can (15.5 ounces) cannellini beans
1 cup grated Gruyère cheese, preferably an aged variety
Pieces of baguette or sturdy country bread
4 sprigs fresh parsley, for garnish (optional)
Combine the water, leek, carrot, turnip, celery, oil, and salt in a large saucepan or pot. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and boil gently for about 12 minutes. Add the beans, including the liquid, and bring to a boil again. Boil for a few minutes. Serve in bowls with a generous sprinkling of grated Gruyère and a parsley sprig (if desired) on top and bread alongside.