Jacques Pepin has already written the highly regarded volume on French cooking, made a name for himself as the Frenchman who basically brought his country’s cooking to America, and conquered television by bringing his techniques into the homes of millions of viewers.
So, there was only one thing left to do: Take the show on the road.
Pepin, joined by his daughter, chef Claudine Pepin, will appear onstage Saturday, March 25, at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, as part of the venue’s “Discovery France” series.
What can two cooks do on a stage?
“We will demonstrate technique, because obviously we have no stove onstage,” Pepin says. “Then we will take questions from the audience about food and about cooking.” A book-signing will follow.
It should be a little like going to a cooking school with one of the world’s greatest chefs as teacher—only for a lot less money. It isn’t the first time Pepin has come to the Valley.”
“Jacques first taught at my cooking school in 1985,” recalls Barbara Fenzl, owner of Phoenix’s Les Gourmettes Cooking School. “He demonstrated classic French cooking—how to scale, skin and debone a whole fish, the importance of peeling asparagus, and how to make a caramel cage to cover a dessert.
“Jacques is a true legend in the cooking world,” she says.
He’s moved forward with the time, adds Fenzl, who will introduce the Pepins onstage and serve as moderator for the audience discussion. New techniques to be demonstrated will likely take into consideration the use of store-bought ingredients, time constraints and lighter approaches to cuisine.
Pepin was born in a suburb of Lyons, France, to restaurateur parents. He moved to the United States to attend New York’s Columbia University, where he earned an M.A. in French literature. At the same time, he was hired by Howard Johnson’s restaurants to upgrade their menus. He went on to write “La Technique,” the bible of French cooking, and to host a dozen different cooking-show series on television, including “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home,” where he shared the studio with Julia Child.
At 81 years old, Pepin remains a chef, teacher, author, and now, stage personality. Thought of as the quintessential French chef, he considers himself an American chef:
“I was for 30 years on PBS. And when you look at my cookbooks, you will find things like black bean soup and southern fried chicken, which are not very French. After 50 years of cooking in America, I think I should be called a typical American chef, although”— he adds, with a chuckle—“I am told I have an accent.”
The importance of French cooking lies not in individual dishes or certain recipes, Pepin notes, but in the fundamentals.
“French cooking is a structure of technique, and then you take it from there,” he says.
Pepin recently made a somewhat controversial but undeniable point about recipes: They are not sacrosanct, and need to be adjusted according to circumstances. Asked to elaborate on this idea, he says:
“This is the paradox of cooking,” he says. “When you do everything and write it down, saying ‘I did this and that,’ and you give the recipe to another professional, it is not enough. You start with a recipe, but there is a great deal of freedom involved.
“Suppose you start cooking a piece of fish and it gets dry and you add 3 tablespoons of water. So, you write that down. But now suppose another chef reads what you have written, but the circumstances are different—every piece of fish is different, after all—and he doesn’t need to add the water. If he does add the water, it may make the fish soggy. There are many other differences. It makes a difference, for example, if you are cooking with gas or electric.”
“The first time, follow the recipe. Then, adjust according to circumstances, according to your own taste and sense of aesthetics. By the third or fourth time, you will have mastered it.”
Pepin’s adjust-as-you-go admonition amounts, he says, to realizing that replicating the taste, not the exact ordering of ingredients, is what matters.
“In order to be the same each time, a recipe must change each time,” Pepin says, echoing the famous French conundrum, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
American cooking has changed utterly since Pepin came to the United States in the 1970s.
“When I first came to New York, a typical grocery store did not know what a shallot was, and there was only one kind of lettuce,” he says.
Now, food has exploded into a cuisine culture of high sophistication.
“I am very excited to see the changes in this country over the years,” says the man who had a lot to do with it.
Chef Jacques Pepin and Claudine Pepin, Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts’ Virginia G. Piper Theater, 7380 E. Second Street, Scottsdale, 480.899.8587, scottsdaleperformingarts.org, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25, $29-$59.