Chef Jacques Pépin is one of the most important figures in French-American cuisine, a legendary culinary mind who has shared his deeply personal recipes in cookbooks, in classrooms and on screen for decades. He worked for New York restaurants now considered cultural institutions, like Windows on the World and Le Pavillon (which chef Daniel Boulud pays homage to at his newly opened venture of the same name).
Looking back at Pépin’s childhood in France, his career seems almost inevitable. He was essentially born into the restaurant industry in 1935 in Bourg-en-Bresse, a town neighboring Lyon, where his parents owned an eatery called Le Pelican. He helped out at the business from a very young age, peeling vegetables and washing dishes, so he already had kitchen experience under his belt when he began his first official restaurant apprenticeship at the Grand Hôtel de l’Europe at 13 years old.
The many years of cooking, writing and educating that followed took Pépin around the world, but that has only strengthened how he cherishes those early memories.
One such memory is catching whitebait from the rivers and lakes of Lyon and making friture, a French dish of tiny fish, battered and deep-fried until crispy. “That was a very common thing during the summer, to do that and then have a bottle of wine with the friture,” he says. Even now, Pépin continues the seasonal ritual of catching and frying whitebait from his home in Connecticut. “It’s one of our traditions during the summer. I go five, six times at least.” And though it’s a super-simple recipe with humbly sourced ingredients, Pépin says it’s actually pretty luxurious. “If you go to fancy restaurants in France, you’re going to have the friture like that and pay a little fortune for it.”
It’s a fun-to-eat, salty-crunchy dish that’s sure to bring everyone together at a seasonal celebration like Father’s Day. The occasion evokes memories of Pépin’s own father, who was “a great gourmand … He loved food and wine and fun and family.”
Pépin’s preferred approach is to catch the whitebait himself. But for those without bodies of water nearby, the recipe also works with an array of small fish you can purchase, like sprat and sardines, and even larger, firm, white fish (which sometimes sneak into his batches anyway) cut into thin strips. “Sometimes when we put out the net, I’ve caught sole or a couple of other little fish, and that’s fine, they go in it too.”
The recipe includes instructions for cleaning out the whitebait; it’s an optional step since they’re so tiny, but removes any inner parts that could become bitter. Pépin’s only must-do is to batter the fish when your oil is hot and you’re ready to fry. “Otherwise the mixture can get gooey around it.” The oil can be reused repeatedly for frying other seafood throughout the summer, up to about five times. “As soon as I finish the fish, I pour [the oil] slowly into a bowl so I leave the residue at the bottom, and I put that back in a jar or back in the bottle and I refrigerate it.”
The crunchy fish are an appetizing segue to a summery entrée like pasta with pesto sauce. Pépin’s version doesn’t stray far from the familiar, but incorporates jalapeño for some kick, as well as pumpkin seeds instead of the usual pine nuts or walnuts. “They’re very nutty and nice, and they give some color to it also.” But the chef says the seeds can be swapped with a wide range of crunchy components, depending on what you have on hand. “This type of recipe is open to all kinds of variation.”
There’s also an added boost of basil flavor in the pasta water itself, thanks to Pépin’s trick of blanching the leaves in the boiling water while the pasta is cooking below—a convenient time-saver too. During the later summer months when his garden is brimming with basil, Pépin will blanch extra, blend it in the food processor with a bit of olive oil and salt and freeze small batches for later use.
Cooking this dish directly before the meal is best, but if you’re hosting guests and looking to prep ahead, the pesto can be made in advance. “And I sometimes even cook my pasta ahead and just drain it and run it under cold water for a few seconds, not to get it completely cold but so it doesn’t continue cooking,” Pépin says. “At the last moment, I reheat the whole thing together.”
He suggests pairing the meal with Domaine de Rimauresq Côtes de Provence Rosé, a classic example from the French region. “[It’s] a very fresh wine, full of nice flavor and very easy to drink, and it will go perfectly with those types of dishes, especially because I tend to serve those dishes outside.” For those who prefer something weightier for the main, Pépin recommends Spann Vineyards’ Cabernet Franc from Amador County, Calif. “For me, it’s a bit like a Côtes du Rhône, a pretty heavy and strong wine, but I like that with pasta.”
Though he has earned several lifetimes’ worth of achievements, Pépin isn’t slowing down. This spring, he released the second volume of Cook with Jacques & Friends, an online video recipe book with contributions from dozens of celebrated chefs. José Andrés, Marcus Samuelsson, Tom Colicchio, Thomas Keller and Rachel Ray are all involved, just to name a few.
The series is available through a monthly membership to the Jacques Pépin Foundation, which works with community-based organizations to help break down barriers to employment in the culinary industry by providing free culinary and life skills training. Pépin saw the virtual project as a way to stay connected during the coronavirus crisis, when the foundation’s in-person events had to be canceled. “I’ve been amazed at the response that we’ve had,” Pépin says. “The pandemic has been a double-edged sword, but in many ways it has brought a lot of people together in the kitchen sharing food and sharing the cooking together, and that, I think, is very important.” His own recipes are featured as well, and Vol. 3 is already in the works.
What keeps Pépin motivated to keep cooking? The answer is simple: A man’s gotta eat. “I’m hungry all the time,” he says. “So I go to the market, and I have my garden … for me, this is a lifestyle: The way of meeting friends and talking to friends around sharing food and drink and being together. It’s an ongoing situation.”
This Father’s Day, gather your own loved ones for this warm-weather feast and pick up some bottles of Pépin’s suggested pairings. Or for more wine options, see nine complementary picks below chosen by Wine Spectator, including four dark-fruited reds and five rosés.
- 1 pound whitebait
- 3 cups peanut oil
- 1/3 cup milk
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1. To clean: Hold the fish just below the head between your thumb and index finger and firmly push the guts out of the little hole in the lower part of the belly. Wash the fish well and pat dry with paper towels.
2. In a large saucepan, heat the oil to 375° F.
3. Pour the milk into a shallow bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Dip the fish in the milk, then transfer to the flour and toss well to coat evenly. Shake off any excess flour. Gently drop the fish into the hot oil. Cook, moving the fish around with a skimmer, until golden and crisp, 4 to 5 minutes.
4. Sprinkle with salt and enjoy. Serves 4 to 6.
Spaghetti with Pesto
- 8 ounces spaghetti
- 4 to 5 cups loosely packed basil leaves
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for serving
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1/2 jalapeño, chopped
- 1/3 cup toasted pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, walnuts or hazelnuts
- 3 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- Freshly ground black pepper
1. In a large pot, bring 3 quarts of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to the package instructions or to your liking.
2. While the pasta is cooking, place the basil in a sieve and immerse in the boiling pasta water, pushing the leaves down with a spatula until they are wilted, about 15 to 20 seconds. Immediately cool under cold water or in an ice bath. Drain the cooked pasta, reserving 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the pasta water.
3. Place blanched basil in a blender with a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons of the oil and 2 tablespoons of hot pasta water. Blend to a puree. (You can remove 2 tablespoons of the pureed basil to freeze separately). Add the jalapeño, pumpkin seeds, parmesan and remaining olive oil and puree until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, adding more oil if necessary.
4. Pour the pesto into a large bowl; add 1/2 cup of the hot pasta water and mix well. Add pasta to the pesto and toss well. To serve, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with additional cheese.Serves 4 to 6.
Note: The following lists are selections of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.
4 Dark-Fruited Reds with Earth and Herb Notes
Score: 90 | $20
WS review: This expressive red offers currant, leather and grilled herb notes, infused with tapenade, rose petal, plum and chalky mineral accents. Shows good focus and freshness. Drink now through 2029. 5,835 cases made. From France.—Gillian Sciaretta
Cabernet Franc Columbia Valley 2018
Score: 90 | $30
WS review: Sleek and vibrant, with expressive blueberry and cherry flavors that are laced with fresh violet and dusky herb notes. Drink now through 2028. 1,204 cases made. From Washington.—Tim Fish
Cabernet Franc Mendoza Reserve 2018
Score: 90 | $20
WS review: This juicy red is full of concentrated dark currant and blackberry flavors that carry lilting notes of dried green herb. The refined and spicy finish shows peppery hints. Drink now through 2024. 2,500 cases made. From Argentina.—Kim Marcus
CHÂTEAU ROQUES MAURIAC
Bordeaux Supérieur 2018
Score: 88 | $18
WS review: Offers up dark cherry and plum notes mixed with dark tobacco and a touch of warm earth on the finish. Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Drink now through 2022. 7,000 cases made. From France.—James Molesworth
5 Minerally Rosés
Île de Beauté Rosé 2020
Score: 89 | $10
WS review: Pure and bright, with a talc spine carrying light white cherry and white peach flavors, ending with a chiseled finish. Drink now. 11,000 cases made. From France.—J.M.
BIELER PÈRE & FILS
Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence Rosé Sabine 2020
Score: 88 | $15
WS review: Orange blossom and grapefruit notes are cast with tangerine, wet stone and spice elements in this charming rosé. Delicate but focused, with a lingering finish. Drink now. 90,000 cases imported. From France.—G.S.
CHÂTEAU DU ROUËT
Côtes de Provence Rosé Cuvée Réservée Tradition 2020
Score: 88 | $17
WS review: A mineral-driven rosé, with subtle peach and white raspberry notes edged with white pepper, herb and smoke details. Elegant and crisp. Drink now. 15,000 cases made. From France.—G.S.
Coteaux Varois en Provence Rosé 2020
Score: 88 | $15
WS review: This rosé has an engaging acidity that binds together the fresh melon, grapefruit and tangerine flavors, underpinned with herb, floral and spice details. Shows nice focus and energy. Drink now. 20,000 cases made. From France.—G.S.
DOMAINE SANTA GIULIETTA
Score: 88 | $18
WS review: This tasty rosé has a plump hint at first to the mix of rose water, strawberry and white cherry notes, while the back end displays a racier, stone-accented finish. Drink now. 14,000 cases made. From France.—J.M.