Culinary legend Jacques Pépin, 69, has greatly influenced the palate and cooking style of Americans. Over four decades, he has published more than 20 cookbooks and appeared in more than 10 public television series; he has distinguished himself as both chef and educator. Born and trained in France, he became personal chef to French president Charles de Gaulle. Since coming to the United States in 1959, he has mastered cuisines from haute French at New York's historic Le Pavillon to American road food at the Howard Johnson Company, where he spent a decade as director of research and development. Among his cooking shows was a collaboration with his longtime friend Julia Child in Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home; his current series is Jacques Pépin: Fast Food My Way. He also published a best-selling memoir, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Gloria.
Wine Spectator: How much has changed in American taste and interest in food since you arrived in the United States?
Jacques Pépin: It's another world altogether. It doesn't resemble the America I came to. In New York, in 1960 at good stores, I remember asking for mushrooms and they sent me to aisle five for canned mushrooms. You had to go to a specialty store just for regular white button mushrooms. Now up here at stores in Connecticut, there are 10 different mushrooms. There were no shallots, leeks, olive oil, different types of vinegar, no herbs. There were only two salads, iceberg and romaine. And now you can find 15 types of greens.
Ethnic food has become more prominent. Now American food is undefinable. It's more varied than in any other part of the world. When it comes to urban centers like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, people are eating Turkish one night, Greek another, Japanese and French. The spectrum of taste is much larger than in Europe.
WS: You teach at the French Culinary Institute and at Boston University. What trends are you seeing in the next generation of chefs?
JP: People are getting more serious about food, less interested in fusion; they go back to their roots and work more with what they know. To me, that's a good indication of good cooking. … Instead of trying to create a dish no one has ever heard of, a mixture no one has ever done, try to work in-depth and do it better than anyone ever has.
WS: Do you think today's cooking focuses too much on creativity at the expense of rigorous training or knowledge?
JP: Without any question. If you look at the legacy of nouvelle cuisine, the good principles were to buy fresh food, use the best possible ingredients and use new techniques and new equipment. Then, try to be creative and present the food attractively. The latter are the only two things that young chefs remember. … Often I taste things and say it's very good, but I have no idea what it is. You don't know whether its rabbit or pheasant; it doesn't have any distinctive taste. It's good, but what's the point?
WS: What is your approach toward wine as part of a meal?
JP: Preferably a lot of it and not too expensive [laughing]. In my culture, when I was a kid in France, we had wine on the table and that was the wine--it was usually red--that you had with your onion soup or your fish or your roast chicken. For special occasions, you would open a corked bottle, maybe a white for oysters. … For me, it was always there. I've been married 40 years and I can't remember a meal where we didn't open a bottle of wine with dinner, sometimes two.
WS: What are your favorites?
JP: Maybe because I'm from Lyon, I love Beaujolais. It goes with anything; it's not pretentious; you don't have to discuss it. I like Syrah, Grenache, and occasionally a great Burgundy or Bordeaux.
WS: How has wine's role on the American table changed?
JP: They drink wine now. That's a big change. Many people never had wine as children and young adults. To change your whole palate, it's an immense task. It's amazing that people have done that. … There's a progression in America that's great: They drink more here than they used to and less in Europe than they used to.
But people are still afraid of ordering a bottle. In France, the wine list is quite small in many restaurants. They will drink whatever grows there. It's a symbiosis with the food; it grows from the same soil. … We don't have a tradition of winegrowing in all the different states here. But if you go to California, they drink local wine. Even in Connecticut, occasionally, we drink wine of the area.
WS: For someone trying to learn how to cook well at home, what is the most important thing to do?
JP: To invite people and drink wine. Then the food comes. There are so many shows on TV to look at, so many books and articles. If you know how to read, you can cook now. But next time you want to learn, go with a friend who cooks and help them and learn from them and bring a bottle of wine; it will help relax you.
WS: What do you think about all the television coverage of food these days?
JP: I'm not crazy about reality shows on food. I think they reflect poorly on our trade. They are totally unreal. But the more we talk about cooking--and wine and bread and cheese--the better it is.