SAN FRANCISCO – When a world-renowned French chef offers to share his bottle of pinot noir at noon on a Monday, the answer is yes — especially when the partner in wine is charming raconteur Jacques Pépin.
Late last month, Pépin was in San Francisco shooting one of his last shows, “Jacques Pépin: Heart and Soul,” at KQED for his final season on public television. Just weeks from turning 79, he has no intention of retiring, but it’s time to bring the show to a close. After a month away from home filming, he misses his wife of 49 years, Gloria, his Connecticut garden and two dogs.
Throughout his career, Pépin has been a peripatetic champion of cooks at all levels, a master chef with a knack for nurturing a novice. In years past, he’s visited the Twin Cities, and still remembers classes he taught at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul and Kitchen Window in Uptown.
A devoted mushroom hunter, his biggest morel bounty took place on a foraging trip in Minnesota. His favorite butter? Land O’Lakes unsalted.
Before the recent show, Pépin walked out to shake hands with a dozen adoring audience members, who included food and beverage distributors, magazine editors, a restaurant chef and a few fans with connections.
Stepping back to the front of the cameras, Pépin swatted away black smoke as he opened the oven to a burned pan of fougasse (a savory flatbread), today’s lesson. He shrugged it off. “The first casualty of the day,” he said, as assistants darted to the backstage kitchen for a replacement pan of bread.
For this episode, he’s preparing “fast” fougasse from pre-made pizza dough and salmon rillettes as an appetizer. “That’s good,” he said, taking his first bite. “I need a glass of wine with that.” Chenin blanc was poured.
This Frenchman’s culinary education began essentially at birth in 1935 in Bourg-en-Bresse in eastern France, near Lyon, where his parents, Jeannette and Jean-Victor owned a restaurant. Eventually, he trained at the Plaza Athénée in Paris and cooked for three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle, before moving to the United States in 1959.
Starting at Le Pavillon in New York, he cooked alongside Pierre Franey and developed meals for Howard Johnson’s hotels. After the success of his book “La Technique,” the gold standard on the fundamentals of French cuisine, he filmed his first television series for PBS in 1997. He told his life’s journey in his 2003 memoir, “The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen.”
Pépin continued to sip wine as he moved on to the main dish, Poussin à la Russe (young chicken in the Russian style). With the bolder dish, out came a bottle of pinot noir, also enthusiastically swirled and sipped by the chef.
The training of a chef
Pépin’s sly sense of humor and warm, slightly mischievous brown eyes keep things light even as he exhibited the knife skills of a samurai. Pépin can dice an onion, fillet a fish or debone a chicken faster than most of us can slap together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Behind the scenes, he’s more intense and focused, but also open, frank and more dashing than he appears on camera. His accent remains enchantingly strong: He sprinkles “shives,” not chives, on his poussin.
In addition to his culinary training, Pépin collaborated with the biggest names in recent generations, from Child and Franey to author James Beard. He’s worked with all the stars on the current U.S. scene, from Martha Stewart and Alain Ducasse to Daniel Boulud and Jacques Torres. He taught Donnie Wahlberg how to cook a special dish on an episode of “The Rachael Ray Show.”
An American holiday
Late last month, Pépin was ready for a break from his television season and looking forward to the holidays with his wife. “The greatest food for me is to always go back to the family. Simpler is better,” Pépin said.
After decades together, he and his wife don’t so much cook together as share a kitchen with a delineated “perimeter” for each. Thanksgiving for Pépin requires turkey, preferably a good one, steamed for 45 minutes, then brushed with a mix of vinegar, apple cider and Tabasco, and slit at the joints.
Pépin cooks the gizzards and stuffing separately so the turkey doesn’t overcook. Among the side dishes are the familiar mashed and sweet potatoes. Gloria insists on canned cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie for dessert. He prefers pecan pie.
Pépin’s mother died last summer, six months shy of her 100th birthday. Her gratin of corn is a tradition, Pépin said, made in the food processor with flour, half-and-half, Gruyère and/or Parmesan. He makes a dense stuffing from cornbread with mushrooms and sausage.
At Christmas, Pépin’s family eats fresh oysters and clams from his fishmonger. Duck liver pâté is de rigueur. Brioche and homemade saucissons (sausage) of ground meat with pistachio and truffle are also favorites.
An early celebration
On this trip to San Francisco, he prematurely celebrated his 80th birthday, which will occur next year in December. For the occasion, he spent a day cooking — for the show — with Rick Bayless of Frontera in Chicago, chef-restaurateur-personality Lidia Bastianich and Ming Tsai, celebrity fusion chef. After the show, the All-Star team sat for a specially prepared dinner at Union Square restaurant Farallon.
In an interview later, Pépin called the meal that included Cantabrian anchovies (worth their price, he said), squab foie gras, turbot, langoustines and truffle pig bladder, one of the greatest he’s had in years. “And they don’t even have any stars,” he said of the restaurant.
Family will be central to the final season. For this episode, Pépin had already shot a crêpe-making episode with his 10-year-old granddaughter Shorey, the child of his daughter Claudine, a frequent on-air partner herself.
“Differences are bridged in the kitchen,” Pépin said to the camera. “I hope you cook with and for the young people that you love in your life.”
Follow Rochelle Olson on Twitter: @rochelleolson