By ROCHELLE OLSON
In more than two decades as a reporter, I’ve met/encountered/interviewed the famous and the infamous – presidents, star athletes, rock stars, movie stars and convicted killers. It’s my job. After all this time, I don’t get nervous, but I can be apprehensive when the celebrity is someone I’ve enjoyed for years. I worry the person won’t live up to the image.
Like my brief brush with Mick Jagger years ago, my studio interview of Jacques Pepín exceeded my hopes.
I’d like to say I’m a devotee of Pepín’s method, that I’ve worked my way through a third copy of “La Technique,” but I’m mostly a fan and a Francophile with a passion for Paris dreaming of the next time I can walk past the Tuilieries at dusk.
On his shows, Pepín charms, slices, dices and sautes while sharing sweet anecdotes and mildly mischievous asides. He seems so familiar and friendly it’s easy to forget he cooked for Charles DeGaulle and created food with Pierre Franey for the entire Howard Johnson hotel chain in its heyday.
He quickly assuaged my concerns with his calm, relaxed attitude. (If you’re unfamiliar with him, google his YouTube videos on omelet making. Fun and informative as always.)
On camera, Pepín’s flawless. No fumbling or mumbling, just ease. Only a couple of times was he asked to do a second take for this episode. And each was a notch better than the first.I watched the taping on Monday at San Francisco’s KQED and expected to return Wednesday for an interview. But after all the audience members had posed for photos, Pepín and his producers called me over for a shot. I followed orders.
Since I was standing next to him, I started asking questions. Then he asked if I wanted a glass of pinot noir. He was still drinking his wine from the show. I don’t usually drink on the job, but at this time, on the set with Pepín, I responded, “When Jacques Pepín offers a glass of wine, who am I to say no?”
Pepín decided he had time before his afternoon taping to sit for an interview in the green room. Once inside, he asked a producer to get some more wine for us – chenin blanc left over from the show.
Now remember I had gone into the interview wary that the real-life Jacques would be justifiably less amusing than TV Jacques. Instead, here I was relaxing and on my second glass of wine with the great Jacques Pepin – the man who cooked with Julia and any other significant chef in the past 50-some years.
And he was more down-to-earth and direct than I expected. He didn’t bristle at any questions. He was also much more handsome than he appears on TV. He has these deep brown eyes and is as handsome as an older George Clooney – if the movie star had that adorable French accent.
So here are a few snippets I learned that didn’t make my recent story in print:
When I asked about Julia, he told the story about how his neighbor, reporter Morley Safer, asked for an introduction to Julia ahead of a planned “60 Minutes” profile. Safer, most likely, was hoping to warm up his subject before sitting down with cameras.
Pepín shook his head as he recalled telling Safer, “I can introduce you, but it won’t matter. Julia is Julia.”
Still, he and Safer attended one of Julia’s public events. Pepín didn’t recall the first question from an audience member, but he did recall Child’s response: “What a stupid question.”
He met Julia after a publishing agent asked him to read her manuscript for “The Art of French Cooking.” Pepin recalled the agent saying, “I’ve met this very big woman with a terrible voice.” He gave the manuscript a thumbs up – and eventually teamed with Child for their own famous cooking series.
Pepín won’t retire. “What would I do? Now I get up every day at the crack of 10 a.m. I am not an early riser.” But he’s got a heavy schedule of public appearances, cooking events, petanque playing (a French game of tossing metal hollow balls, similar to bocce ball), walking his dogs and hanging out with his wife of 49 years, Gloria.
He hasn’t been to Paris in more than a decade. In the past when he would travel to France, it was to see his mother near Lyon where he grew up. He saw her last summer and she died soon after at 99 1/2, he notes.
He paints as a hobby and considers Picasso the master of the 20th century.
Because he never owned or ran a restaurant, Pepin said, “I didn’t have to worry much about what I said.”
As he’s grown older, Pepin said, “I like things much more spicy than I used to.”
He repeatedly praised simplicity. “Imagination is not something I’m crazy about. Sometimes they can really screw up the meal,” he said.
He likes teaching his granddaughter Shorey how to cook. “The kitchen is the right place to be after school – the noise, the smell of it – all that stays with you the rest of your life.”
Follow Rochelle Olson on Twitter: @rochelleolson