With “Heart & Soul in the Kitchen,” world-famous French-born chef Jacques Pépin culminates his 13-season culinary collaboration with public television.
Bubbling with Pépin’s warmth, the book feels as personal as his memoir “The Apprentice” that traced his life from boyhood in war-torn France to worldwide acclaim for the culinary expertise he delivers with his encouraging and immeasurable charm.
The chef’s personal family photographs, paintings and memories infuse the narrative with a comfortable intimacy and genuine candor. Especially enjoyable are Pépin’s original artworks that hew generally to the approachable style of Henri Matisse or early Picasso.
In similar fashion, his recipes are deceptively straightforward, well-tuned workhorse dishes that elevate beyond the sum of their parts. He exponentially enhances, for example, a simple lentil salad by topping it with a soft-boiled egg, a simple addition that improbably elevates the dish.
The recipes range from pistachio-crusted Camembert, ricotta quenelles and his mother’s garden chicken stew to an entire chapter on organ meats, a French predilection not nearly as popular in the United States. I suspect most readers will enjoy the lessons offered in his cooking with his granddaughter Shorey instead of the pork kidneys with mushroom and vermouth.
For the uninitiated, the book provides a fabulous introduction to Pépin, a master whose career ranged from tours in the Elysées Palace cooking for heads of state to designing the menus for families vacationing at Howard Johnson hotels.
Most recipes come with personal vignettes, history and friendly tips.
He talks about how he creates recipes, saying taste comes first, then the visual. He uses the example of “chirashi sushi,” a platter of sushi rice topped with chopped raw fish, much easier to assemble than traditional sushi rolls.
“In my mind I saw the orange-red of the caviar and the blood red of the tuna, the black of the tree ear [mushrooms], and the vibrant green of the scallions. Visually stunning and great tasting,” he wrote. “I’d hit the bull’s-eye.”
He pays homage to reliable French staples such as “Parisian potage,” a leek and potato soup that he irresistibly calls his favorite and eats with threads of grated Gruyère melting on top.
His prep suggestions come with the bonhomie he adds to even the most challenging of foods. He calls “chicken feet in hot sauce” a tasty and inexpensive dish to be eaten with the fingers and enjoyed with good Chinese beer.
Pépin’s fans know he is loath to waste a scrap of food, and he drives that home with a commentary called “In Praise of Wilted Vegetables.” He tells of how his wife, Gloria, would “take advantage” of his work trips to toss out refrigerated leftovers.
“I use my soup pot, instead of the trash can, as a pretext for cleaning the frig,” he wrote. “Some cookbook authors claim that a great soup starts with only the freshest vegetables. Nonsense!”
He detailed his admiration for tossing into the soup stock the wilted lettuce with limp carrots and halved onions in the midst of drying out. He collects dried-out Parmesan cheese rinds in the freezer, then chops them into a big soup or stew, “adding body and flavor,” he wrote.
The chef draws from many cultures and cuisines, including his wife’s Cuban heritage with Dirty Rice for Gloria. “It just so happens that rice and liver stand at the top of my wife’s list of favorite foods,” he writes.
Cheese gougères, a specialty of Pépin’s native Burgundy, are in here, too.
Then there’s the delicious peek into his pantry through a list he provides of the staples: flour tortillas for quick pizzas, canned beans to add to soup or meat, good cheese, olives, anchovies, frozen artichoke hearts, frozen and baby peas and pepperoncini.
Tucked between recipes are the stories of his life’s passions: boules, family, art, his best friend. The book is dedicated to his mother and granddaughter — one who guided him as a young boy in her kitchen, the other now being guided by him so that she, he writes, “will carry on the family traditions.”
Ultimately, he makes the reader feel a part of that family, too.