Those old enough to remember 1970s television might recall the pre-cable, slot-filling cooking shows, where Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet reigned among brick-walled kitchens and hanging copper pots. You might also remember a dashing Frenchman named Jacques Pépin, who entered the NY cooking scene in the early 1960s and quickly rose through the ranks via talent, connections, and joie de vivre.
His memoir, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, reads as a response to all the people who must have told him over the years, "Jacques, you've had an incredible life. Why don't you write an autobiography?" And so he did, with equal parts humility and insouciance.
Indeed, beginning with his childhood in small-town France, he suffuses The Apprentice with a modesty and gratitude that never descends into an "aw shucks, little ol' me?" corniness. It's as if the better parts of his French and American natures rose to the surface to produce a noble and modest reflection on a fascinating – indeed, charmed – life. His advancement in the culinary world was phenomenal yet uncalculated, his successes the result of 10% hard work and 90% simply being in the right place at the right time.
The hard work began early and crafted an ethic that helped him rise through an increasingly prestigious succession of French restaurants. Packed off in 1949 to a three-year apprenticeship with Le Grand Hôtel de l'Europe in Bourg-en-Bresse, at the age of 14 yet still dressed in the short pants of a boy, he describes in engaging detail the system of brigade de cuisine, the traditional and intense training where aspiring chefs spend years cycling through every station in the kitchen. Progression is prohibited until mastery is achieved.
His is an incredible insight into the overheated, frantic, steamy and mysterious world that sparks a voyeuristic response in any dedicated foodie. Pépin's explication of the traditional apprenticeship is worth the price of the book alone, not just for the nostalgic details of a sometimes esoteric field, but also because it is a startling contrast to today's specialized roles in U.S. kitchens, where a cook is hired and trained to do one thing and one thing only. In fact, it's hard to imagine someone today, in our celebritized culture of culinary rock stars, deigning to submit to the militaristic regime of Pépin's era, where there was room in the kitchen for only one ego. Indeed, Pépin, who started as a cleaner – of the kitchen, not food – was forbidden to even approach le piano, the immense oven at the heart of Le Grand Hôtel's kitchen.
Finally, after a year of unpaid 15-hour days spent cleaning, prepping and observing, the "Chef suddenly materialized” beside him.
"Quietly and with no inflection, he said, 'Jacques.'
It was the first time I'd heard him utter my proper name.
‘Tomorrow you start at the stove.'"
Yet after a three-year tour of duty, he still had risen no higher than third commis, "a trainee, one tiny step above apprentice."
The other value of Pépin's memoir is the insight he offers laypeople into simple French country cooking. The French's love of offal, if we have learned nothing else from Anthony Bourdain, exhibits a passion for frugality that extends to every ingredient available, sparing nothing and turning it all into a hearty meal. Following his move to America, Pepin could be seen tramping through the woods hunting for wild mushrooms or scouring the Mendocino coastline for escargots. Even Billy, a feral sheep terrorizing his Hunter, NY neighborhood, became sautéed kidneys and sweetbreads.
As his many anecdotes show, you can take the boy out of the countryside, but you can't take the countryside out of the boy. Despite his Parisian training and a diplomatic job cooking elaborate, no-budget meals for heads of state (following an unexpected turn of political events that landed him the title First Chef of France), many of the recipes with which Pépin ends each chapter are from his beloved Maman: cheese soufflé, apple tart, stuffed eggs. In fact, only four of the nineteen recipes come from his high-end chef days. The remainder are hearty soups, brasserie fare and favorites he adopted from his friends in the U.S.: pork ribs and red beans, scallop ceviche, pasta primavera. His simple recipe for Chicken Salad à la Danny Kaye, who was famous for comedy but largely unknown for his enviable talent as a chef, sets a new standard for a pretty basic dish – it's that good. In addition, Pépin's recipes are simple and use only common, unpretentious ingredients, yet they are elaborately explained, eliminating any of the familiar "Does this mean I'm supposed to…" doubts that recipes sometimes foster. His recipes and his instructional manner – actually, the man himself – are the perfect antidote for anyone intimidated by French cuisine, which perhaps explains his wide appeal to Americans.
Pépin, in the 73rd year of a rather charmed life, is enjoying a full-on embrace of the multimedia world. He has too many book titles to list, but most notable are his seminal cooking guides, La Technique and La Methode. These manuals are, interestingly enough, the means by which Tom Colicchio taught himself how to cook, and are available combined under the title Complete Techniques. Pépin also has a website (www.jacquespepin.net) and a PBS series on DVD, Jacques Pépin: Fast Food My Way, with a follow-up, More Fast Food My Way, reportedly in the works.