The French culinary icon stops by Tom Douglas’ Hot Stove Society for a glass of wine and a book signing.
You can’t talk about Jacques Pépin without talking about eggs.
How you have to crack them on a flat surface. The stirring. The smoothness. And how one tablespoon of butter — no more, no less — will keep an omelet from getting wrinkly.
Chefs, food writers and common kitchen cooks know these things from Pépin, a French-born chef who has written 25 cookbooks, but who made his mark as Julia Child’s right-hand man on “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home,” which premiered on PBS in 1999. He went on to star in two more PBS shows, and last month, “Jacques Pépin Heart & Soul” debuted on KQED.
Pépin visited Seattle recently as part of a tour that not only celebrated the release of his new book, “Heart & Soul in the Kitchen,” but his 80th birthday in December.
Earlier in the week, Pépin had been fed and fêted on “The Rachael Ray Show,” and toasted onstage by Anthony Bourdain at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. A couple of days later, he was at Tom Douglas’ Hot Stove Society at Seattle’s Hotel Andra, where a crowd of people paid $150 for a copy of his book, some wine and nibbles made from his recipes, and a moment with the man.
The upstairs bar adjacent to the Hot Stove Society was abuzz, waiting for Pépin, who was inside finishing a KIRO radio interview with Chef Thierry Rautureau of Loulay Kitchen & Bar and Luc.
“His recipes turn out,” said Leslie Kelly, a former food writer who now works for AllRecipes.com. “They make you a hero at the dinner table, and they’re not fussy and complicated.”
Others talked about his time on television with Child.
“Oh, the ones with him and Julia,” one swoony woman said. “So tender and magical.”
Gil Ramirez, was there with his wife, Char, who surprised him with tickets for his birthday.
“A rock star, isn’t she?” he said, smiling at her.
“It all started watching him cook scrambled eggs,” Ramirez said. “The aggressive stirring.”
At one point, Pépin, poked his head out from behind a wall: “You talking about me?”
One woman looked at her friend.
“I’m gonna die,” she said.
The crowd lined up for their books, while Pépin took a seat at a tall table, a glass of white wine and a glass of water set before him.
Kelly spent her time in line practicing saying “Happy Birthday” in French: “Bon anniversaire. Bon anniversaire.”
While signing books, Pépin was enjoying the attention, making cracks, flirting and patiently smiling for one photo after another.
“Food is a passion of mine and a passion of yours,” he said, adding that while he has written all these books, he doesn’t necessarily follow a recipe.
It’s more from taste, he said. From memories of his parents, Jeannette and Jean-Victor, who owned a restaurant, Le Pelican, where Pépin first honed his skills.
No one wrote anything down then, he said.
“You give me a dish, and I say, ‘That’s my mother,’ because I remember those tastes,” he said, then paused. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy my book.”
And so it went.
One man asked Pépin to draw him something. Pépin obliged, then turned to Chef Bridget Charters, the director at Hot Stove, who was sitting nearby.
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“How much did you pay for my painting?” Pépin asked of a watercolor she had displayed in the Hot Stove kitchen.
“Twelve hundred dollars,” she said.
“He just got one for free!” Pépin said.
Charters had spent the day with the chef, who she first met when she was 23 and studying at the California Culinary Academy.
“And now here he is in my place of work,” she said, shaking her head.
But while Pépin may be a legend in the eyes of older cooks who watched him with Child on what was then the only cooking show on television, new ones aren’t so familiar.
Earlier that day, Charters asked a gathering of Douglas’ cooks how many knew of Pépin. Only four out of 20 raised their hands.
“It’s because we grew up watching PBS because there was no cable TV, no Food Network.”
Is there anything she cooks that is his?
“Everything,” she said. “His eggs. His omelets. A pan souffle that I love.”
She pulled out two of Pépin’s books: “La Technique,” first published in 1976, and “La Methode,” published three years later. She held them aloft like holy tablets, and cracked one open.
“This is old school,” she said, flipping through the pages, black-and-white photos of Pépin’s hands shucking an oyster, splitting a saddle of lamb.
“The cauliflower,” Charters said, almost dreamily. “Loin of veal … check this out: Stuffing pork chops? Look! He’s loading it and poaching it!
“It’s classic stuff,” she said. “And it’s step by step. If you’re a cook …”
And Rautureau, what does he love that Pépin makes?
“I have a love for a well-made omelet,” Rautureau said.
Again with the eggs.
“It’s the test,” he said. “The chef will say, ‘Make me an omelet.’ It’s in the folds, it’s in the consistency. No breaks.”
The egg may just be what has held Pépin’s career together. It is the food he could depend on when he was growing up on a farm, he said, one of the first things he learned to cook, the thing he could fill with whatever he pulled out of the garden. The thing he brought from home to teach so many to make, and still makes.
“I can still remember dishes from when I was a kid,” Pépin said.
Said Rautureau: “He’s a genuine human being, and has stayed that way. As a Frenchman, that means a lot to me.”
It was Ratureau who loaned Pépin the kitchen knife he used to saber a bottle of Champagne.
“You can do it with a fork,” Pépin said. “I saw someone, one time, do it with the bottom of a glass.”
With one swipe, the cork was off, and across the kitchen.
Glasses were filled. passed around, and Rautureau led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” — in French, of course.
Pépin took a sip and then smiled.
“In December I’m going to be 90,” he said, then took another sip. “In 10 years.”