The world-famous chef was in town to celebrate a new partnership with FareStart, dazzling a crowd with his presence and answering all-important questions about fast food, booze and the restaurant industry.
Gripping the back of a chair at FareStart Restaurant, Michael Jo was practically hyperventilating. He cut an elegant figure — his all-black server’s uniform set against the empty dining room’s white tablecloths, gleaming glassware and overflowing flower-and-fresh-herb bouquets — but he was completely losing it, gasping for air.
World-famous, universally beloved chef Jacques Pépin had just arrived, crossing paths with Jo on his way to tour the kitchen. “I almost screamed,” Jo said later, when he’d recovered his equanimity enough to speak. He grew up watching “Julia and Jacques” on TV, he said, giddily — the chance to meet chef Pépin was “bucket-list, for sure.”
Knowing you’re going to encounter Pépin in person is not adequate preparation for his presence, the graciousness and the charm. All through the rest of last Sunday night, people lit up as he neared, were dazzled to meet him; his progress around the room was like that of the sun. One couple blurted out that they were cooking their way through his latest cookbook, an act of love. Chef Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita, who’d met Pépin nine years ago when she won a James Beard award, sat on his lap for a photo.
Smith was part of an all-star coterie from Seattle and beyond preparing a luxe fundraising dinner in celebration of a new partnership between Pépin and FareStart. So far, the nonprofit has concentrated on providing Seattle’s homeless and disadvantaged with training for entry-level restaurant-industry jobs (and has won its own James Beard Award for it). In response to the current shortage of cooks and the growing income gap, FareStart’s new apprenticeship program goes beyond that, preparing students to step into more advanced kitchen roles. To help get them there, Pépin and his charitable foundation will collaborate and consult on the curriculum, drawing upon his unparalleled knowledge of culinary technique.
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When it comes to that, Pépin wrote the book: “La Technique,” published in 1976. (Jonathan Sundstrom of Lark, who made a course of guinea hen and foie gras terrine for the fundraiser, said it was the first cookbook he bought when he decided to become a chef.) Almost 30 more cookbooks followed, with a career that’s spanned from an apprenticeship in Lyon at age 13, to cooking for French (and other) presidents, to culinary development for Howard Johnson’s, to 16 James Beard awards. His hundreds of shows for PBS — with and without the redoubtable Julia Child — were undoubtedly in part where the cult of the celebrity chef got its start. Long, long before the Food Network, Pépin was the first professional chef on TV.
In the calm before the storm of his fans, Pépin sat for a few moments to talk. With the new FareStart program, “We’re addressing people who have been a bit maligned by life,” he said in his French accent. “Cooking is to give a lot of pleasure to people. So you give some of yourself as well … It can redeem you in many ways.”
He’s seen the profession change in many ways. When Pépin was cooking for heads of state in Paris, the position was “very, very low on the social scale,” he says. “If anyone came to see you in the kitchen, it was to yell at you that something went wrong!” he laughs. He came to the United States 55 years ago, planning for a yearlong sojourn, but, he says, “I stayed because of the spirit of America” — the spirit of equality, of classes less stratified, more mobility. He found work at the esteemed New York restaurant Le Pavillon, where the chef said to him, “Call me Pierre.” Pépin still marvels at it: “Wow. In France, you didn’t do that.”
Professionalism, however, alters not. The first thing he’d ask someone applying for a kitchen job today: “’Are you going to be on time?’” he laughs. “On time, clean, ready, willing, you know, flexible — it’s halfway done already.
“Then the rest of it, it’s just like my friend has on his T-shirt: ‘Oui, chef. Oui, chef. Oui, chef’!” He likes traditional chef’s whites; he’s not big on tattoos or “long beards,” though he admits that might be a generational thing. He relates with some amazement that a fan at a food festival asked him for an autograph on the forearm, returning a couple hours later to show it permanently inked. “Ay ay ay!” he says, laughing.
Asked about other developments in the industry over time, Pépin, now 81, names some basics: “Rubber spatula, vegetable peeler, plastic wrap!” On a larger scale, he lauds “the diversity of restaurants in America,” citing a “fantastic” lunch at downtown’s Din Tai Fung earlier. “I go there, and I feel that I don’t know anything about cooking,” he says, clearly meaning that in a good way.
Meanwhile, a crowd hungry to meet Pépin is forming. There’s only time for a few more questions, gathered on Facebook from even more fans.
Who makes the best fast-food French fries? McDonald’s are “pretty good,” Pépin opines. “I’m not a snob, so fast food — I don’t care!” So is there anything you don’t like to cook or eat? “I’m kind of a glutton, you know. I’m not crazy about marshmallows …” he laughs. But to be open to everything, “That’s what it is to be a professional. You don’t cook only to please yourself, you have to please other people,” he says.
What’s the best kind of wine? “Free wine or cheap wine!” he laughs. He says he rarely pays more than $14 a bottle for home drinking, and he buys a lot. Is there any other drink besides wine? “Oh, yes. Anything. I love bourbon …” he laughs. He talks about pastis, rosé, scotch and cognac, and laughs some more. “I’m kind of a glutton with that, too. But mostly I drink wine.”
Pépin has inspired so many chefs over the years — are there chefs who inspire him now? “Oh, many …” he says, choosing not to get too specific. “I would go in their kitchen, I would learn something. Yes, absolutely, yes. Sometimes you learn what not to do, but you learn something,” he laughs more.
He muses about the dinner that’s being prepared in his honor, about the enterprise of FareStart as a whole. “Without any question, chefs are very generous … As Julia Child used to say, there’s a couple of bad apples in the world of food, but not many!”
Then chef Pépin, generosity incarnate, is off to get the party started, to take people’s breath away.