11/30/2012 01:59:00 PM

Jacques Pépin on His New Cookbook, Food TV and America's Food-Obsessed Culture

Image via KQED
The OG of both food TV and culinary technique (and famous for his on-camera banter with the late Julia Child), Jacques Pépin, has just released a new cookbook called The New Complete Techniques based on the toque's archetypal books La Technique and La Méthode from the late 1970s. The new book has additions and refinements of course, and includes more than 600 techniques and methods and 160 recipes from the legendary chef. We called Pépin recently to discuss the new book, his new TV series, his thoughts on food TV and more. Check out our chat with him below.

Zagat: Your new cookbook seems very comprehensive - was it a long process putting it together, and what do you think were the most important additions?

Well to start with, the process was really covering 40 years. So I took La Technique and La Méthode, and what I did was eliminate a fair amount of each book, which I felt was not that relevant, and then I took the color pictures from another book I did called The Art of Cooking, which is probably the best book that I did. We used those color pictures to add to it, so it was a kind of a reorganization and so forth - that's basically what we did. The point is the techniques are still as relevant today as they were at that time. The way that I cooked 40 years ago is different than how I cook now - the way that we cook vegetables, fish, the amount of fat we use, etc. is pretty different. However, the way you sharpen a knife, beat an egg white or the way you peel an asparagus or do a caramel cage or make an omelet is the same as it was 40 years ago.

Zagat: What do you think is the most important piece of technique that a chef should know?

It's not that there is only one - there's a lot of basic techniques from sharpening a knife to chopping and so on. But you start with a knife - the position of the knife in your hand and how to cut. Chopping and julienning and so on has to come second nature to you. You have to repeat, repeat, repeat so that I can stand in front of the camera and my hands are just working and I don't even think about it. I think in those terms rather than someone who has no technique - they are struggling with slicing an onion - and unless you don't transcend that level,  then you really can't think in terms of recipe or composition or so forth. Certainly for a professional, it's important.

Zagat: Are there any modern techniques (in the last 10 years or so) that you really like or dislike?

Well, there are so many different types of tools now. Many years ago we had to certainly take parchment paper and butter it and put it in the bottom of a cookie sheet so it didn't stick. Then came the nonstick cookie sheet, which is pretty good, and then came those silicone plastic liners that nothing sticks to. And now even further they came out with nonstick aluminum foil so all of that improves the technique. When I was cooking many, many years ago, they didn't even have the rubber spatula, plastic wrap, etc., and all those things of course improve the technique.

Zagat: The world's interest in food seems to have grown exponentially in the last 30 years. Did you ever think it would get so big, and do you think food TV had a hand in it?
No, never. This is crazy. When I left France it was half a century ago, the chef was not famous yet. But I mean on the social scale the chef was a good artisan, a good craftsman. In America, the cook was much lower - he had no place on the social scale. Now 50 years later in France, the role of the chef has gone up, like everywhere else in the world, I suppose. So now we are little higher on the social scale. But in America, it passes all of that. I mean, we are all geniuses here. Fifty years ago, any good parent wanted their child to marry an architect or a doctor but now chefs - we are geniuses! I'm certainly not complaining. 

Zagat: Do you think food TV has gotten too far away from actual cooking shows?

Yes and no. I was somewhere a few weeks ago, and there was a food historian talking and he said there were 470 cooking shows on television. The point is that the reason there are so many hundreds is that cooking has changed so much. The supermarkets have never been as beautiful as they are today. When I came to America there was one type of salad - it was iceberg, there was no leek, no shallot. So the supermarket has never been as beautiful as they are today, but now it can be more convenient also and you can use the market as a prep cook like I do on my show, Fast Food My Way.

But yes, there is a great, great interest in the food world, there is all kind of shows from Iron Chef to Hell's Kitchen or people like me that just cook, and I'm sure some people look at me and say, "Oh he's pretty boring, all he does is cook." You can't please everybody, so you know some people love you and what you do, and some of the people don't care about the recipe or cooking, they just want the entitlement, and I don't think anything is wrong with that. 

Zagat: Do you think more people are cooking now, or less?
More people are cooking in some ways because they have to do something with those products they carry now in the stores; they can't throw them in the garbage can. They cook in different ways - in some ways you have a return to the way we cooked 70 or 80 years ago, where you want to be close to the farmer and have organic food, etc. In another way, we have never been fatter than we are now. If you go look at the mall crowds - they will eat four or five dishes, and there is no diversity in what they eat. And then on the other hand you go into urban centers and people eat Turkish one night or Italian or French or Greek or whatever, and the diversity of food has never been so great in this country. People who eat in restaurants have a spectrum of taste that is much larger than Europe in many ways. 

Zagat: You've accomplished so much in your life, is there anything else you'd really like to do that you haven't done?

I'd like to play the piano, but it's too late. 

Zagat: Are you working on any new projects right now?

We are thinking of doing another television series, so we are working on that. It will be more in the style of what we have done in Fast Food My Way - it will be something easy and fun. I will be cooking with my granddaughter in that.

Zagat: What's your favorite American dish?

That'd be hard - fried chicken would be one of my favorites. But also clam chowder or fried clams or hamburger for that matter. 

Zagat: You and Julia Child seemed to differ on many different recipes on your show together, are there any recipes/technique of hers that in retrospect you actually prefer?

Well, it was way exaggerated for the camera, and we agreed in the simplicity of recipes, we agreed in the freshness of ingredients, we agreed in sharing food with the family and all that. Certainly she used much more butter, and some of the dishes ended up being better because there was so much butter. 


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