PBS’ newest culinary edition of the “America Masters,” a series of comprehensive profiles on American culture’s most creatively notable, is about to give us a never-before-seen view into the life of Jacques Pépin, the French American chef who pioneered cooking for television alongside
The documentary will focus on Pépin’s childhood in France, how he fell in love with America and came up in the food world — the story of how a French immigrant became one of America’s most celebrated chefs. The documentary airs Friday, May 26 at 9 p.m. on PBS. Recently I talked to Pepin by phone. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For the record: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the documentary airs May 27 at 10 p.m. It airs May 26 at 9 p.m.
What was the dish that initially showed you that there's more to food than sustenance? That it could be an art or something more?
Interestingly, this moment is what the show begins with. During the war in France, I was about 6 years old, and my father left to go in the resistance and my mother took me to a farm for the summer. School was over, so she took me on her bicycle there for 35 miles, and I was left there on that farm. I was kind of sad, so the wife of the farmer took me to the barn to feed a cow and make me milk the cow, put my hand on the teat and all that. I had that first bowl of fresh milk, and in a sense, that was it. I was very young. But still, in my memory now, that really changed me.
You were a chef on TV long before the Food Network. What was the initial experience of being on TV?
As long as I was cooking, I felt relatively comfortable. But it didn't happen all of a sudden. The first series that I did was in Florida for a TV station in Jacksonville, and that was in 1980 or something like that. We went there with my wife and a friend of mine, Gloria Zimmerman, and the three of us, we did a series of 13 shows in about five days. I kind of felt comfortable because by then, I had been teaching a little bit all over the country, and I looked at it like the class that I was doing, teaching, except that it was for hopefully more people than 40 people or whatever. I think if you talk about something you love, talk about something you know something about, then you’re just talking to people, and trying to help them and make them happy, and make them understand.
When you first came to America in 1959, what was the food world like?
When I came to America at the end of 1959, six months after I was here I had made friends with Julia Child and James Beard, and Craig Claiborne had just started at the New York Times. That shows you how very small and very little the food world was. It was so small, in fact, I did not know one single American chef that was white. I worked for Howard Johnson and all the kids that I worked with in the kitchen at Howard Johnson and in the commissary were all black kids. White American chefs — I didn't know any. All the big restaurants in New York that I knew were either French, Italian, Swiss, German and so were all of the executive chefs. No one went into that business, and then of course it started changing with the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America, and so forth, in the ’60s. It slowly became another world altogether.
How do you feel food culture in America has changed in your lifetime?
I was told a few weeks ago by a food historian that there are 405 cookery shows on television. I don’t know whether this is accurate, but I think of it a lot. It’s just amazing, and now a great deal of them are reality shows. I’m very happy in one way because the cook used to be really at the bottom of the social scale. Certainly during all my years it was this way, and apparently now we are seen as kind of genius. I don’t know what happened. It’s kind of crazy. Chefs are celebrities now. I think it’s also maybe because, in our time of political correctness, we cannot talk about gender, about race, about religion, about anything, so people feel comfortable with food. That’s about the only thing that you can talk about and have a good time.
Look at how many places you can eat now. Look at the diversity of food. The amazingly diverse food that we have in this country. It’s unmatched anywhere in the world. It makes it probably the most exciting cuisine going on now in the world.
Do you see any downside to the celebritization of food?
It’s not particularly good for young people who want to go into that business to become famous because it’s likely that it’s not going to happen. There are 24,000 restaurants in New York, and of course you can list probably 100 restaurants that are very famous, but what happened to the other 23,900? When someone asks me, “You know my daughter or my son, has an interest in cooking. What do you think I should do?” I say, “Well, they are in high school. During their summer vacation put them in a little restaurant, diner, cafeteria, whatever you find where you live and let them work in the kitchen as a dishwasher and in the dinning room, in the kitchen and so forth and after the summer if they still have the bug, then maybe, yes, you can think about cooking school.”
Because young people don’t realize it is not as glamorous as on television. You still work very long hours, you don’t get that much pay and you work the holidays and weekends and so forth. Unless you really love it and you have the bug, then you should not go into that business.
You recently started work with FareStart to help people get back on their feet through work in the kitchen. What drew you to that?
What we wanted to do with that foundation is to create a kind of program with basic cooking techniques that we could give to people who have been a bit disenfranchised by life. People coming out of jail or veterans. I’m not talking about kids of 15 or 20 years old, I’m talking about 30-, 40-, even 50-year-olds. People who want to get into that business and could learn maybe those basic techniques so that they would be able to work in or open a little restaurant. A little eatery to redeem your life. So, I think it could work, I hope it works. We’re working with different organizations for that.
You’ve said you were only supposed to visit New York but stayed because of the spirit and freedom of the country. You were an immigrant chef in America, and you were able to use hard work in the kitchen to succeed. Do you still feel the kitchen provides the same opportunity and possibility for young immigrants today?
Yeah, I still think so, but I don’t know with the new government that we have. I mean, I know that my friend José Andrés was supposed to do a restaurant in the Trump Tower, but he refused to do it for his politics surrounding immigrants, so the president is suing him. I’ve put my support for him because I’ve been in the kitchen so long and I know what it is to work hard and I know what it is to struggle. But still I feel that, yes, there is opportunity in America, maybe more than the other parts of the world. If you come and you’re willing to work and give some of yourself, yes.
What parts of American food culture have infiltrated and changed your classic French cuisine over the years?
I live in the East Coast, so you know from, I don't know, lobster rolls to clam chowder to whatever. I'm married to a woman for 51 years who was born in New York City, with a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father, so you know, I have had a lot of influence from her background. In fact, I’m often considered as a quintessential French chef, and then you open my book and you see a black bean soup with banana and cilantro on top and then the next, southern fried chicken and the next chirashi sushi. I’m probably the quintessential American chef after all of those years in America because I’ve got so many other types of things that my cooking is not necessarily French. I’m not trying to be French, but at the same token I’m not trying not to be French. I don’t really think much in those terms anymore.