Jacques Pépin is an icon. He’s been teaching Americans how to cook for longer than many of today’s chefs have been alive. Since 1975, he has published more than two dozen cookbooks and starred in 15 television series — 13 of them produced by KQED in San Francisco. “Jacques Pépin: Heart & Soul,” his newest — and, he says, his last — will air on PBS stations later this month. In August, he was named the recipient of the first Julia Child Award, which will be presented at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 22.
You and Julia Child had such a special relationship — give us one Julia story. We ate at their house many times and cooked together. The beauty of it was she’d just say, ‘What do you want to cook?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know, what do you have?’ and we’d go on from there. It was very relaxed, never very planned. When we did the series [“Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home”], it took two years to finish the book after we’d finished the show because people had to go back and re-create all the dishes we cooked.
How has your cooking style evolved during your career? It did evolve and it didn’t. Again, when Julia and I did our series, my cooking style was certainly less French than hers in many ways. We’d start to do something and I’d want to do it one way and she’d say, ‘That’s not right, that’s not the French way’ and so we’d argue and we’d have a bottle of wine and everything would come out fine.
Someone wants to learn to cook. What are the first three things they should know? Certainly, good equipment. Too many people start to learn to cook with big handicaps, like bad knives or an ugly skillet. That makes their lives very difficult. You should have a nice setup too — a big butcher block table or enough counter space to work with, good lighting, a layout that makes it easy to access different areas easily. Then if you don’t know how to cook, have a friend who likes to cook come over and have a bottle of wine, put a chicken in the oven for an hour and it will be good. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
Early in your career, a cook, even a chef, was very much a blue-collar worker. Now it seems like they’re a combination of rock star and social movement leader. I find it amazing. Before, people wanted their children to be doctors and lawyers, not cooks. Nobody ever said cooks were artists or cooks were geniuses. But it can go too far as well; some people really do start to believe they are geniuses. We’re still food-makers. That’s what we are.
Are there still television shows about food that you enjoy watching? What would you like to see in a cooking show? I don’t look at television food very much. But certainly when I look, I enjoy people like Lidia Bastianich, Rick Bayless or Ming Tsai. I learn something from them. Even Martha Stewart. I want to learn something from a show. Some people look at my show and say, ‘That’s boring and he goes on and on,’ and that’s perfectly fine. They say, ‘It’s television, it doesn’t have to be too serious,’ but for me, the reason I’m doing it is teaching and that’s what’s important. You can’t please everybody.
“Jacques Pepin: Heart & Soul” will be shown in Southern California starting Sept. 20 on KVCR, Sept. 28 on PBS SoCal Plus and Oct. 31 on KLCS. Check your listings for more information.