From simple to grand, Jacques Pepin sketches scenes from a chef's life

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You can almost smell the lamb curry cooking on the stove when talking on the phone to Jacques Pepin at his Connecticut home.

Christopher Hirsheimer/Scripps Howard
The late Julia Child with her frequent collaborator, French chef Jacques Pepin, who will be speaking here tonight.
Click photo for larger image.

"It's just a little something I'm making for tonight," says the celebrated chef and author, who will be speaking at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland at 7:30 tonight as part of the Drue Heinz Lecture Series.

If only he could freeze it and save some for us.

Even though Mr. Pepin won't be thawing leftovers during his appearance, his lecture promises to be tasty indeed: a cook's tour of a life spent in humble kitchens and grand ones, behind the scenes at New York's elegant Le Pavillon restaurant and everyman's Howard Johnson's -- and in front of the camera for no fewer than 13 PBS cooking shows.

Less of a household word, perhaps, than Julia or Emeril or Nigella or even -- choke -- Rachael Ray, Mr. Pepin nonetheless can boast the most dazzling resume. As a young boy in rural France, he peeled potatoes in the kitchen of his mother's restaurant, as he details in his 2003 memoir, "The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen." As a young man, he served as the personal chef to President Charles de Gaulle of France, and was invited to take on the job as White House chef to John and Jacqueline Kennedy.

He declined.

"It was fine, but I did that already in France and I didn't want to do it again," he said.

Instead, he took a job working in Howard Johnson's test kitchen in New York City alongside fellow French chef Pierre Franey, a stint which, as director of research and new development, taught him more about serving good food to the masses than any more time spent in a rich man's kitchen could.

He added new items to the menu, from beef burgundy stew to scallops in mushroom sauce, and "it was very exciting for me. I learned so much about promotion and marketing, so many things I had no inkling of." Those lessons served him well when he opened his own New York restaurants.

When the last Howard Johnson's closed in New York City this year, Mr. Pepin wrote a eulogy of sorts in The New York Times, describing the restaurant chain's "reliable, modestly priced food" as the embodiment of "the straightforwardness of the American spirit."

He is also known to many for his collaboration with another straightforward American, the late, legendary Julia Child, with whom he co-starred in a successful PBS series and co-authored "Julia and Jacques Cook at Home."

"I miss her very much," he said.

To this day, Mr. Pepin, who has lived in this country since 1959, resists being pigeonholed as a French chef, preferring instead to experiment with different kinds of cookery from around the world and make it his own.

"My own mother, who is 93, doesn't come to America any more, but when she did, she loved it when I would make her things from this cuisine. 'Oh, it's great,' she would say. 'But it's not French.' "

Indeed, it's not. Unlike his friend, Italian cooking authority Lidia Bastianich, "whose mission is about showing and preserving a certain kind of culture, I'll do things that I like to do, that please me and my wife [Gloria]. We'll prepare Japanese, Chinese, Mexican food."

He's also a tireless fund raiser, traveling the country to cook for charities. At a breast cancer research benefit at the Food and Wine Festival in Aspen last year, one couple paid $25,000 for Mr. Pepin to cook them a grand dinner, featuring all the most luxurious foods: caviar, lobster souffle and five different desserts.

Currently, Mr. Pepin is Dean of Special Programs at the French Culinary Institute in New York and teaches a weeklong class in the spring and fall at Boston University. Author of 21 cookbooks, he churns them out like the best French butter -- his most recent effort, "Jacques Pepin: Fast Food My Way" (2004) was also a PBS series and his next book, "Chez Jacques," will be a more lavishly illustrated coffee-table version of his "Apprentice" biography, something he's never done before. It will contain his own illustrations and scenes from his life -- which, despite his hectic schedule, he still manages to live very, very well.

After all, this is a man whose lunch consisted of fresh oysters from an estuary near the Atlantic Ocean and the Connecticut River, near his home, and "a little bit of leftover foie gras and good bread. Simple but very good."

Single tickets for any of The Drue Heinz Lectures, as well as subscriptions for the spring season, are available by calling 412-622-8866. Discounted tickets are also available for students and groups. The Drue Heinz Lectures are presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures in association with Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and are sponsored by The Drue Heinz Trust and WDUQ FM.


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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