At 86, Jacques Pépin still speaks with an unmistakable French accent that makes the chef immediately recognizable.
“But I am the most quintessential American chef,” he asserts, citing his long tenure in the U.S., his focus on a wide range of culinary influences beyond traditional French culinary training, and his stint at Howard Johnson’s, a beacon of mid-century American dining. For Pépin, his journey has cemented his place in American culture: a culinary icon who has remained accessible through the intimacy of his role as chef instructor and master of technique.
Throughout his career, Pépin has shared his vast culinary knowledge through multiple mediums. He has released more than 30 books, starred in various instructional television shows through a longstanding partnership with PBS, and even filmed a series of videos in his Connecticut kitchen for Facebook and Instagram. But Jacques Pépin’s most comprehensive cooking primer is perhaps the 685-page Essential Pépin: More Than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food. First published in 2011, the volume compiles many recipes from across his wide-ranging source material.
Although Pépin started working in professional kitchens at 14, his interests have always been diverse. At one point, he thought he might teach a literary subject at Columbia University, where he earned a graduate degree in French literature, but he “went back to cooking, what I know the best, and what I’m the best at,” he says. Through the connections he made while working at New York’s Le Pavillon (one of the top French restaurants in the world during its time), he later went upstate and taught private cooking classes in the Catskills. To reconnect with his love of writing, he also penned a food column for Helen McCollough, food editor of House Beautiful, who had become a good friend and introduced him to James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne.
In 1974, Pépin suffered a bad car accident. After recovering, he found that teaching was more palatable than spending hours behind a restaurant stove. By the mid-70s, cookware shops equipped with kitchens were popping up all over the U.S., so Pépin began touring and teaching, all the while hosting a lecture series at Boston University. Then PBS came calling, and his career reached a new stratosphere; suddenly, Pépin graced TV screens across America on a weekly basis, cheerfully deboning a fish alongside Julia Child or showing his daughter Claudine how to make rice paper rolls with avocado and sun-dried tomatoes. His skill is undeniable on camera; his knife moves deftly as if an extension of his fingers, while he calmly chats with a co-host or instructs viewers.
Pépin stresses that, as a teacher, he is not so much patient as he is pragmatic. His practical approach to technique shines brightly across his canon of work—from his television series Jacques Pépin: Fast Food My Way, to the cookbook The Art of Cooking which includes 1500 images, to Facebook videos he shared during the pandemic demonstrating how to make eggs en cocotte and butter roses in step-by-step fashion. His explanations are easy to follow, and his careful guidance helps readers and viewers believe that they, too, can master the recipe or technique.
Pépin himself learned to cook by visual instruction, repetition, and a hefty dose of osmosis during his formative years. He grew up in the family’s restaurant and began his career with a formal apprenticeship at Le Grand Hôtel de l'Europe in Bourg-en-Bresse. He later joined the military, where his cooking skills were lauded and he even cooked for heads of state. At every step of his journey, Pépin gleaned culinary techniques and practiced different preparation styles. The education was immersive, and his resulting understanding of different ways to learn has made him not only a beloved teacher, but also an innovator in a culture hungry for…well, culture.
When Essential Pépin debuted in 2011, Bonnie Benwick of The Washington Post wrote: “This cookbook is not all dacquoise and cocottes and foie gras in aspic. The [then] almost-76-year-old master was an early adapter of good food prepared fast. His inventiveness outshines any fix-it-quick, Food Network fodder I’ve seen.”
Dishes such as shrimp-cilantro pizza, cucumbers in cream, and eggs with brown butter are all “fast and easy” recipes—ready to eat in the time it takes to bake a frozen pizza—yet they’re still real food, with a dash of panache.
In Pépin’s eyes, he still has work to do. There is always more to teach and more people with whom to share his knowledge. He has always been willing to try something new, and that impulse remains.
Most recently, Pépin shared subscription-based videos on the new platform Rouxbe, which offers—among other expert-led courses—exclusive content from Pépin, grading from industry experts, and certification. Pépin’s proceeds will go toward The Jacques Pépin Foundation, a non-profit he launched in 2016 to support community kitchens that offer free skills and culinary training to adults with high barriers to employment, including previous incarceration, homelessness, and lack of work history.
Pépin’s work with both Rouxbe and the Foundation are simply two more ways for the chef to continue teaching essential skills that can bring his students a lifetime of joy in the kitchen. And yet, as much as he cooks in his day-to-day work, he still loves preparing food as much as ever.
“I basically am a glutton, and I am hungry every day, and that’s why I cook,” Pépin says with a twinkle in his eye. “But there is something soothing, also, in the cooking process—of cooking with friends, eventually sitting down and sharing the food. You know, that is an extraordinary thing.” And with Essential Pépin, there are more than 700 recipes to inspire that daily practice—a lifetime of apprenticeship under the simple guise of putting dinner on the table, one recipe at a time. Extraordinary indeed.