While Making the World a Better Place, Jacques Pépin Also Wants to Make Our Lives Easier
Editor’s note: This story was reported and written prior to the death on Dec. 5 of Gloria Evelyn Augier Pépin (June 19, 1937 to Dec. 5, 2020). We checked with the family and they asked us to run the completed story. To read a wonderful tribute to a wonderful woman, please see a post on Jacques Pépin’s Facebook feed on Dec. 5 at 12:56 p.m. that reads in part: “We are overcome with grief, but Gloria was a fighter: a strong, resilient, ‘spill-no-tears’ woman. She would no doubt urge us to get on with living our lives and continue to do the work we were meant to do.”
When he started several years ago updating a cookbook on how to make quick and simple food, a cookbook he first wrote earlier in his career, Jacques Pépin’s motivation was clear.
“Well, there were different reasons, but one of them is that I am 85 years old. As I’ve gotten older, I’m eating simpler. I’m eating a lot of soup and stuff like this,” he says. “As a young chef, you tend to add, and add, and add to the plate. Now I take away, take away, to be left with something essential. I need less embellishment on my plate.”
Of course, he did not know when he started Jacques Pépin Quick & Simple, that its recent release would coincide with a pandemic that has many of us wanting to make home cooked meals that are quick, simple, thrifty, and, yet, delicious.
That theme also runs throughout a series of short, free videos—more than 150—he has posted throughout recent months, online on his websites and on his Facebook feed. Executive produced by his daughter Claudine Pépin and produced by his longtime collaborator and friend Tom Hopkins (like Jacques Pépin, a Madison resident), the videos are balm for the soul in these uncertain and unsettled times.
In the videos, he offers simple meals made with pantry essentials and money-saving tips, food transformed by his impeccable, mesmerizing technique and common sense. Watching this world-renowned chef in his well organized and comfortably cluttered home kitchen, wearing an apron embellished with his wife’s name as he expertly chops garlic to make her favorite sandwich, is to experience a kind of culinary zen.
In a recent phone conversation with Jacques Pépin, his daughter Claudine Pépin, and her husband Rollie Wesen, Claudine Pépin says the reaction to the videos was nothing short of ecstatic, with some fans proclaiming her dad a “pandemic hero.”
With the new cookbook on the shelves of your local bookstore and the video series well underway, Jacques Pépin is also now working hard to promote the important work being done by the Jacques Pépin Foundation, which “supports free culinary and life skills training, through community based organizations, that helps individuals detached from the workforce gain confidence, skills, and employment in food service.” With its fundraising ability hampered by the pandemic, the foundation is now raising money by offering a video cookbook for a $40 membership, a perfect gift for the holidays that supports the good work of the foundation, at https://jp.foundation/.
A new cookbook that is perfect for these times. A series of free, short videos that teach us how to cook thrifty, delicious meals. And a foundation that is helping a part of the economy, and workers, that are among the hardest hit by the pandemic.
A pandemic hero he is, indeed.
How to Make Your Life Easier
The pandemic not only has had a devastating impact on public health, it also battered the economy, leaving many unemployed and, for the first time, food insecure.
“When I started the book, of course, I wasn’t aware of the pandemic. It just happened to be good for that type of situation,” he says, of those struggling to make their meal dollars stretch. In the Facebook and online videos, with an emphasis on using ingredients from the pantry, the fridge, and the freezer, he says, “this is the same type of idea.”
The introduction to Quick & Simple says, “This book is intended to make your life easier,” a promise that delivers. He encourages us to use the local supermarket as a prep cook, taking full advantage of boneless chicken breasts, sliced mushrooms, and prepared spinach.
“You can eat well without too much work,” he says. “It requires simplicity of recipe and good quality ingredients.”
This is the way he and his family have always cooked, ever since he was a kid in France and his family had to make the best of scarce food during World War II. He abhors waste. He finds it rewarding when he can help people cook, making the most of their budget. He practices what he preaches and can often be found in the aisles of our local markets.
“I love Bishop’s [in Guilford], and Big Y, and Stop & Shop,” he says.
Sure, he adds, it was fun to cook extraordinary food with unusual ingredients with people like Thomas Keller of The French Laundry fame.
But, these days?
“I don’t have a restaurant anymore. I want people to be able to do the food I show them so I will use only stuff I can get at a supermarket,” he says. “In a regular supermarket.”
Yes, he does have friends and farmers who send him special goodies, but both his daughter, who’s been cooking with her dad since she was a kid, and Wesen, a professional chef who teaches culinary arts, back him up on the fact that his well-stocked home larder is mostly sourced from the same shelves where we shop. Sardines. Anchovies. Tomatoes. Different kinds of pasta, beans, dried mushrooms.
“One thing that would probably surprise people, is that we all have a weakness for butterscotch pudding. Store-bought butterscotch pudding,” says Claudine Pépin. “And my dad really likes Jello”
“We have lots of Asian condiments,” says Wesen.
“And Oreos,” adds Claudine Pépin.
The Better You Are, The Easier Your Life
As I mentioned earlier, one of my favorite things about the videos is watching Jacques Pépin’s technique, and, specifically, his knife skills. I could watch him chop garlic all day.
Even if it wasn’t so entertaining, watching and mimicking his flawless skills are an important part of having fun in the kitchen.
“The whole thing is to make your life easier,” he explains. “Certainly if you can master a few techniques, the better you are, the easier your life becomes.”
Pépin also is a master at using up leftovers and moving efficiently in the kitchen. Sometimes, when he’s shooting the videos, it’s just him in the kitchen with Hopkins, with whom he’s been working for 35 years, and who is considered family. It’s a far cry from the highly produced television shows in his past, but these new videos have all of the information and charm of his old-timey videos with none of the overhead.
“We are two people in the kitchen when we do those shows,” Pépin says. “We don’t have a dish washer. So we may use the same pot five times, rinsing it in between. We may use the food processor four, five times before I wash it. There is a way of peeling the potato over the garbage can, or reusing pots, that makes your life easier. If you practice, you get better at it.”
Helping Those Who Most Need Help
In the same way that he wants us to learn and gain confidence and grow when it comes to our cooking skills, the Jacques Pépin Foundation does the same thing on a national level, working through community based organizations, for those who most need help.
Here in Connecticut, organizations that have benefited from the organization include Forge City Works in Hartford, which puts a focus on job training, improving food access, and creating “sustainable social enterprises to help people change their lives.” Another beneficiary is Hartford-based Chrysalis Center, which supports adults who are poor and struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, and other issues by offering community employment services, community supportive housing, recovery services, affordable housing development, and community connections.
“The foundation has been very rewarding for me. I will let Rollie explain it to you,” says Pépin. “He’s the one who created the foundation with my daughter.”
Wesen, the executive director of the foundation, says the idea for the foundation came from exactly what we’ve been discussing: “If you have a few basic techniques and skills, it can improve your life in a number of ways. One of the things we believe is that we can help people learn basic skills and get jobs in food service. And, when people learn to cook, they gain confidence and efficacy, and they can cook food that is more nutritious for their family. They also can improve their economic situation, by making the most out of what they have.”
He points to current problems, made vastly worse by the pandemic.
“Pre-pandemic, the focus was on job training, and overcoming barriers to employment, including incarceration and homelessness,” he says. “Now, we see that, and we see people struggling with food scarcity, having to take food from the food pantry for the first time, having to do more with less.”
Pépin, says Wesen, is a master at managing scarcity.
“Some might say he’s plain old cheap and he’d take that as a compliment,” he says. “He can make four meals out of a leftover chicken carcass and leftover rice. That kind of thing can benefit people in this time.”
“Whatever is leftover in the fridge,” says Pépin. “Wilted lettuce, a carrot, and an onion? Make soup. Finish it with pasta or couscous.”
Wesen says the free videos on the foundation website, in particular, have been redirected towards budget cooking.
“If you go on the website, there are hundreds of hours of videos,” he says. “If you search by technique, you can select ‘budget cooking.’”
I do just that and, sure enough, there are more than a dozen recipes among the free videos, including “how to get the most out of older vegetables,” a kid-friendly curly hot dog, and, Gloria’s Sandwich, a favorite of his late wife, with ingredients that include an English muffin, a store-bought tomato, and shredded mozzarella cheese, along with anchovies, garlic, and onion. As I watch Pépin chop the garlic, I cannot wait to try it.
I had already decided upon reading Quick & Simple that it would be one of the things I give for Christmas this year. And I’m adding something to that list, a membership to the Jacques Pepin Foundation. The foundation just launched memberships, since revenue, as with many foundations, has plummeted from past years, and the need is ever greater.
If you become a member, with memberships starting at $40, you get access to a video recipe book compiled by the great chefs of our day. Daniel Boulud. Michel Nischan. Alice Waters. Priscilla Martel. Thomas Keller. José Andrés. Nour I. Hamidaddin. And, of course, Jacques Pépin.
After I become a member (Merry Christmas to me!), I settle in with Nour Hamidaddin’s video for Yemeni-style Ful, or a fava bean stew. Watching her, I learn what a magla is and how to make kushn, and I finally understand how to use my mortar and pestle, which has been collecting dust on the back of a counter in my kitchen. A new recipe, a new technique.
Pépin, typically humble, says he found the generous contributions of his fellow chefs remarkable.
“It is quite gratifying. Astonishing in some ways. People are very generous,” he says.
Check out Gloria’s Sandwich here: https://jp.foundation/video/glorias-sandwich. From there, you can explore the rest of the foundation’s website. The book can be purchased at your local bookstore, or online at https://www.rjjulia.com/book/9780358352556.