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A shoreline resident of more than 40 years, world-famous master chef Jacques Pépin debuts the first comprehensive exhibition of his artwork at Guilford Art Center with a sold-out opening celebration on Friday, June 21, after which The Artistry of Jacques Pepin will be on display in the center’s Mill Gallery through Sunday, July 21 as a free exhibit available for the public to view. (Photo by Tom Hopkins )
Menu by Jacques Pépin. (Photo by Tom Hopkins )
'King of the Coop' by Jacques Pepin, acrylic on paper. (Photo by Tom Hopkins )
Painting by Jacques Pepin. (Photo by Tom Hopkins )
Landscapes are among many subjects Jacques Pepin captures with his artwork. (Photo by Tom Hopkins )
Madison resident and world-famous Master Chef Jacques Pepin shows his first comprehensive exhibit of his artwork at Guilford Art Center during 'The Artistry of Jacques Pepin' June 21 - July 21. (Photo by Tom Hopkins )
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As a shoreline resident of more than 40 years, world-famous master chef Jacques Pépin is delighted to debut the first comprehensive exhibition of another passion, his artwork, at Guilford Art Center (GAC). Following an opening celebration on Friday, June 21, The Artistry of Jacques Pépin will be on display in the center’s Mill Gallery through Sunday, July 21. From June 22 to July 21, the free exhibit will be available for the public to view.
Jacques’s foray into creating art is no secret—his paintings, giclée prints of original paintings, and prints of hand-drawn menus embellished with artwork can be seen on his website, jacquespepinart.com. A portion of all art sale proceeds will go to select charitable causes, including the Jacques Pépin Foundation, which works to teach culinary skills to the unemployed, giving them a chance at gainful employment in the food service field.
The GAC exhibition will include some of Jacques’s original paintings and limited edition signed prints, while copies of his newest book, Menus: A Book for Your Meals and Memories will be available for purchase in The Shop at Guilford Art Center.
Jacques will attend the sold-out opening reception at GAC on June 21, where he will sign a limited number of copies of his latest book. The author of the culinary world’s groundbreaking Le Technique (1976) and numerous other books, including his autobiography and many beautifully written and photographed cookbooks, says the idea for his newest book is to encourage the owner to begin to create a record of the type that he and his wife, Gloria, have developed and treasured from celebrations hosted during their 53 years together.
Gathered in booklets creating the Pépins’ personal journals are dozens of menus from meaningful moments, Jacques says.
“The menu, in a sense, is an extension of who I am as cook and who I am as an artist, if you want. It kind of blends things together,” says Jacques. “We started doing those menus at home. We’ve been married 53 years, so we’ve been doing it for over half a century, and I have probably 12 or 13 books of menus that we record when people come. I can tell you what [my daughter] had for her third or fourth birthday—we can go back to all that time.”
He says the majority of his more artfully embellished menus have been produced over the past two years. While they are a delight to the eye, Jacques sees much more: They record memories that make the collection priceless to its owner, which is why he hopes his new book will encourage others to start the practice.
“I can see my mother in this, my two brothers...many, many, people are in there,” says Jacques. “You can go back, as I say, half a century. So it is a priceless memory for us.”
The stand-out culinary artist began making a name for himself, at 16, as one France’s youngest accomplished chefs (during his military service, he was chef to French presidents including Charles De Gaulle). Jacques came to America in 1959 and settled in New York. At the time, today’s world of culinary superstars did not exist—in fact, far from it, he recalls. But given his reputation among those in his profession, it didn’t take long for Jacques to connect with the most talented, if as yet undiscovered, chefs of the day.
“I met Julia in the 1960s,” he says of his great friend, the late Julia Child. “When I came to America the autumn of 1959, within six months after I was here, I knew the Trinity of Cooking, which was James Beard and Julia Child and Craig Claiborne at the New York Times. That shows you at that time the food world was very, very small. It was totally different than from now.”
‘It Was Another World’
Perhaps no better example of the difference between then and now was Jacques’s decision not to take up an offer to be the White House executive chef for President John F. Kennedy.
At the time, Jacques was immersed in his role as director of research and development for what was then a mammoth in the American franchise restaurant field, Howard Johnson’s. The job was the reason he came to America—and he was hired by none other than Howard Johnson himself, who found Jacques cooking at Le Pavillon, an icon of haute cuisine in France. Asked now if he regrets his decision not to take up JFK’s offer, Jacques says the point is, “it was another world” back then, and one that has only changed during the past few decades.
“Up until 20, 30 years ago, the cook was really at the bottom of the social scale, and any good mother would have wanted their child to marry a lawyer, a doctor, certainly not a cook!” says Jacques, laughing. “So when I was asked to go to the White House for Kennedy, since I had done this already in France for presidents, and in France, I had never been on a magazine, never in a newspaper—I mean, no one ever called you in the dining room for kudos—this did not exist, at all. If anyone came to the kitchen, it was because something was wrong!"
“So anyway...I really frankly did not realize the potential of that” JFK offer, Jacques continues. “In fact, it was the same thing in America at that time, you know. Because the man who went the White House, René Verdon, was a friend of mine I recommended for the job. It was at this time when Mrs. Kennedy started taking a picture with him. So it started then, but if you ask anyone who was the chef before in the White House...I happen to know it was a black lady from the south, but no one would have known it, no more than they would have known me. Because that’s the way things were.”
Landing on the Shoreline
By the early 1970s, Jacques’ culinary clout led to the publication of his acclaimed book La Technique: An Illustrated Guide to the Fundamental Techniques of Cooking. The book was first published in 1976, the same year he and Gloria moved to their present-day home in Madison and two years after a horrific auto accident that nearly took his life.
Of all the shoreline locations to choose from, finding the Madison home that has since become such an integral part of their lives “was really an arbitrary decision,” says Jacques. “In the mid-’70s, we had a house in upstate New York, and an apartment in New York, but I had 10 fractures in the car accident—I broke my back—and we moved from upstate New York, so I said, ‘Let’s move on the coast of Connecticut and not to be so far from New York.’ We knew some people, and we came around here, and we liked it. So we moved here in ‘76.”
Jacques’s star continued to rise as one of the most recognizable chefs in the world and only became brighter when he began appearing on television on PBS. While leading the way into a medium that’s since become home to countless shows celebrating cuisine, cooks, and competitions, Jacques says the most important aspect, for him, was to be able to demonstrate his process visually.
“Without any question,” he says. “Because I did La Technique in the mid-’70s, at that point, I realized certainly that the best way to express, to show the technique, was in a picture, or even better than a picture, through the power of the television or a video. Because if I have to explain to you how to make a roux with butter and a knife by scraping it, it might take me two pages of explaining it and you don’t know what I’m talking about! But to see it done, ‘...oh, that’s it.' So television would be very good for that.”
From Screen to Canvas
Sharing a visual presentation of his artwork in the Mill Gallery, where viewers can walk up to the artwork and examine his craft, is another interesting forum for Jacques. The pieces on view were curated from Jacques’s collection by noted photographer and Madison friend Tom Hopkins, he says.
“Tom Hopkins is my friend and also has been doing books with me for 38 years; he is my photographer and produces my videos as well; and he’s the one really in charge of the art side, so he chose a lot of the paintings,” says Jacques, who has been painting for more than 50 years and earned an art history degree from Columbia soon after coming to America.
Yes, there are chickens among the artwork —Jacques was born near one of the culinary world’s chicken capitals, Lyon in Bourge-en-Bresse—but there are also landscapes, flowers, and many other subjects that have captured his fancy through the years.
“That’s the whole point I think, [it’s] what I’m in the mood for,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of flowers and I’ve done a lot of landscapes; now I’m doing some nudes. So I’m doing a little bit of everything. I don’t think I have a specific style.”
Much the same with his cooking: After more than 70 years in the field, he’s still learning and experimenting, he says.
“Oh yes, My God,” he says. “There are 25,000 restaurants in New York City now, so I mean the amount of ethnicity is just amazing, and if you keep your eyes open, whether you go somewhere with food from West Africa or Swahili or from a place like this, I mean you always learn something new. And there is so much creativity and so much ethnicity going on, I’m glad I’m not competing in the kitchen anymore!”
As Jacques also notes, having lived in America for almost 60 years now, “I’m certainly more of an American than French—even though I’ve been told I have an accent!"
“There’s definitely a paradox there, because I am often called maybe the quintessential French chef, and you take my books and yes, there are some French things in it, of course,” he adds. “But you may find black bean soup with cilantro and banana on top, because of my wife being Cuban and Puerto Rican, born in New York—so you find that. Also, we do a fair amount of Chinese and Mexican food, or other places depending where I am. I am probably the quintessential American chef, now!”
As to whether his hand at drawing or painting is ever incorporated to decorate the food he’s serving, the answer is no, Jacques says. And he doesn’t see the point, either.
“Strangely enough, especially in the kitchen now, in the last few years there have been overly decorated plates in the kitchen. And for me, who paints as well, that doesn’t translate into the kitchen,” he says. “I like the food simpler, I mean nicely presented, but without touching it all over the place and with tiny things...little baubles, dots, question marks all around the food.”
Much as in creating his art, “...when I cook, there’s a great deal of intuition that goes into the food, where you don’t really think about it. You taste and you adjust and you taste and you adjust, a little more of this, so it’s very objective. And in a sense, likewise in painting, if I need a little bit of yellow there, I don’t go to open a tube of yellow or a tube of red... so it’s very intuitive as well. For me, certainly in the kitchen, the important part is the taste. So there is a big difference.”
The Artistry of Jacques Pépin at the Guilford Art Center, 411 Church Street, runs from Friday, June 21 through Sunday, July 21 in the center’s Mill Gallery, with an opening reception on June 21. After the opening reception, the gallery is free and open to the public, Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.guilfordartcenter.org.