When most people hear the name Jacques Pépin, they think of the famous cookbook author and public television personality who for decades cooked alongside Julia Child.
Others might know him as a New York chef, who got his start at Le Pavillon—dubbed “the finest French restaurant in the United States” by the New York Times — and then reversed course for an “American apprenticeship,” developing down-home comfort food and menu items at Howard Johnson’s, America’s largest restaurant chain at the time.
But Pépin’s life doesn’t solely revolve around food or his life in New York City or Boston; he also has many connections to D.C. One of Pépin’s closest friends was chef Michel Richard. Pépin also dined at José Andrés house, and he once turned down a job offer to work in the White House kitchen under President John F. Kennedy. The Jacques Pépin Foundation also supports DC Central Kitchen.
The famous chef returns to Washington this weekend for a visit at the 2018 MetroCooking DC Show with his daughter Claudine Pépin’ Before signing cookbooks and taking the stage for two demonstration cooking segments, he found time to talk to Eater about what the city means to him.
At 82, Pépin still moves and talks at a brisk pace. To date, he’s published more than two dozen cookbooks, and he maintains a teaching position at Boston University’s Culinary Arts Program, which he developed with Child and BU’s Food and Wine Founding Director Rebecca Alssid.
The last time he was in Washington, he received the Julia Child Award at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and broke bread with Andrés. “We had such a great dinner ... Because you know, I’m a glutton,” Pépin says. “You take me anywhere like that, and I’m happy.”
The French chef’s favorite memory in D.C., he says, was visiting the White House for the Easter Egg Roll with Claudine and his granddaughter Shorey. He didn’t realize he was being observed closely because of a recent trip to the hospital, and he unwittingly caused a problem when he ducked White House security.
“I did a cooking demo at the organic garden with Michelle Obama,” the chef explains. “We were there, and she said, ‘Do you want to take a picture with the president?’ So I said, ‘Sure!’ We took a picture inside with Michelle, the president, their two daughters, and the dog, Bo—who loved me. So, when we’re ready to leave, the door closed in front of us, and I said, ‘What’s going on?’ and someone said, ‘We have a situation.’ I thought: A situation at the White House? How exciting!
“Well, we waited a couple of minutes, and security came to ask if anyone in the group had received an operation at the hospital in the last week. No one said anything. Then, they came back and said, ‘Did anyone have some type of test at the hospital?’ So finally, I said, ‘Yes, I did,’ [because] my doctor ordered a stress test for me five days before. As it turns out, they had been tracking me [for health reasons] the whole day as I walked around the garden. I think security lost track of me. This is my famous thing—that I closed down the White House.”
Along with various presidents, Pépin had long been a friend to Richard, the late French chef who started Citrus in Los Angeles and made his mark on D.C. with Citronelle, then Central.
“I was always fascinated by him,” Pépin says of Richard. “He should have had even more recognition [because] he was an extraordinary chef. I always think of him as the center of the great pastry chefs. I remember we did a dinner once together with Thomas Keller at Per Se in New York, and I was impressed by his skill. He had an extraordinary palate, and his sense of aesthetic was quite remarkable.”
Claudine Pépin adds that Richard “was able to use innovation not to shock your palate into believing it was something weird but to delight every single sense.”
Now that Richard and Pépin have given way to new generations of chefs, Pépin says he’s constantly awed by how much the interest in cooking and eating has grown.
“I often feel like I really don’t know anything about cooking at all,” Pépin says. “It’s true, and I’m serious. Now, you can take something like chicken and do a book of like the 5,000 or 6,000 different recipes. The world of food is so big. It’s an extraordinary thing. And if you keep your mind open a little bit, the world of food will transform and change you.”
One thing many people might not know about Pépin is that in addition to a renowned chef, he’s also a passionate painter. Much of his art portrays elements and memories of his cooking, including hand-painted menus from family dinners and portraits of animals or produce that often into his recipes.
“I’ve been doing it since 1960 or 1961—a long time. When I came to this country, I went back to school, and I went to Columbia [University]. At some point in the first year, I had some leeway, and I decided to do a class in the art department—a drawing class—that kind of gave me the bug.”
The chef may take several weeks off from painting, but then he’ll get a flurry of inspiration and produce out piece after piece. He can auction some of his work off for charity or keep certain paintings to remind him of big events.
“Through the years, I have collected memories,” Pépin says, “I mean, I can tell you what Claudine had for her third birthday. I can see my mother, my two brothers, and many other people—our whole life is in these menus.”