Jacques Pepin and Julia Child were serving up mashed sweet potatoes during a televised cooking show just before Thanksgiving in 2000.
Julia noticed the sweet potatoes had no marshmallows on them. “I rather like marshmallows,” she said.
“You do, I’m not crazy about it,” said Jacques.
“That’s because you’re French, you’re not grown up on marshmallows,” she said.
“I’m French from Connecticut,” he replied.
Jacques Pepin’s journey to the upscale town of Madison, Conn., began in an obscure French village before World War II. As a young man who loved to cook, he arrived in America at an ideal time and in an ideal place to ignite the Foodie Revolution.
In 1959, there were no celebrity chefs, no cookware shops and no television cooking shows.
Newspapers assigned women to run the food page, a second-class section that aimed bland American recipes at housewives. Gourmet was the only magazine devoted to food, and publishers produced maybe a dozen cookbooks a year.
Chefs were just blue-collar stove jockeys. During his first months in New York in 1959, Jacques Pepin didn’t know a single white American chef in New York. They were all German, Italian, French or Swiss.
He’d arrived in the city on a lark and got a job in a renowned French restaurant. Somehow he found himself among the tiny group of cooks and writers who made up the food world. Within six months of his arrival, he knew the Big Three: Craig Claiborne, James Beard and Julia Child.
He’d been born into a family of foodies on Dec. 18, 1935 in Bourg-en-Bresse, France. At an early age he helped his mother in her country restaurant, and by 13 he knew he wanted to cook. So he apprenticed at the Plaza Athénée, where he learned cooking the old way: autocratic, unchanging, disciplined, structured.
“In the classical tradition we cut the tomatoes all in one direction,’ he said. “I never thought of cutting them in any other direction because it was so engraved in my brain that you do it this way—and this way only.”
He left restaurant work to serve in the military, where he cooked for three French presidents, including Charles DeGaulle.
At 24, he decided to spend a little time in New York as a cook under Pierre Franey at Le Pavillon, the ne plus ultra of restaurants. He intended to return to France. But he fell in love with the freedom and spirit of the United States, and he stayed.
He worked long hours and struggled to learn the English language and American ways.
A few weeks after he arrived a friend invited him over for lunch. The friend offered him a sandwich, which he declined, not wanting to ruin lunch. He didn’t realize it was lunch.
Craig Claiborne had just become the food editor of the New York Times – the first male in the job. Claiborne would elevate the food page to cultural commentary, introducing new chefs, cuisines and restaurants to Times readers.
Jacques met Claiborne when he came to review Le Pavillon. Claiborne invited him to his home, where he met Helen McCully, food editor at House Beautiful and McCall’s – magazines that mattered then.
McCully spent several hours on the phone every day with James Beard and introduced him to the others.
She became a surrogate mother to Jacques Pepin, advising him on dress, behavior and his education. He’d left school at age 13, and she convinced him to earn a college degree at Columbia’s school of General Studies.
One day Helen McCully handed Jacques a cardboard box filled with a manuscript. It came from some woman in Cambridge, Mass., she said. “She’s been trying to find a publisher, but they’re all rejecting it. I think it’s an amazing piece of work. I want to know what you think.”
It was Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and he loved it. The next week Julia came to New York, and they cooked together, spoke French together and drank cocktails with her husband Paul. Their friendship would last through 50 years. They’d write Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home Together, and they’d win an Emmy for a television series of the same name.
Howard Johnson ate regularly at Le Pavillon. So did Joseph P. Kennedy and his family. After Pepin had worked there eight months, both men tried to hire him. Johnson wanted him and Franey to develop new recipes for his eponymous restaurant chain. Kennedy wanted him to work as White House chef.
Pepin chose to work as a manager at HoJos rather than as a servant at the White House.
“I had already done that type of [cooking], and I really didn’t want to do it again,” he told an interviewer.
Howard Johnson’s presented a new world to the young French chef. Pepin learned about food safety, mass production, standardization and marketing. He stayed for 10 years.
Together, he and Franey developed recipes for such dishes as beef burgundy and seafood Newburg, and they changed butter for margarine and fresh onion for powder in existing recipes. Every day they boned 1,000 turkeys and made 10 tons of hot dogs. (Click here for his Howard Johnson’s recipe for clam chowder.)
The food was surprisingly good. One day the star chef at Lutece came over to Jacques’ house, and he served him frozen fish stew he’d picked up at HoJos. Over the wine, Jacques asked him how the stew was. “Quite good,” he said. He refused to believe it had been flash frozen in a plastic pouch.
Nine to Five
Working regular hours at Howard Johnson’s gave Jacques Pepin time to pursue his bachelor’s degree and to experiment with a new kind of cooking. In France they called it nouvelle cuisine, a simpler way to cook that stayed true to the taste of the ingredients.
The new cuisine fit the freedom he experienced in the New World. It liberated him to use new ingredients and new techniques, and to combine new tastes with old.
For example, he developed a recipe for black bean and banana soup that had both cilantro and herbes de provence. He learned about cilantro from his girlfriend, then wife, Gloria, who had a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father.
They lived in a tiny apartment in Queens and liked to get away to the Catskills. Jacques and Gloria bought a weekend home near Hunter Mountain, which became a colony of expatriate French chefs
When Howard Johnson’s son took over the company, Pepin thought the chain went downhill. So he quit and started his own restaurant, La Potagerie, serving soup to Manhattan office workers.
Then in 1974 something happened that ended his career as a soup merchant. One night he was driving alone in the Catskills when a deer suddenly materialized in front of him. He hit the deer and the car rolled over, plunged into a ravine and burst into flames. He broke his back, leg and arm, fractured his pelvis in three places and almost lost his left hand.
After a long convalescence he changed course and began writing cookbooks and teaching cooking. The high school dropout had prepared himself well to instruct others. He had earned his B.A. from Columbia in 1968 and then a master’s in 18th-century French literature.
Pepin had also started work on a Ph.D., proposing to do a thesis on the history of food in the context of civilization and literature. He abandoned the idea when his advisors laughed at him.
Eventually he was vindicated. Pepin and his old pal Julia Child founded the culinary arts certificate at Boston University. They then convinced the university president, John Silber, to establish a master’s program in Gastronomy – the serious study of food history. According to the program description, it involves ‘a rigorous, interdisciplinary approach to food studies that pairs opportunities for experiential learning in culinary arts laboratories, wine studies courses, and classroom lab activities with a core curriculum based in the liberal arts.’
Jacques Pepin in Madison, Connecticut
Even after Jacques recovered from his accident, shoveling snow and thawing pipes in the Catskills got too hard. It was time to leave the Catskills.
He and Gloria began to look for a house within a few hours of New York City, where he taught at the French Culinary Institute.
They found it on four acres in Madison, where he could shop at orchards and farmers markets, harvest shellfish along the beach and find mushrooms in the backyard.
Jacques described the house as barely habitable, having sat vacant for a year after the three elderly sisters who owned it moved into a nursing home. “If we’d done the smart thing, we would have leveled it,” he said. Instead, they spent the next 25 years working on their dream house. They’ve lived there more than 40.
His celebrity brought interviewers and television crews into the house. Gloria got tired of the intrusions, he told The Missoulian. “We had this guest house, where we also kept the pingpong table, so I decided to build a new kitchen here. Now everyone is happy.”
Kind of Genius
In 1985, the Chicago Tribune credited Julia Child, James Beard and Craig Claiborne with doing more ‘to teach Americans about food preparation than anyone . Today the newspaper might add Jacques Pepin to that list.
Julia Child, of course, got her cookbook published, appeared in her own cooking show on public television and won international fame. At the Smithsonian Museum of American History, millions of people every year come to visit her kitchen. She and Jacques Pepin cooked in that kitchen during the series Julia and Jacques, Cooking at Home.
James Beard, a champion of American food, wrote 20 books, started the James Beard Foundation, appeared on television and taught generations of professional cooks and food writers.
Craig Claiborne, too, had an outsized influence on the food world through his columns at the Times, his cookbooks and his presence in New York’s high society.
Jacques Pepin outlived them all. In 2017, he published still another cookbook with his granddaughter, A Grandfather’s Lessons: In the Kitchen with Shorey. He was still making public appearances in 2019.
Today, foodies can watch more than 400 cooking shows or buy one of the 2,300 cookbooks churned out by publishing houses every ye
Cooks used to be at the bottom of the social scale, he told the Los Angeles Times, “And apparently now we are seen as kind of genius.”
“I don’t know how long this is going to last, but this is terrific!”
To watch Jacques Pepin and Julia Child cook Thanksgiving dinner, click here.
Image of Jacques Pepin By Szurdak&Pepin.JPG: Appraiserderivative work: AjaxSmack (talk) – Szurdak&Pepin.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5954584; Howard Johnson’s-Times Square By alex lines from brooklyn, usa – Howard Johnson’s Times SquareUploaded by xnatedawgx, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7331939; Fabulous Food By Edsel Little – Fabulous Food Show – Jacques Pepin, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36769883; James Beard By Bill Golladay – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48194706. This story was updated in 2020.