Seasons by the Sea: Toujours Pépin!

Jacques Pépin is the recipient of the French government’s three highest honors
In 1965, Pierre Franey, Jacques Pépin, Roger Fessaguet, Jean Vergnes, and René Verdon joined forces for a picnic of epic proportions on Gardiner’s Island. Franey Family Collection

On July 29, 10 renowned chefs — including our own Jason Weiner, Claudia Fleming, Christian Mir, and Joe Realmuto from the North and South Forks — will cook a dinner to honor Jacques Pépin and to benefit Jeff’s Kitchen at the Hayground School.

To list the many accomplishments of this iconic chef, teacher, writer, and artist would take thousands of words. After all, he began his cooking career at the age of 13, and at 82, he has not slowed down yet.

Mr. Pépin has written close to 30 books, has had numerous show on PBS, is the recipient of the French government’s three highest honors, and was the personal chef to three heads of state, among them Charles de Gaulle, who was the easiest of the three to work for, he said recently. “He showed up for lunch on time!” Mr. Pépin laughed. “Conversely, one of the others always wanted soufflés for lunch and he was always late. Always. I had to have three soufflés ready, one for 1, one for 2, one for 3.” 

Mr. Pépin still contributes a column to Food and Wine magazine, and runs his own foundation, which among other things helps veterans, prisoners, and the homeless learn cooking skills, he still teaches at Boston University, is Oceania Cruise Line’s executive culinary director, and just so happened to be illustrating the menu for Hayground Chefs Dinner when we spoke. 

The day before he had been picking wild mushrooms and preparing clams with his granddaughter, Shorey. Soon he will be cruising on Oceania from Lisbon to Rome. His 12th menu book comes out in August.

Born in France, the son of restaurateurs, he left home at 13 to work in Paris and in 1959 moved to New York to work at Le Pavillon before opening several of his own restaurants. 

What may surprise people not familiar with his resumé is that for 10 years starting in 1961, Mr. Pépin worked with the chef Pierre Franey developing recipes for Howard Johnson. It was here that he learned about American tastes, marketing, food science, and mass production. From there he opened Le Potagerie, worked at the Russian Tea Room, and helped open Windows on the World and ran the commissary at the World Trade Center. “Without the experience at Howard Johnson’s, I couldn’t have done all that. It was a great time in my life,” he said.

When his friend Craig Claiborne purchased his first house in East Hampton, in Springs, Mr. Pépin and his girlfriend, Gloria Lemieux, were guests almost every weekend, cooking with Mr. Claiborne and Mr. Franey. When the couple were married, it was at Mr. Claiborne’s house and they all made the meal themselves. 

“There were eight to 10 chefs working together that day, we were cooking right up until the ceremony,” Mr. Pépin recalled. Howard Johnson and his wife were guests, as were the Franeys, and his best friend, Jean-Claude Szurdak, and René Verdon, both well-known chefs. 

As a pastry chef, I had to know what kind of wedding cake they had. “Jean- Claude made a big, big croquembouche,” he said.

His partnership with Julia Child began in 1960 when they were introduced by Helen McCully, then food editor of House Beautiful magazine. Mrs. McCully had just gotten the manuscript for Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and Mr. Pépin thought it was so good, he was a little bit jealous. 

It was the kind of book he had hoped to write someday, he said. Mrs. McCully described Mrs. Child as “a very tall woman with a really terrible voice.” Mr. Pépin more diplomatically called it “shrill and warm at the same time.” He couldn’t remember what he made when they first met, except for his apple galette, but a long and lasting friendship and partnership began that day.

He remembered a meal shared with the Childs at their home in Cambridge, Mass., soon after his marriage. After wrapping the newlyweds in a big bear hug, she swept the crumbs off the oil-cloth-covered kitchen table and said, “What shall we cook?” 

They started teaching cooking together at Boston University in the mid-1980s. “We argued onstage, we stole each other’s mise en place. I like black pepper and she liked white. She didn’t like kosher salt and I do,” he wrote in a tribute to her for The New York Times on her birthday in 2012. “People talk about our squabbles onstage, and it is true that we had our small differences. These were trifles without much depth. We cooked with confidence and ate with gusto.” It was exactly this back-and-forth banter and affectionate disagreements that led to the PBS specials “Cooking in Concert” and eventually to “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home,” which was filmed in her kitchen.

“We cooked like friends, spouses, or couples do: cooking and drinking together, arguing, then sitting down and sharing the food,” he recalled in the Times piece. They didn’t even follow recipes on the shows; they made them up as they went along.

“To Julia, Jacques was not only the most accomplished and knowledgeable chef, but a dear friend, colleague, companion,” said Geoffrey Drummond, Child’s longtime producer. “When they sparred — only in the kitchen — they acted like a couple who had been together for years. They shared the same culinary DNA, even though taking very different paths acquiring it. In 1998 when Julia was 86, there was a possibility that Jacques might not be able to do it with us. We . . . searched, for another chef.” In the end, “like Fred and Ginger, George and Gracie, Scott and Zelda, there was no one who could team with Julia as Jacques did.” 

At the end of our conversation I ask the rather trite but revealing questions I ask every chef: Do you have any guilty pleasures, food wise, and what would you like for your last supper?

“No guilty pleasures. I am a glutton,” he said. “I have no complex about what I eat. But no junk food.” As far as his last supper, his answer was a lot longer than the one he gave on season five of “Top Chef,” which was “roast squab and fresh peas.” He said he hoped his last supper would take at least six months to make. “It would include everything from caviar to squab. Definitely a hot dog, ham and eggs, the best bread and the best butter. And Fig Newtons.”

The concept and allure of the “American in Paris” has been romanticized for many years. But here we have a Frenchman who has made America his home and has taught us, for decades, how to cook, how to live, laugh, and eat well. 

Let us raise a glass, or Fig Newton, to this true gentleman, artist, chef, icon, and renaissance man.

Tickets for the Hayground Chefs Dinner, which begins with cocktails at 4:30 p.m., start at $1,500.

Pierre Franey, Jacques Pépin, and Jean Vergnes scooped mussels off Cartwright Shoal before Mr. Franey’s boat took them back to their beach “kitchen.” Franey Family Collection