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French chef or American cook? The double life of Jacques Pépin

Mike Sutter
Author and cooking show host Jacques Pépin has helped define good food in a commercialized setting for several restaurants.

Jacques Pépin finds a little irony in the session he'll lead at the International Association of Culinary Professionals convention on Friday. That session is called "What French Cuisine Can Offer Modern Cooks."

"The irony of this is that after 52 years in America or so, even after 10 years, my mother would come, and I would be cooking. She would taste what I'm doing and say, 'Ooh, this is really good, but it's not French anymore,'\u2009" said Pépin, the French-born chef whose face is familiar to television cooking fans ranging from the earliest PBS shows to the Food Network era.

"So I don't think that I've cooked truly, purely French — certainly according to her — for many, many years. But I don't really care. I don't try to cook French, but by the same token I don't try not to cook French. I cook things that I like to eat," he said. "In that context, I may be the purer American cook, because I partake of different types of cuisine, and that's what we do here. Maybe the definition of American cuisine is that it's not definable."

Pépin's canon of dishes both classic and personalized is represented in "Essential Pépin: More Than 700 All-Time Favorites From My Life in Cooking" ($40, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), coming in October. In addition to his French cooking session, which is open only to IACP convention attendees, Pépin will be part of two IACP events open to the public on Friday. He'll be part of a culinary book fair from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Friday at the Hilton Austin Hotel, 500 E. Fourth St. ($10 in advance at iacppublicevents.eventbrite.com or $15 at the door), and he'll judge the Edible Texas Wine Food Match at 7 p.m. ($100, details at www.edibleaustin.com/ediblewandf ).

American-Statesman: With so many books and cookbooks to your name, how do you find something new to say?

Jacques Pépin: I'm hungry. I want to eat, and I want to cook. There is always a new way of doing something, whether it's an idea that you get in a restaurant or at the market or some place or another.

As a man who came up through the kitchen apprentice system, what do you think of the instant food celebrity culture today?

Well, it's another world altogether. We don't learn the same way that we used to. Last week, I went to the French Culinary Institute in New York. I was there during the finals. This is a six-month program where they do 600 hours of cooking. It's very, very intensive. When I see what they can do after six months, I am flabbergasted. I would never have been able to do half of this in three years of apprenticeship. I heard a couple of weeks ago that there are close to 500 television shows on cooking. Many of them don't do that much cooking. It's more entertainment, which is fine.

In your memoir "The Apprentice," you described the nuanced simplicity of making an omelet. If you were to teach one dish to a young cook, what would that dish be?

Maybe a leek and potato soup or a roast chicken, something simple but really satisfying. (Recipes below.)

I was surprised by your enthusiasm for commercialized food when you worked for Howard Johnson's. How did you come to embrace that so fully?

It was exciting to know about American eating habits and mass production, which I didn't know anything about. It was exciting to know about the chemistry of food. We had several chemists doing coliform and bacteria counts and so forth. And certainly later on in my life, when I opened the commissary at the World Trade Center and the restaurant called La Potagerie in New York or when I was at the Russian Tea Room and all that, I would not have been able to do those things if I hadn't had the training that I had at Howard Johnson's. Remember that Howard Johnson's was not really a fast-food restaurant; it was a family restaurant with sit-down dinners with waitresses and all that. It was a very comforting, simple restaurant. Quite good, actually.

La Potagerie, which was all about soup, seemed to pioneer the specialty restaurant in America.

Certainly the theme restaurant. I was at Howard Johnson's, and there was the HoJo hamburger place that we had created. So I had some knowledge of that to a certain extent, but this was really a theme restaurant, with one ingredient. I mean soup, basically. That was kind of exciting.

If you started that now, what a franchise you could make.

I think that it would work now just as well. The first year that we opened that restaurant, we had three offers to sell the company. We were asked to be bought by Coca-Cola, by Marriott, big companies like this. People look at it, and you can duplicate it relatively easily. Nothing ever happened, but it would have been good.

It's never too late.

Maybe after 75 years, things are different.

Roast Chicken

The classic way to cook chicken is still the simplest and best. Roasting the bird at a high temperature crisps the skin as it protects the flesh, keeping it moist. Roasting the chicken on its side helps the legs, which usually take longer than the breast, cook faster and also keeps the breast moist. For best results, do not cover the bird with foil after it is roasted, or it will steam and taste reheated. For maximum flavor, the chicken should be served no more than 45 minutes after roasting.

1 chicken (about 31⁄2 pounds)

1⁄2 tsp. salt

1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. olive oil

2–3 Tbsp. water

1 bunch watercress trimmed, washed and dried

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Sprinkle the chicken inside and out with the salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a large, ovenproof nonstick skillet until it is hot but not smoking. Place the chicken on its side in the skillet and brown it over medium-high heat for about 21⁄2 minutes. Turn the chicken over and brown it on the other side for 21⁄2 minutes.

Place the skillet, with the chicken still on its side, in the oven and roast uncovered for 20 minutes. Turn the chicken onto its other side and roast for another 20 minutes. Finally, turn the chicken onto its back, baste it with the fat that has emerged during the cooking and roast for 20 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the oven and place it on a platter breast-side-down to keep the breast meat moist. Pour the drippings from the skillet into a bowl and set aside.

Deglaze the skillet by adding the water and stirring to loosen and melt the solidified juices. Add to the drippings in the bowl and let stand briefly, then skim off and discard most of the fat, leaving the natural pan juices.

To serve, carve the chicken, separating the drumsticks from the thighs and cutting each breast in half. Arrange a piece of dark meat and a piece of white meat on each of four plates. Garnish each serving with a few sprigs of watercress, and serve with the pan juices.

Serves 4.

Hot or Cold Leek Soup

This is the quintessential French leek and potato soup. The creamy hot version is called parmentier. Served cold, with the addition of cream, the soup is vichyssoise. If the vegetables are cut into 1-inch pieces and the soup is served hot, it is a potage Parisienne. Be sure to use the green as well as the white part of the leeks. The green leaves lend color as well as taste and texture to the soup.

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 large or 2 medium leeks, trimmed (leaving most of the green), split, washed and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 medium onion, sliced

6 cups homemade chicken stock or low-salt canned chicken broth

11⁄2 lbs. potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces

1 tsp. salt, or to taste

1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

For hot soup:

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter

Croutons, for garnish

1⁄4 cup fresh chervil leaves

For cold soup:

1 cup light cream

3 Tbsp. chopped fresh chives

Heat the oil in a pot. When it is hot, add the leek and onion and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until they soften and begin to brown lightly. Add the stock, potatoes, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Boil for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

For hot soup: Add the butter to the soup. Purée the soup with a hand blender, or process it in a food processor. (You should have about 7 cups.) Serve immediately, garnished with croutons and a sprinkling of chervil leaves.

For cold soup: After the soup is puréed, cool it, then stir in the cream and chives and refrigerate until chilled.

Serves 6.

— From “Essential Pépin” by Jacques Pépin