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The Long View: French Gourmand Jacques Pepin

Chef Jacques Pepin -- or, as Julia Child called him, "the best chef in America" -- has spent more than six decades in the kitchen savoring food.

Even now at 75, he still swears that "the greatest thing of all is bread and butter."

"If you have extraordinary bread and extraordinary butter, it's hard to beat bread and butter," Pepin tells NPR's Renee Montagne.

Rich And Creamy

During World War II, food was scarce. The family didn't have much to eat at their home near Lyon, in Bourg-en-Bresse. Ever resourceful, Pepin's mother sent the young boy and his brother to live on a farm during the summers. There, he would have milk and whatever produce grew on the farm.

That farm is where Pepin first came so close to cows -- and what he remembers most was their warm milk. "It was really lukewarm and very creamy and delicious. That was probably one of my first memories of food," he says.

Back at home, his mother worked hard to conjure up meals out of practically nothing. Even today, Pepin says his mother "is very miserly in the kitchen. She can cook anything."

His father had left to join the French Resistance, and on her day off, his mother would ride her bicycle sometimes for 50 miles, from one farm to another, begging for whatever provisions she could gather. She'd find eggs, a jar of jam, maybe bread.

But, Pepin stresses, they were not unhappy. "I could not compare the prewar to the way it was during the war. I was too small. So for me, that's the way life was."

One of Pepin's mother's clever tricks during the war was getting sugar from beets.

"It's interesting, actually; she made sugar with beets," Pepin says. "Cooking the beets in water, making it into a puree and reducing the puree eventually doing a kind of molasses."

Years after the war, he and his brother asked his mother to make that sugary treat again. She said that not only did she not know how to do it anymore but she wouldn't want to even if she could.

The Apprentice

At 13, Pepin received a dispensation to take an exam to leave school early so that he could begin a formal apprenticeship in a restaurant. While the job was tough for a child that age, Pepin did not see it as such.

"Prior to this, remember that I left home to go into apprenticeship, but home was actually a restaurant. So already, I was used to peeling potatoes and peeling string beans and washing dishes and working in the kitchen with my mother as well as my two brothers ... so it wasn't such a big change," he says.

But at the restaurant, things were more structured and he was able to learn in a more organized way. The methods used to teach him -- repetition -- are different from the way students are taught today, he says, and he loved it.

By the end of the 1950s, Pepin had cooked for three French presidents and was ready for the next challenge.

"America was, and still is to a certain extent in Europe, the El Dorado. The holy grail," he says. Though he had planned to cook in New York, maybe learn some English, Pepin intended to return to France. But he found, from the first day he was in New York, he loved it, "and I never left."

Julia And Jacques

In New York, he befriended New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne, James Beard and one other influential member of New York's food scene: Helen McCully, the food editor of House Beautiful and McCall's.

McCully became like a surrogate mother to Pepin, and it was she who first handed him a manuscript of a cookbook to read before it was published -- and then introduced him to its author.

"Helen told me, 'Oh, I want to show you that manuscript here that someone sent me.' " She added that the woman who wrote it, a Californian, was coming to town the following week. "She said, 'She's a real big woman with a terrible voice.' And of course, that was Julia."

Julia Child and Pepin became friends, a relationship that spanned decades, until Child's death. Together, they produced what became a much-loved public television show, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home. Together, Pepin says, they enjoyed not just cooking but the bantering the two became known for.

Today at 75, Pepin is the author of 23 cookbooks and host of 12 cooking series for public television and shows no signs of slowing down. He just finished taping a new series for KQED and will have a new cookbook of his favorite recipes out next fall.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.