PBS was not a mainstay in my home when I was growing up. Our reception was always scratchy, so unless the show was something special (“I, Claudius,” “Elizabeth R”), I didn’t watch it. As a result, I essentially missed the age of the great chefs on TV, including Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, separate and together. I don’t know if I would have watched them anyway, as I wasn’t interested in cooking as a child. Eating, yes. Cooking, no.
I was a little skeptical when a member of my book club chose Pépin’s “The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen” as our reading selection. This isn’t a foodie book group, though we did read Robb Walsh’s “Sex, Death & Oysters” last year, a choice that has had me hankering for those blessed little bivalves ever since. And I wasn’t familiar with his approach to food.
But once I cracked the spine, I was sorry for all I had missed. I couldn’t get enough of the book, which was originally released in 2003.
In the beginning, I savored most every sentence, slowly digesting the choice morsels Pépin served up of his early years. There were stories of extreme hardship because of the war, yet his mother managed to open a restaurant and make a go of it. There were stories of how hard it was to be separated from his family during the summers when children of his generation went off to work on farms. There were stories of working his way up through various kitchens until he became chef for Charles de Gaulle.
Some of the Gallic flavor in these pages was reminiscent of Ludwig Bemelmans’ charming memoirs, including “Hotel Bemelmans.” No matter the difficulty, Pépin seemed to move through each phase with a healthy attitude of accepting what life had to offer. He wasn’t happy about going into the military, for example, but he did, and he became a better chef for it.
I raced through the American half of the book, not because the anecdotes were any less interesting. There’s the story of how he had to chose between being chef for the Kennedys in the White House or working for Howard Johnson’s, and he opted for the latter. But this portion of the book fascinated me because I discovered that Pépin had lived for a number of years in the same county that I did in upstate New York, although not at the same time.
Greene County, just south of Albany, is home to two famous ski resorts, Hunter Mountain and Windham, and Pépin made great use of both during his residence there. I was more of an après-ski person myself and focused on warm toddies by a roaring fire, but I learned what he did: This corner of the world, lush and green in the summer, offered great produce, both wild and cultivated. If you know the area, you can just picture him and neighboring chefs, including Pierre Franey, cooking up some memorable dinners with what they could round up. A scene in which he buys rabbit is hilarious and shows the difference between the European and the American approach to food. (Though the restaurant scene in the county was meager, another famed chef, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, got his big break there when he served as chef of a French restaurant called La Rive.)
By the time I finished the book, I didn’t want to let it go. So, I started making a couple of the recipes that Pépin features at the end of each chapter. they show his love of simple fare made with the best ingredients. The first was Les Oeufs Jeanette, a stuffed egg recipe that his mother developed and that has been a staple his entire life. I’ve made them twice now and will certainly serve them again.
“The Apprentice” made be seven years ago, which is a lifetime in the publishing business. Yet it has received some national attention in recent weeks when Saveur magazine included it on its annual 100 list. Here’s what reader Charlotte Belair of Vancouver, British Columbia had to say about the book:
[amazon-product]0618197370[/amazon-product]”At the public library where I used to work, a lot of books crossed my desk, but something about ‘The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen,’ a memoir by the French chef Jacques Pepin, immediately spoke to me. I took it home, and by the next day, I was telling my co-workers that I thought I might be in love. Whether describing his training in the great restaurants of France or his career in the United States as a chef, television personality, author and teacher, Pepin has an engaging, low-key way of talking about his many accomplishments. His warmth, honesty and joie de vivre always shine through. Each chapter is punctuated with recipes that vividly evoke the period he’s recalling: his mother’s apple tart, with its unfailingly light and tender crust; the braised striped bass he prepared at the New York City restaurant Le Pavillon; the chicken salad he learned to make from the actor Danny Kaye, whose poaching technique he admired. Along the way, Pepin provides the kind of ingenious cooking tips that viewers of his television programs have always treasured. But it’s the example of the man himself, his obvious passion and his dedication to his craft, that I found the most inspiring of all.”
His title, “The Apprentice,” says it all. After more than 70 years, Pépin is still learning, and it is an inspiration for the rest of us to keep at it, too.