Ode to Jacques Pépin
By: Michel Nischan
Jacques Pépin was my mentor long before we ever met.
When I was 19, working in kitchens in Illinois in the late 1970s was a challenge for me. I had learned how to cook from my mother, and from working my grandfather’s farm. I could butcher, pickle, can, cure, roast, fry – you name it. Regardless of my mastery of these techniques, I was at a serious deficit because of the commercial kitchen “language barrier” I faced.
What I knew from farm life to be a “back-strap,” was known as a “strip-loin” in commercial kitchen-speak. I had assured the chef I could butcher when he interviewed me, but once I was in the kitchen, he would say: “I need a chateaubriand, and no one can seem to prepare one correctly.” I went blank, creating serious doubt in the chef’s mind that I had ever butchered anything. The fact was that, while I certainly knew how to cut meat, I simply didn’t know what things were called. As simple as the problem seemed, regaining the confidence of the chef in a busy kitchen environment would be my burden to bear, so I went on an information quest. I needed a cookbook that explained the terms I didn’t understand.
As someone who had barely graduated high school, I assumed that the bigger the book, the better the information. Because the chef I worked for was French-Alsatian, I looked in the French Cuisine section. But when I opened a giant Paul Bocuse book, the terminology was just overwhelming. The recipes each took up multiple pages, with so many culinary terms I couldn’t possibly understand, and the only photos were of whole pheasants, terrines glazed with chaud-froid, finished platters and plates that looked like works of art beyond my reach. I had to keep searching.
Then I found another really thick book and as I paged through, lo and behold—it was full of photos of raw ingredients and process, a true kitchen manual walking the reader through every step. With each photo were carefully organized instructions explaining the French terminologies and techniques in a manner that made easy sense – because they were written in plain English. And within three page-turns I find chateaubriand! I said, “That’s how you do it!” I knew on the spot, I had to have this book.
Jacques Pepin’s La Technique cost about a week’s pay, but I studied it every day before going in to work. After my second day with the book, I took a whole beef tenderloin out of the fridge, prepared the head end according to what I read in the book, and presented it to chef, saying; – “is this what you’re looking for, Chef?” And he said, “SOMEONE WHO KNOWS HOW TO DO CHATEAUBRIAND!”
Within months I was making almost $6 an hour. The chef said, “you’re gonna be my sous chef.” And I was like “what’s that?” He said; “Three more dollars more an hour.”
La Technique became my bible and translator. The information was so accurate that I was even able to challenge the chef from time to time when I felt a proper technique to a classic preparation wasn’t being properly applied.
Jacques Pepin’s abilities are so uncanny, he’s capable of mentoring from afar. You don’t have to be there looking into his eyes, because he was the first chef who understood how to explain culinary excellence in print, step-by-step, using the power of words blended with photography. Because of his book I honed basic skills into craftsmanship. Jacques doesn’t leave a detail behind, doesn’t omit a single piece of knowledge that’s going to be invaluable to a successful technique or finished dish.
Ten years later, in 1987, when I was executive chef at the Boca Raton Marriot, our marketing director approached me, saying; “somebody named Jacques Pepin is coming for the culinary festival and needs someone to do mise en place and the other chefs are declining.” And I said, “Hell yeah! Give me the list, I’m all over it!”
The day he came to the kitchen, he so graciously thanked me for hosting him and he shook everybody’s hand, every cook, every purchaser, every dishwasher. He was unbelievably gracious. His behavior taught me a lesson that has stayed with me til this day – and I still don’t do it enough– is how to show gratitude. He’s the consummate gracious human.
Another ten years later, in 1998 – I was 40 years-old, opening Heartbeat Restaurant, a restaurant of well being at the W Hotel, in response to my son being diagnosed with diabetes – and I was afraid. I had friends whispering “Your marquis restaurant is gonna be a healthy restaurant? This will ruin your career. I’m gonna disown you!” And in walks Jacques Pepin with his daughter Claudine, to tell me they admired what I was doing.
He said, “I’ve been hearing a lot about you – and about this concept. Pretty bold move! We just finished an FCI heart-healthy cookbook, you should come and judge some of our graduations.”
I said, “I completely understand if you don’t remember, but I was the chef at Boca Raton—“ and he said, “you’re that blond kid, you did my mise en place!”
He immediately introduced me around the FCI and I became fast friends w Alain Sailhac and Andre Soltner, who started sending me premium interns. Jacques came to Heartbeat frequently and as we developed a friendship, he invited me to judge graduations, do demos, and be included in important events that would otherwise not have been on my radar.
In 2008, when Food & Wine first sponsored Wholesome Wave at the Aspen Classic, I bumped into Jacques and mentioned I was getting ready for our fundraiser to benefit Wholesome Wave that very night. He replied, “Isn’t there going to be an auction, why didn’t you ask me? Say I’ll cook! I have some friends from Chicago who will probably buy it!”
He cleared his night to stand on stage and offer himself as an auction package, cooking for people in his own home, with the money going to Wholesome Wave. When a bidding war hit $14,500, Jacques said, “I’ll tell you what – I’ll do ‘em both!” He raised nearly thirty thousand dollars for Wholesome Wave on the spot.
So when I was young, Jacques’ book was my cooking school, teaching me that every skill, every detail, every culinary-execution detail is essential. He has an uncanny ability to engage people, where they are, and have incredibly inspiring motivating conversations on how they can improve.
But past the proper way to reduce a sauce, knowing him as a person taught me life lessons that go far beyond the kitchen. The bottom line is, everybody is a potential protégé or mentor. And the only way you can give or receive is if you make a point to interact. He taught me how to be in the world—to be gracious and genuine and show sincere appreciation. Be out there. Be curious. Engage with people. Express real gratitude. He taught me all these things, and demonstrated how to act on them.