Jacques Pépin was trained in classical French cooking and has worked in prestigious high-end restaurants – first in Paris, then in New York.
He is, in fact, the quintessential French chef, he admits with a chuckle on a recent phone call from the 4-acre farm in Madison, Conn., where he’s lived and cooked since 1975.
The 20-time James Beard Award-winning chef is equally as famous for his 30-plus cookbooks and his many TV appearances, especially those alongside his fellow French cooking legend, Julia Child, in which the good friends often tackled elegant and fussy dishes like lobster souffle, stuffed turkey roulade and truffle-infused sausage wrapped in fresh baked brioche.
As he approaches his 88th birthday in December, however, his cooking has become less complicated yet still imaginative. It’s definitely more about economy, both when it comes to the ingredients and the effort he puts into preparation and cleanup.
Which is not to say he spends less time in the kitchen, because, well, “I’m always hungry!”
Pépin can work magic with any basket of ingredients. He just doesn’t cook the way he did years ago. If he has a good tomato fresh from the garden, for instance, all it takes is a little salt and vinegar to make it shine, he says.
“A younger chef tends to add more and more to the plate,” he says. “Now, I don’t need too much on the plate. It’s more about the essentials.”
In these challenging economic times, when a loaf of quality bread often costs more than $5 and a single Granny Smith apple can set you back a dollar, a lot of thrifty home cooks are looking to save money at meal time. He’s more than happy to help achieve that goal with the just-released “Jacques Pépin Cooking My Way: Recipes and Techniques for Economical Cooking” (Harvest, $37.50).
It contains more than 100 recipes that make good and delicious use of inexpensive cuts of meat and poultry and economical, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Some are updated versions of what he ate as a child in post-war France; others are completely new creations. When Pépin first came to the U.S. in 1959, for instance, he never could find a shallot.
Today, with so much food available in supermarkets and at farmers markets, “it’s totally different now.”
Another way he approaches economy in the kitchen is by embracing a resource some cooks (and eaters) turn their noses up at — leftovers.
“They can have a derogatory reputation” when served in their original form, Pépin acknowledges. Leftover roast chicken, for example, is often dry and doesn’t taste as great as when it was just made.
But if you put it in a pot pie or transform it with a cream sauce or toss it in a salad, it’s not really leftovers. It’s a freshly made dish, he says.
“Cooking My Way” also encourages seasonality when it comes to choosing produce “because that is when food is the least expensive and tastes the best, so why not?” says Pépin.
In fall, that might mean pears or apples along with root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, rutabagas and beets. Now is when you’ll also find broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and sweet potatoes at your local farmers market.
“Seasonal” is also a healthful way to eat, because vegetables grown during their peak seasons are richer in micronutrients. He notes the classic Sardinian diet of simple foods full of garden vegetables and fruits that follow the season as an example. One of five “blue zone” regions with the healthiest, longest-living populations, Sardinia is known as a land of centenarians.
In addition to using minimal ingredients, most of the recipes also can be made with minimal effort. Pépin is a big fan of reusing pans in a “logical sequence” and cooking foods that don’t make a mess. And he always processes dry ingredients in a food processor before adding something wet so it only has to be washed once.
Illustrated with both photos by Tom Hopkins and reproductions of Pépin’s colorful, abstract artwork — he’s been painting since the early 1960s and offers original artwork and signed prints on jacquespepinart.com — the cookbook recalls his musings in the long-running The Purposeful Chef, which he penned for The New York Times in the late 1980s and ’90s.
“Uncontrived economy is standard practice in a good kitchen,” Pepin wrote in April 1989. “A good cook never apologizes about leftovers . … Look for the best but also the least expensive [ingredients], and strike a balance between the two.”
So the idea was already there, he says.
“I was raised in France during the [second world] war, and my mother was a good but miserly cook,” he says, because food was scarce and even everyday staples like bread, sugar and milk were rationed.
“In that type of simple home cooking, you really use everything you have because you have to, so it’s part of my DNA.”
He continued those lifelong habits while collaborating with his daughter, Claudine, during the COVID-19 pandemic on an online cooking series for Facebook and Instagram. The series raised money for the nonprofit Jacques Pepin Foundation, which works to strengthen communities through culinary education and job training. The 300 or so recipes focused on how to use what you have — and not waste it.
These days, Pépin says his favorite dish to cook is probably what his wife, Gloria, who died in 2020, used to call “French soup.” You open the fridge and use whatever is left over, be it wilted salad, carrots or all the cucumbers and zucchini your garden gave you this summer that you “didn’t know what to do with.”
“I’m doing anything I want, anything I’m interested in,” he says. “It depends on the mood.”
It’s a perfect illustration of the point that, even with his cookbook in hand, flexibility is key in cooking.
After trying a couple recipes, Pépin hopes home cooks will feel free to transform dishes to their own tastes and whatever they have on hand in the fridge or pantry, or find on sale in the supermarket.
“I would always say, do it exactly the way it is the first time if you’re not really a seasoned cook, without changing anything. Then, the third or fourth time, maybe do it a little different to massage it to your own taste,” he says. “That is the way it should be.”
Also, bring your family into the kitchen, garden and market with you, including even the smallest children.
“Food has always been a communication for me,” he says.
His granddaughter who sits on a stool next to him in the kitchen is the same one who picked parsley from his garden from a very early age.
“Eating and sharing is a very important part of our family,” he says.
Leftover Bread Flapjacks
Makes 3 pancakes.
This easy stovetop recipe can easily be adapted to suit a sweet tooth by swapping leftover apples or bananas for the onions and chives. Use whatever you have on hand,” the chef writes.
1 cup bread cubes from leftover bread
¼ cup milk
1 large egg, preferably organic
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped onion
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh chives
Pinch dried oregano
Pinch each fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons peanut oil
Sour cream, for serving (optional)
Combine bread, milk, egg, onion, chives, oregano, salt and pepper in a bowl. Mash with a fork until well combined.
Heat oil in a large skillet and add 3 scoops of the mixture to make three flapjacks.
Flatten mixture with a fork to about ½-inch thick and cook until brown, 2-3 minutes on each side.
Serve with sour cream, if desired.
Chicken Breast a la Susie
Jacque Pépin’s friend Susie Heller introduced the chef to this recipe decades ago, using turkey breast. It’s just as quick and satisfying with chicken breast. I mixed chili oil with chunky garlic into the mayo.
2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 8 ounces each)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons Sriracha or other chili garlic sauce, divided
⅓ cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Dry chicken breasts with paper towels and sprinkle with salt.
Spread 1 teaspoon of the chili sauce on the bottom of the breasts and place them, sauce side down, in a gratin dish.
Mix mayonnaise with remaining 1 teaspoon chili sauce and spread thickly on top.
Bake for 25 minutes, or until cooked through but still very juicy inside. Sprinkle with chives and serve.
Jacques Pépin uses pears instead of the more traditional apples in this lovely, upside-down tatin, and adds almonds and raisins “for a sophisticated result.” It’s hard to believe something this lovely and delicious is so easy to make. I used a trusty cast-iron skillet.
Chef’s note: The tatin can be baked ahead of time and set aside. If it has cooled beyond lukewarm at serving time, rewarm on top of the stove until caramel is soft again. Do not invert the pear tatin more than 30 minutes before serving.
For caramel and pears:
¼ cup sugar
½ cup plus 3 tablespoons water, divided
3 Bosc pears (about 1½ pounds), peeled, halved lengthwise and cored
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons sliced almonds
2 tablespoons golden raisins
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons sugar
1½ tablespoons milk
Make caramel: Combine sugar and 3 tablespoons water in a 10-inch ovenproof skillet. Cook over medium-high heat for abut 5 minutes, until the mixture turns a light caramel color.
Remove from heat and swirl caramel in the skillet to cool and harden it. (If it darkens too much as it continues to cook in the pan’s residual heat, plunge the base of the skillet in cool water to stop the cooking.)
Arrange pear halves, cut side up, on the caramel so the pointed ends of the pears meet in the center. Add butter and the remaining ½ cup water.
Bring to a boil (caramel will melt), then cover skillet with a lid, reduce heat to low and cook gently for about 20 minutes, checking occasionally, until all the water has evaporated and the mixture in the pan starts caramelizing again. The pears should be soft and almost cooked.
Meanwhile, prepare the dough. In food processor, combine flour, butter and sugar. Process for about 10 seconds. Add milk and process another 10 seconds. Transfer the unformed dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap and press on it until it forms a cohesive ball.
Place another piece of plastic wrap on top of the dough and roll it with a rolling pin between the two sheets to create a circle about the diameter of your skillet (10 inches) or press it with your fingers into a circle. Transfer wrapped dough to refrigerator.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Once pears are cooked, fill their hollow centers with almonds and raisins. Remove dough from refrigerator, peel off the top sheet of plastic wrap and invert dough onto the pears, pressing it down to conform to their shape. Peel off the remaining sheet.
Place the skillet in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes. The dough should be nicely browned on top and, when you tilt the pan, there should be a rich layer of caramel in the bottom.
Invert a serving plate on top of the dough and turn the warm tart out onto the plate. Slice into portions, serving half a pear per person.