For Jacques Pépin, life itself is a celebration

Most authors who crisscross the country on a whirlwind book tour grab meals on the run. Not Jacques Pépin. The superstar chef, whom I recently met in Boston, doesn't lower his high standards even on the road.

On the morning we spoke, he claimed to be moving a little slowly, since he had stayed up late consuming an eight-course meal with 20 other guests at the home of his longtime friend, Julia Child. Showing up to fete Julia before she packs up her home in Cambridge, Mass., and moves permanently to Santa Barbara, Calif., was the easy part. But Mr. Pépin also oversaw preparations of the dinner all day beforehand.

On the faculty of Boston University for the past 18 years, Professor Pépin supervised 10 culinary students who prepared many of Mrs. Child's favorites, including caviar, gravlax, oyster and clam chowder, pâté of pheasant with truffles, loin of beef, and caramel custard.

It's no coincidence that just after this festive evening, we are together to talk about his latest book: "Jacques Pépin Celebrates: 200 of His Most Cherished Recipes for Memorable Meals with Family and Friends" (Knopf, $40), the companion to his current public-television series. Mr. Pépin loves a good celebration, and many recipes made the previous night were taken from this latest book. But he doesn't always wait for a special occasion to put out the foie gras. "Anything is an excuse for a celebration," he says. "In our house, life itself is a celebration."

Of the 18 cookbooks he's written, he calls this one his "most sophisticated." And with such recipes as Venison Steaks With Black Currant Sauce, Chestnut Purée in Zucchini Boats, and Cranberry Relish (all one dish!); Stuffed Salmon in a Flaky Dough; or Frozen Citrus Souffle With Ladyfingers, it's clearly not for amateurs. "One has to be a moderately serious cook" to make these dishes, he says, his French accent still strong after more than 30 years in the US.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, he says, holiday celebrations will be more meaningful this year than ever. "Food is always about sharing with family and friends, but even more so now," he says. "People feel an especially strong desire to be together."

He spent Thanksgiving with friends in Napa Valley, Calif., but he plans to be home in Connecticut for Christmas. His daughter, Claudine, known to many as his engaging sidekick on the award-winning public-television series "Cooking With Claudine," wouldn't have it any other way. She works in New York, and is looking forward to holiday time at home with Mom and Dad.

When asked how the events of Sept. 11 affected him, Pépin appeared deeply touched. His associations with the World Trade Center towers were many. For starters, in 1976, he was one of three chefs, along with James Beard and Barbara Kafka, to help open Windows on the World, the famously lavish restaurant on the 107th floor of the north tower. His friend, Michael Lomonaco, executive chef at Windows on the World, had stepped out to do an errand when the tower was hit, so he was spared. But many acquaintances, including two of Pépin's students from the French Culinary Institute in New York, where he is also a faculty member, were killed.

Last July, Pépin hosted a cooking demonstration at New York's Firehouse No. 1. "I can still see the faces of all those firefighters," he recalls, "many of whom aren't around anymore." That same month he shared a meal at Windows on the World with a cousin who was visiting from France. And during the week following the attacks, Pépin and colleagues at the French Culinary Institute replaced their toques with face masks to cook 9,000 meals at ground zero.

He had plenty of company. Many of New York's brightest culinary stars fed rescue workers. "Chefs are always giving to charities, so it was natural for us to become involved right away," he says, adding that he contributes one-third of his time to important causes. "Everything is filtered through food."

Of all the hats he wears, Pépin says that of teacher is the most satisfying to don. "But," he adds, "everything I do relates to teaching - the TV work, the writing ... I enjoy the variety." His roles may be diverse, but they are united by one common purpose: "To bring joy and comfort to people," he says, smiling. "That's how I see food."

Gratin of Butternut Squash

1 large butternut squash, peeled and seeded

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1-1/2 cups heavy cream

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Cut off and discard the stem of the squash, then cut the squash into two pieces by cutting through it horizontally at the bottom of the neck. This will make it easier to peel.

Peel the cylindrical neck lengthwise, removing enough skin so that the orange flesh underneath is revealed. (Under the outer skin there is a layer of green, which should be removed.) Peel the round part of the squash by cutting around it in a spiral fashion with a sharp knife; it is easier to peel a round object in this manner. Cut the rounded part in half lengthwise, and, using a spoon, scoop out the seeds. Then cut the squash into 1/8-to-1/4-inch slices, either with a knife or in a food processor fitted with the slicing blade.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the squash slices in a large saucepan, cover them with water, and bring to a boil. Boil over high heat for 1-1/2 to 2 minutes, and drain in a colander. The pieces will break a little in cooking. Arrange pieces in a gratin dish, and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Pour on the cream, and stir gently with a fork to distribute the additions properly. Cover with the cheese, and bake for about 30 minutes.

At serving time, brown the top of the gratin by heating it under a hot broiler for 4 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

Serves 6.

- From 'Jacques Pépin Celebrates'

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