FRENCH purists may be in for a shock: Jacques Pepin, chef to three of France's heads of state, takes shortcuts in his recipes. He adds canned soups, frozen peas, and other convenience foods without apology. Pepin says he streamlines his cooking because he doesn't always have time to spend in the kitchen after a long, busy day. ``In France it is quite common for good home chefs to buy certain prepared foods at the market,'' he explains in a Monitor interview here. ``They start with a proven brand, then use their own ideas to create their own dishes.''
He shares many of his shortcut ideas in a new cookbook, ``The Short-Cut Cook'' (William Morrow and Co., $19.95). And in a new PBS television series called ``Today's Gourmet,'' he shares cooking ideas and techniques. The 26-part series, taped at KQED in San Francisco, premieres this month on public television stations across the United States.
The TV series focuses on topics like bistro cooking, Mediterranean food, nouvelle cuisine, party menus, low-budget cooking, cooking for friends, and country French cuisine.
Special guests include Martin Yan, an expert in Chinese cooking, and Alice Waters, who will share her views and enthusiasm about cooking with organic fruits and vegetables.
Pepin's daughter, Claudine, also joins him on two shows - one on family holiday traditions and another on budget meals. ``She's a student, and I show her several economical things to do with chicken and ways to save leftover fruits and vegetables,'' he says.
Pepin explains that although his cooking style hasn't changed from his early French training, the recipes have. ``The food is lighter. The calories are cut down. The food is quick and easy, but it still remains within the context of classic cuisine,'' he says.
``I still use butter, but a very small amount. I use less salt. I still use meat - but smaller portions - and I always have used a lot of vegetables. For me, this is a cuisine that is valid,'' he explains. ``It has a style, and is exciting to do.''
His show is not about nutrition, he points out. It's about how we eat today. ``I want to show people how to eat better,'' he says.
In the TV series, he grills quail in a matter of minutes, and shows how trout can be deboned at the table. He uses Japanese rice wine vinegar to make a light sauce to dress up steamed broccoli, and prepares a dish of quinoa (pronounced ``keen-wah''), a South American grain. ``I want great variety in my menus,'' he says.
Another program on French country-style food includes his mother's recipes. A purist in her own traditions, Mrs. Pepin has conducted cooking classes in France.
Pepin started cooking at 13, and apprenticed in his parents' restaurant, Le Pelican, in Lyon, France. He came to the United States in 1959 after serving as personal chef to President Charles de Gaulle. Shortly after arriving, he turned down an invitation from President John F. Kennedy to cook in the White House. Instead, he worked with chef Pierre Franey at New York's Le Pavillon and then moved to the Howard Johnson Company, where he was director of research and new development. Later, he opened La Potagerie, a successful soup restaurant in New York, and set up the large commissary at New York's World Trade Center.
Perhaps best known today as a teacher and for his two landmark cookbooks, ``La Technique: The Fundamental Techniques of Cooking'' (New York: Random House, 1976) and ``La Methode: An Illustrated Guide to the Fundamental Methods of Cooking'' (New York: Times Books, 1979), Pepin today conducts gastronomy classes for professional chefs at Boston University. He also teaches food history and food criticism there. He is dean of studies at the French Culinary Institute in New York, the author of ten cookbooks, a food consultant, and a columnist for the New York Times. He lives in Madison, Conn., with his wife Gloria and their daughter Claudine.
Pepin spends 30 weeks a year crisscrossing the United States demonstrating and teaching cooking, along with lecturing and writing. His students' feedback has sensitized him to the needs of American home cooks, he says: He knows how to put a fine meal together quickly after a busy day.
``I want to satisfy the tastes of a discriminating audience with a cuisine that appeals to the epicurean and the jogger-sportsman as well as the busy home cook and the cosmopolitan single professional,'' he says.
With Gallic practicality and thoroughness, Pepin also shares ideas on simpler shopping, more efficient cleanup, and equipment for the shortcut cook.
His cookbook includes country French dishes served straight from the pot and an hors d'oeuvre dip that doubles as a pasta sauce (see recipe).
He offers shortcuts such as frozen bread dough for pizzas, calzones, and a French bread called fougasse; frozen squash for soup; and canned pimentos for a dip.
``A well-stocked larder is important, and I recommend a good-size freezer for shortcut cooking,'' he adds. He uses a microwave oven for certain vegetables and fish, and mentions one particular microwave advantage: ``It saves you time on cleaning and washup.''