Voice of a culinary master

With a brilliant culinary career that has included cooking for three French heads of state, writing 19 top-selling cookbooks, and hosting several award-winning television series, Jacques Pepin is entitled to gloat a bit. But with characteristic modesty, Mr. Pepin simply comments that after 50 years in the kitchen, he is a "skilled technician who can execute a recipe closely."

Pepin was born in Bourg-en-Bresse, France, and began cooking at age 13 when he apprenticed at his parents' restaurant in nearby Lyon. He trained in Paris at the Meurice restaurant and the Plaza Athenee before working as personal chef to Felix Gaillard, Pierre Pfimlin, and Charles de Gaulle. In 1959, Pepin moved to the United States. His star has most recently shined alongside Julia Child on their public-television series "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home," and with his spirited daughter on the PBS double-header "Cooking With Claudine" and "Encore With Claudine." Not one to put his feet up, Pepin is now taping "Jacques Pepin Celebrates!" which features holiday recipes and will air in the autumn of 2001.

Recently Pepin paused just long enough to talk about those leading ladies - Julia and Claudine, his good friend Craig Claiborne, food trends, and his passion for painting.

You and Julia seem to have such a good time, constantly teasing each other, but always with the utmost respect.

I've known Julia for 40 years. We joke a lot, but we have very few differences. We agree that good, proper techniques are essential, and that cooking is all about bringing friends and family together. She is a powerful, strong woman with amazing stamina. She cuts right through fads and is very secure about what she thinks. People love that, especially in these politically correct times.

Is Claudine just playing the part of klutz in the kitchen, or is she truly inexperienced?

No, she's not acting. She is more knowledgeable about cooking than she thinks. She'll order rack of lamb in a restaurant, and she loves caviar, but she's really not much of a cook. My wife, on the other hand, is a great cook.

What do you consider the greatest contribution made by the late New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne?

I took Craig to the circus just a few months before he passed away. We had such a good time. He was the most important of all food giants. He gave food writers great prominence since he took his craft so seriously. He created a system of food reviewing for the New York Times that is now widely followed. He also introduced more ethnic cooking than anyone. And his New York Times cookbook is extraordinary.

What are the most dramatic changes in American food since you've lived here?

When I came to the states in 1959, grocery stores carried only two lettuces, one type of potato, and absolutely no shallots or olive oil. Now, supermarkets are more beautiful than ever. And people are also cooking at home more often. Of course, some people will never cook. There is more of a dichotomy now between those who eat pizza or macaroni and cheese and those who appreciate really good food.

What about changes in France, where, in some areas, supermarket shopping is taking the place of daily trips to the farmer's market?

I am an optimist. I don't think this change is all bad. My mother shops at the supermarket, and the food is quite beautiful there. But I still love to buy fresh food on the day I'm cooking it. I'm going to Provence next week, and I can't wait to shop at the market every day.

How do you feel about bioengineered foods?

I don't want to close my eyes to this process. I hope bioengineering will be a great advancement when it's complete in a few years. If you can have a tomato that lasts two weeks instead of four days, is resistant to pesticides, and still tastes vine-ripened, why not? But certain bacteria does go along with such manipulation. I would want to evaluate each case individually, and I firmly believe food should be clearly labeled.

Many people are unaware of your rather remarkable talent for painting. Do you express your creativity with a paintbrush the way you do with a whisk?

I've been painting forever and have had many art shows, but unlike working with food, I don't control the final result. I might have an idea of what it will look like. Sometimes it turns out pretty well. I could even be astonished by the result. But other times, it's just a mess. With cooking, my creation is more controlled and predictable. I might think to myself "That's enough. Don't touch it anymore." My art isn't like that.

Do you have a secret indulgence?

I love corn flakes. I think good bread with butter is perhaps the most extraordinary thing one can eat. I also love caviar with a slice of ham. I guess I'm just a glutton.

Pita Pizzas

Instead of conventional pizza dough, we [sometimes] use commercial pita bread rounds, splitting them in half to have six very thin "crusts". Fun, colorful, and delicious, these pizzas couldn't be easier to prepare.

You will need several large pita bread disks (7 to 8 inches in diameter), each cut around the seam and separated into halves.

Arrange pita halves crust side down in one layer on a large cookie sheet and top with any of the following. Cooking instructions follow:

Anchovy Pizza

1 pita bread half (see above)

2 scallions, cleaned and cut into thin slices (1/3 cup)

1 large clove garlic, peeled and thinly sliced (1 teaspoon)

1 dozen pitted kalamata olives, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (1/4 cup)

4 anchovy fillets, halved

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Arrange scallions and garlic on a pita bread half. Top with olives, anchovy fillets, oil, and mozzarella.

Chicken Pizza

1 pita bread half (see above)

2 ounces thinly sliced cooked chicken pieces

1/3 cup thinly sliced mushrooms

1 piece (2 ounces) zucchini, cut into julienne strips

1 clove garlic, peeled and thinly sliced (1 teaspoon)

2 tablespoons soft goat cheese

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Dash of salt

Dash of freshly ground black pepper

Arrange the sliced chicken on top of a pita bread half, and cover it with the mushrooms and zucchini.

Top with garlic, goat cheese, oil, salt, and pepper.

Yellow Pepper, Gruyere and Pine Nuts Pizza

1 pita bread half (see above)

3 tablespoons diced (1/2-inch) yellow bell pepper

2 tablespoons pine nuts

10 oil-cured black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

2 scallions, cleaned and coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Dash of freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup grated gruyere cheese

Arrange the diced yellow pepper on a pita bread half, and add the nuts.

Sprinkle the olives and scallions over the peppers, and top with the oil, pepper, and cheese.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Place pizzas on cookie sheet and bake for 13 to 15 minutes, until they are bubbly, brown, and cooked through.

Transfer pizzas to a plate, cut each into four wedges, and serve them immediately.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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