Jacques Pépin

May 1994

Food Arts presents the May 1994 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Jacques Pépin, for his ebullient and articulate 35-year French culinary ambassadorship to all corners of the United States.

Pépin was born in Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyon, the lusty gastronomic epicenter of France; from early childhood he was at home in the kitchen of Le Pelican, his parents' restaurant there. A couple of years ahead of his class, after taking the final school exams, he promptly embarked at age 13 on a formal apprenticeship in his hometown at the distinguished Grand Hotel de l'Europe. Soon he moved on to Paris hotels, working first at the Meurice and then at the Plaza-Athénée under the tutelage of legendary chef Lucien Diat. Predictably precocious, he next became personal chef to three French heads of state, the last being 20th-century titan Charles de Gaulle, who, according to Pépin, was so scrupulous in his accounting that he insisted on being billed personally for Sunday family dinners after church.

By age 23, Pépin began "to feel claustrophobic in Europe. America was a big country, more open to everything. So I got on a student ship and went." Two days after his arrival in 1959, with no command of English, he found work at the Toque Blanche in Manhattan. While holding down a full-time job, he proceeded to learn the language, pass a high school equivalency test, and earn both a bachelor of arts and a master's degree at Columbia in French literature: "I went on for a Ph.D. in the history of French cuisine in literature, from the 16th century through Proust, but food wasn't what food is today so it wasn't acceptable as a subject. Today, it would be accepted gladly."

America, he discovered, indeed had "no limits, no walls. I came from nowhere and could do what I wanted." This included cooking at Le Pavillon, serving a ten-year stint as director of research and new development for the Howard Johnson Company, and developing the concept for Le Potagerie, a successful Manhattan soup restaurant. A mover in the media, he went on to produce groundbreaking step-by-step books on classic French culinary techniques, along with several other tomes, newspaper and magazine columns, his own popular ongoing PBS television series called "Today's Gourmet," video cassettes, plus video/cookbook sets featuring heart-healthy and low-calorie recipes of his devising.

Eternally youthful and engagingly buoyant, Pépin simultaneously serves as dean of special programs for the French Culinary Institute in New York City; as co-founder of The American Institute of Wine and Food; as a trustee of the James Beard Foundation and active member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals; and as visiting teacher at Boston University and numerous cooking schools around the country. Pépin, who lives in Connecticut with his wife, Gloria, estimated he spends around 30 weeks a year on the road: "I give over a quarter of my time to charities and foundations; today there's so much need, you could give 125 percent." He may not know it, but 125 percent is the impression Pépin invariably gives no matter what he trains his energies on.