A food fan from the first

Chef: Jacques Pepin, who was in the area to film live segments of a PBS show, had an early interest in learning to cook.

March 01, 2000|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Food Editor

In his newest TV show, internationally known chef Jacques Pepin bares all.

No, this isn't some sordid peek into the life of a celebrity. After all, Pepin is only a baby in the bare-bottomed buff shot taken more than 60 years ago in his hometown of Bourg-en-Bresse in Southeast France.

Rather, the innocent nudie scene sets the stage for a celebration of Pepin's life and a half-century in the kitchen. The famed chef, who now lives in Madison, Conn., was only 13 when he donned his first toque and headed to culinary school as an apprentice.

From there, he landed in Paris, where he eventually cooked for President Charles de Gaulle, and New York, where he was taken under the wing of master chef Pierre Franey in 1959.

On Sunday, Pepin, 64, brought his cooking expertise to Owings Mills to shoot live segments for the two-hour program "Chez Pepin," which aired that afternoon and will be shown again at noon Saturday on PBS.

With the skill of a maestro, Pepin deftly segments a chicken in minutes to compose a childhood favorite, Poulet a la Creme (chicken in cream sauce). Meanwhile, red phones are ringing on the other side of the room as volunteers at Maryland Public Television accept monetary pledges from viewers in support of such PBS shows.

Even battling laryngitis, Pepin, who just flew into town from a food-and-wine expo in Carmel, Calif., banters with MPT hostess Rhea Feiken, as he dumps about half a bottle of chardonnay -- add 1 tablespoon of wine, he quips, to laughter in the studio -- into the sizzling pot of aromatic chicken and shares stories about his wife of 34 years, Gloria; daughter, Claudine, 32; and various culinary friends.

He talked to Julia a few days ago, he tells the audience. Julia Child, that is, and the aging epicure, at 87, is fine, he assures his listeners. And Franey, who died in 1996, was like an older brother to him, he says.

Before the show, Pepin sits in the station's green room -- the term used for the waiting area for TV guests -- which, in this case, is maroon, and talks about "Chez Pepin." The show may serve as a pilot for a continuing series on French chefs, he says.

Filmed on location in Connecticut and France, the program features cooking segments on picnic fare, such as Grilled Chicken With Persillade and Baked Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms, and photos of his family, including his mother, Jeannette, now 85, and his best friend, retired pastry chef Jean-Claude Szurdak.

Pepin credits his mother with influencing his decision to cook. The family ran several restaurants while he was growing up in France with two brothers and his father, who died in 1965.

This day at MPT -- with 20 cookbooks, a magazine column and numerous food shows under his belt -- Pepin is not worried about cooking. He's worried about what shirt he'll wear on television.

Pepin, a short, stocky man with a bit of a paunch, a charming demeanor and an infectious smile, does not seem vain. He's merely wants the shirt's color to work on camera.

Finally, it's decided the green-blue plaid he's wearing goes with his blue apron with the umbrella logo. Colloquially, pepin means umbrella in French, he says. Also, no mascara, he politely tells makeup artist Deanna Haspett, who's applying a smidgen of base before the show and taking a few snips of hair around the ears. "There's not very much left," he says with a laugh, patting the top of his head.

But Pepin can't stay away from food, or talking about it, for long. In 50 years, he's seen many changes. "There are vegetables we didn't have. We had to string beans. Now, you don't. Herbs and oils, too. There are so many different types of oils, and cuts of meat. ... It's almost impossible to get a dry piece of chicken."

Appliances have evolved, too. "The food processor is now part of everyone's equipment," he says. "If you know how to use it, you can do a lot with it."

Pepin sees kitchens becoming more sophisticated, with expensive ovens and counter tops like granite, which he uses in his home. "People are interested in cooking, and the economy is good," he says.

For now, Pepin plans to continue cooking with his daughter, who lives in New York. The two have collaborated on shows and cookbooks. A new series on holiday food, featuring the duo, is expected to premiere in the fall.

Pepin also has become a cyber chef. He now has a Web site -- www.jacquespepin.net (dot com was taken, he says) -- which offers recipes, including several from his out-of-print books,kitchenware he has designed and more.

But some things will always stay the same, he says, such as the Pepin technique.

"Manual dexterity. I learned it as an apprentice. It really is the basis of what cooking is all about," he says, as he fashions a delicate rosebud from butter shavings. "If you teach them technique, they know how to cook. ... Technique doesn't change."

Grilled Chicken With Persillade

Serves 4 to 6

1 chicken, about 4 pounds

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

TO FINISH CHICKEN:

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