When I worked at WOR Radio in New York, I produced Food Talk with Arthur Schwartz. I’ve talked about Arthur here before as someone who had a major influence in my leaving radio and heading into ministry full time. But I haven’t talked about the many characters from the “Food World” that I got to meet. So today’s New York Times brought back memories of one of them, Jacques Pepin.
I met Jacques accidentally. Arthur and I went to the James Beard Awards, which are essentially “the Oscars” of the food world. We were nominated for “Best Radio Show on Food.” We didn’t win. And frankly, we were cranky about it.
So we decided to start drinking.
I got in line for the wet bar and the guy in front of me swung around. His James Beard award medal was the first thing I saw before I looked in his face. He politely extended his hand and said,
“Oh hello, I am Jacques Pepin. Who are you? Why are you here tonight?”
At that moment I had two thoughts. One was that if someone as famous as Jacques could take some time to introduce himself so elegantly and so openly to a complete stranger and a nobody like me, then I needed to do the same. My second thought was that he was such a gentleman–in his tux, looking wonderful, friendly. I couldn’t imagine anyone saying a bad word about him.
“I’m Mike Hayes, Mr. Pepin. It’s nice to meet you. I produce Arthur Schwartz’s radio show on WOR.”
He smiled broadly, “Oh my goodness, you are so lucky to be working with Arthur! And please call me Jacques or even Jack, as my American friends sometimes do. Oh and you must come and have a drink with me.”
And so I did. My new friend knew how to drink too. He could have put any of us under the table. And from the start of that evening until the end of it he remained the perfect gentlemen. He could either really hold his liquor, or he was just one of the most genuine people I had ever met.
The next day, Arthur and I had “A loser’s show.” We invited the losers from the James Beard awards on our show as a consolation. We started out by telling our audience that we had not won our James Beard Award and then we started naming all the great chefs, TV hosts and cookbook authors who had not won and award as well. Every time I called one of our guests I greeted them with, “Hello, LOSER!”
Passive-agressive behavior at its best.
But we made one exception that day and invited only one winner on the show:
We did so because in victory he was so incredibly humble and he worked the room all night long. Alcohol never tasted so good as it did when I drank with Jacques. And food always tastes great when he has anything to do with it. The NY Times has a great article on his Technique.
This month marks the arrival of “Essential Pépin” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40), a cookbook that gathers together hit recipes from the arc of his career, from his childhood deprivation in France during World War II and his teenage apprenticeship in an array of French restaurants to his eventual ascent to fame as one of the first chefs who went on television to teach Americans to cook.
The book, his 26th, comes with an instructional DVD, coincides with the start of a new 26-episode TV series of the same name, and overflows with more than 700 recipes.
At the root of each one lies a deep-tissue database of skills that can’t be picked up by flipping a few pages. In case anyone needed a reminder about the importance of technique, Mr. Pépin himself had hand-painted tiles in his kitchen with mantralike slogans: “Great cooking favors the prepared hands” was one. “A great chef is first a great technician” was another.
One of my prized possessions is a cookbook signed by both Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. I don’t use it often, embarrassingly enough. I can hold my own in the kitchen but fail to have enough time to do it really well. But I’m going to start devoting some Saturday evenings to doing just that.
So blessings on your new book, Jacques. Thanks for being so nice to me when you had no reason to be. May I take that lesson into my own life, especially the life of my students, and become as gracious as you always are.
And I’ll raise a glass or two of wine tonight in your honor. French, of course!