Jacques Pepin has a new public-television series, Essential Pepin, and an accompanying book of the same name. This chef has acquired millions of television followers over several decades and 12 previous public-TV cooking series. Even as his age has reached the mid-70s, the new series' quality remains as high, and the content as fresh, as ever...
Telling the many Pepin-followers the new series is well worth watching isn't necessary: they will find and enjoy it on their own. (Though telling them the recipe-filled companion book includes a DVD of Jacques-taught cooking techniques might qualify as news.)
But... For television viewers whose idea of food-oriented television is limited to the many meaningless cook-offs, ego-driven chefs and hosts whose sole accomplishment is eating too much, here's some advice:
Jacques Pepin is considered by many to be America's premier chef, best cooking teacher and least ego-driven cook on television. If you're serious about learning how to cook real food that's really good, look for this series. He teaches as effortlessly as you'll learn.
(You'll have to check local listings. The show began rolling out on public stations in October; it will be running on about 300 stations by the first of the year; and the Create public network that's available in many TV markets will devote a full day to the 26-episode series on Jan. 28.)
So to recap what could be the briefest review ever on this site:
If you know Jacques Pepin, there's no need to tell you Essential Pepin isn't to be missed. And if your previous criterion for excellent food television was the guy who ate spiders and crickets, watching this series will open your eyes in a delightfully rewarding way.
Why is Pepin so outstanding in a field that has grown more ubiquitous on television than tort-lawyer commercials? A new series and a new book was a golden opportunity to ask some people who would know: Tina Salter, who has produced many of the Pepin series, including this one; and Claudine Pepin, daughter of the chef and cohost and/or guest on several of the series (she and her young daughter, Shorey, seen at right, appear several times on this new series).
Salter, whose accomplishments in cooking preceded her television career, had worked on Martin Yan's cooking series before she was hired to produce for Pepin in the early '90s. The chemistry he has developed with viewers is a result of who he is, she said in a recent phone interview. It's not ego that propels him. It's the real drive he feels to share his food knowledge with others who want to learn -- as he once learned as a young apprentice in France.
"Jacques is amazing. He comes with great insights into his audience," she said. "He's the real creative force (behind the programs). He is the ultimate teacher. . . his ultimate goal is to share food information with you."
She told how he decides the selections for each episode and the order in which they will be prepared long before production begins. The most exacting part of her job, she said, is having all the ingredients ready and in the order they are needed before the two- or three-episode-a-day shooting begins.
But born as he seems to have been a great chef and teacher, Pepin's daughter explained how he entered the food business almost by default. His family ran restaurants, and Pepin, at a young age, was drafted into kitchen service.
"He always will also say he didn't have a choice," Claudine Pepin said by phone recently. "He has said that if he could have been anything else, he would have been a surgeon."
The conversation took place after she had just returned from grocery shopping with her daughter. Because of who she is, it seemed nosy but natural to ask if being the daughter of a great chef in the grocery story opens her to scrutiny.
"I do have somewhat of a bizarre sense of paranoia," she answered, not only about the types of food she buys might be perceived but also about how some people might judge the environmental and social responsibility of her purchases.
Even though Jacques Pepin, the surgeon, didn't happen, she said, he has never regretted his career path nor lost his enthusiasm for food. It continues as enthusiastically as always:
"There is nothing that is going to slow him down. He would tell you, 'Why would I slow down doing something I love doing?'
"He does love (doing the TV shows). I don't think he does it because he loves seeing himself on camera. He does it, I truly believe, because he can teach so many people."
She was in high school when her father did his first television show, and she said it didn't really impress her. Being with her friends, she explained, eclipsed at the time the unfolding legend that was beginning. As he did more shows, including the classic series he did with Julia Child, and she grew, she realized what a treasure her father was becoming. Her admiration for his talent and skills and his enthusiasm for sharing with others now probably surpasses even the most devoted fan:
"I watch him was fascination, as well," she said. "The most soothing sound for me is just to watch and listen."