Lately, I’ve been rewatching a lot of Jacques Pépin’s KQED show, Jacques Pépin Cooking At Home, which was shot and released smack-dab in the middle of the pandemic. The show is exactly what it says it is—Jacques Pépin cooking inside of his Connecticut home—but there’s something about it that feels both current and important. Maybe there’s something about seeing his videos sandwiched between suggested content titled “We ate a $30,000 taco” and “$400 Happy Meal” that just seems, I don’t know, fresh. There’s an energizing realism to Pépin’s cooking, and there’s a lot to learn from that.
Cooking at home, like the actual act of cooking—what you and I do when we’re not taking photos for Instagram—is not a glamorous pursuit, and neither is Pépin’s show. Watch it and you’ll see that there’s an incredible amount of vulnerability in what he shows us. Sometimes the pan is overcrowded. Some of his onions appear to not cook evenly. A lot of his delicious meals look wet, flat, and colorless. But that’s exactly what it’s like to actually cook at home, despite what Bon Appetit and Alison Roman would have you believe.
In the interest of capturing the realism of such cooking, Pépin often uses random, thrifty substitutions and ingredients that seemingly appear out of nowhere. Things like a container of salsa in place of canned tomatoes, or the addition of some old, moldy cheese. Butno ingredient makes more of a consistent appearance than mushrooms. A random, spare, out of place, old, crusty mushroom that Pépin seemingly always has rolling around in his refrigerator.
The first time I noticed a random mushroom was this recipe for Grandma’s Favorite Steak, where Pépin says, “I have one mushroom here. I don’t think we had that in the original recipe, but I just happened to have it in the refrigerator, so I’m going to use it.”
Grandma’s Favorite Steak is a rather wet steak with parsley, anchovy, lemon, and garlic—and now, mushroom. The thing about always having one mushroom on. hand is that there aren’t many dishes it won’t improve. It’ll add a little bit of meatiness to your food, yet stay just hidden enough that you don’t feel like you’re now eating a full-on mushroom dish.
In his Chicken Legs with Yams video, Pépin jams a few whole mushrooms into the pot with sweet potato, chicken legs, and onion. Certainly, the mushrooms don’t need to be in this dish—they’re almost an afterthought. But they show up again and again.
“I have a couple of mushroom here,” he says in his wonderfully gentle voice while cooking pork tenderloin.
“Some mushrooms there,” he says during the preparation of Sausage en Papillote, scattering a few dry-looking mushrooms into his aluminum foil cooking vessel. “They’re a bit dark, but perfectly fine.”
“I have one mushroom that I find in my refrigerator,” he notes as he prepares his Chicken in Cream Sauce recipe.
He “found” it, like he stashes them away in various places he can’t remember, knowing he’ll be delighted to discover them down the road. Does Pépin always keep a few random mushrooms in his fridge? He never talks about it, but after watching 20 episodes of Cooking at Home, I’m confident that’s the case.
For me, a mushroom has always been purposeful. I can’t say that I’ve ever just found a random mushroom in my fridge, but now I might start stashing a few here and there, then blowing them out in pasta, rice, soup, and egg dishes as I see fit.
There’s a wonderful chaos in adding a single, old, crusty mushroom to a dish, a level of resourcefulness that’s not just cheap and practical, but an example of all that home cooking can be. Pépin’s imprecise yet highly intentional process is perfectly encapsulated in his use of these old-ass mushrooms.
After a long, illustrious career as a chef, author, and food personality, I’m sure Jacques Pépin is doing just fine, and yet nobody is more economical than this man.
“I never throw bread out,” he says in one episode, in maybe the most serious manner I’ve ever seen him say anything.
Pépin uses canned beans and peels away mold. His fromage fort sees him meticulously slicing off the spoiled ends of some old cheese to make a smooth and pungent spread. (“Even if there’s a bit of mold, you know, cheese, especially like blue cheese, it is what it is. Mold. It’s fine.”) He makes English muffin burgers. He prepares a vinaigrette by shaking vinegar in a near-empty jar of mayonnaise. He devises a “bastardized” (his word) cassoulet with three different types of sausage—Italian, bratwurst, and a hot dog—scrounged from his freezer. I repeat: He’s using frozen hot dogs for a cassoulet. My man isn’t afraid of nobody.
The plating of these dishes is simple, nothing fancy. It’s not meant to pop on Instagram. Pépin is a rarity in today’s internet video landscape, as special and singular as a mushroom hanging out in the deepest reaches of his refrigerator.
He also just might be the antidote to a lot of the nonsense found in modern internet cooking. I know we’ve all been bloodthirsty for restaurant dining this past year and we’ve largely left our conservative pandemic cooking habits behind, but given the current state of food prices, it might be best for us to get back to basics. There’s no one, not a chef alive, better suited to showing new home cooks the ropes than Jacques Pépin, King of Thrift. In an age of performatively fancy meals and TikTok cooking stunts, seeing this decorated, timeless French chef cut corners means the world. Long live Pépin and his mushrooms.