The best lessons Jacques Pépin has taught us

Illustration for article titled The best lessons Jacques Pépin has taught us
Graphic: Allison Corr

Jacques Pépin is a wonderful and charming food educator. His French accent and calm self-assurance put you at ease, allowing you to freely absorb his teachings. Moreover, his French-bourgeois/American-middle class kitchen sensibilities produce the type of kitchen tips you’ll find yourself actually practicing. At the heart of Jacques’ PBS shows is what many consider to be true, soulful cooking: the frugal kind that’s done at home.

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Nobody is more relatable than Jacques. He cooks with ketchup. He doesn’t shy away from choosing a food processor over a mortar and pestle. He will peel open a container of cream cheese to make a quick mousse, blanch basil in the microwave, and clean out a nearly empty bottle of mayonnaise with a little vinegar to whip up a vinaigrette. Jacques’ recipes are, maybe more than those on any other cooking show, pragmatic.

Jacques’ profound greatness as a cook is almost hidden by his understated benevolence. Years spent working in the business have molded him into the man you see today: a sharp, mindful, seasoned chef. Though his approach might be relatable, his skills are otherworldly. Still, he remains unassuming, and that is what makes him so consistently watchable. There is humility, wonder, grace, and warmth in his work. But, more than anything, there is an unspoken kindness to Jacques that people are drawn to. It’s refreshing, in this day and age, to see somebody exude so much gentleness on screen. Jacques does not have the demeanor of somebody who has ever belittled a sous chef. Nothing about his personality suggests that he’s ever thrown a plate against a wall in unchecked rage. He is not a petulant chef-baby in need of therapy. He proves you don’t have to be an asshole to be a great cook.

Jacques’ television career began in the ’90s, so everything he does is a throwback to the old-school cooking program days. His shows aren’t thoughtless TikTok challenges or Tasty videos where somebody completely fucking butchers a mac and cheese. There aren’t smash cuts and 30-second recipe videos with jacked-up ukulele loops. He isn’t cracking a 200-egg omelet purely for the spectacle or recreating a home-cooked version of the Baconator for you to mindlessly enjoy while lying uncomfortably in your bed. Watching a Jacques Pépin show is meant to be a pleasant, immersive, and educational experience, because that’s what cooking is. And that’s the thing about Jacques Pépin: he actually wants you to cook.

Dozens of episodes from his TV shows are available online for free, and he’s still, to this day, making videos. Here are some of his best lessons. Happy Cooking.


What to do with old cheese

It’s not often you see a chef on TV peel away mold from a brick of cheese, but that’s exactly what Jacques does here. He uses a bunch of cheese from his fridge and freezer to make a fromage fort, essentially a cheese spread with white wine. This recipe is classic Jacques: thrifty and easy to replicate, plus it uses a food processor. At the end of this video he also very nonchalantly lists some great uses for cheese spread: on top of soup, in pasta, and with potatoes gratin. He’s economical and creative. Nothing goes to waste.

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How to make an omelet

If you want to learn how to make a proper French omelet, there is no better video than this one. It’s loaded with technique. Jacques seasons the eggs with salt and pepper first (the notion that salt makes your eggs watery in the end is bogus, FYI). He expertly whisks the eggs with a fork before explaining the subtle differences between a browned country omelet and a classic French omelet. He’s also the only chef I’ve seen explain that when you plate an omelet, you’re actually inverting it. Grabbing the pan handle from underneath might feel unnatural at first, but it simplifies getting the omelet out of the pan and onto the plate. There’s so much to learn from this video: the way he swirls the butter, his constant shaking and stirring of the pan, his control of heat. If you want to master the omelet, watch and replicate all of his movements. This is a master class that’s going to live forever.

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Knife skills

Jacques is well into his 80s and still wields a knife like a goddamn assassin. Watching him dice an onion might leave you feeling inferior, but his movements are so graceful that this video is worth a watch for both beginners and experts alike. Jacques explains basics like how to use a wet towel to stabilize your cutting board and prevent sliding, and why it’s good to keep your free hand “glued” to the side of the knife blade. More than anything Jacques excels at using his thumb. Watch closely as he peels a cucumber quickly, but pay extra close attention to this section on using a paring knife. To peel a tougher skin, of say, an apple, he chokes up the knife handle and lets his thumb do the work. For something more delicate, like peeling a tomato, he holds the knife at the base and saws. Watching Jacques peel a tomato skin floret is just a thing of beauty. He is a surgeon with a paring knife, and just overall a bad motherfucker.

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How to sauté steak

A consistent theme through Jacques’ videos is sautéed steak. In Cooking at Home, he cooks Steak Grandma, a dish inspired by the way his grandmother used to cook steak. Sautéed steak is both old school French-American fine dining as well as a comfy, easy, recipe to recreate at home. This is the quintessential Jacques recipe, both technique-driven and attainable for the home cook. Let Jacques guide you as he makes a simple mustard sauce or wine reduction, and marvel at how he always seems to find exactly one mushroom in his fridge.

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60-second recipes

Fast Food My Way on PBS is a great place to become acquainted with Jacques Pepin. At the beginning of each episode, Jacques creates an easy 60-second recipe, usually an hors d’oeuvre, something that you could easily serve to your family or at dinner party. Each episode is a great watch, especially if you have any interest in hosting a dinner. Jacques, after all, famously has volumes of notebooks in which he illustrates each menu from his dinner parties. Amazing.

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What to do if Julia Child pulls a gun on you

In an early episode of Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, Julia Child pulls a a gun on Jacques right before he attempts to whisk faster than a stand up mixer. In this surprising and tense moment, Jacques remains calm, cool, and collected and does exactly as Julia says. Kitchens, after all, are high-pressure environments.

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Danny is a comedian and writer living in Los Angeles. Instagram @palumbros

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