Jacques Pépin

By: Tom Nealon
December 18, 2010

More renowned these days for his enjoyable, if often middlebrow, work with Julia Child on PBS, Pépin (born 1935) wrote two books in the 1970s that have made ripples through haute cuisine ever since. La Technique (1976) and La Methode (1979) provide step-by-step directions for turning out even the most intimidating elements of French cuisine. In the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th, Antoine Carême and Auguste Escoffier codified and made modular the disparate elements of haute cuisine, putting the finishing touches on three hundred years of delicious snobbery. Pépin reassembled these techniques (often reduced, strained and sautéed into abstrusion) and lined them up with photos for actual humans to use. Julia Child is justifiably lauded for bringing French cuisine to the masses of meatloaf stuffed Americans, but it was Pépin who showed us how to prepare it. Today, if there is a counterbalance to the excesses of molecular gastronomy — cooking with liquid nitrogen, mass spectrometers and centrifuges — it remains Pépin’s simple, but never dumbed-down instructions.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Michael Moorcock.

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What do you think?

  1. Why the hostility to molecular gastronomy? The name is rather unfortunate, but what’s wrong with using new tools to cook and prepare food in ways that weren’t possible a few decades ago? I would understand if it were taking over the restaurant world, but it seems to be content to occupy a niche with technological advances like sous vide cooking that are broadly useful spreading osmotically through the industry. Jacques Pépin deserves the praise, but why does it need to be at molecular gastronomy’s expense? I’ve never seen or read any hostility from Pépin on the subject, so why the attack?

  2. I’m only hostile to the excesses – I’m as a big a fan of Hervé This as anyone, it’s the ripping the beating heart out of cookery, freezing it with liquid nitrogen, shattering it into a thousand pieces, and serving it with a beet salad inexplicably warmed with a blow torch that gets on my nerves a little. It’s showy for no reason – the opposite of Pépin.

    In the 18th century, as haute cuisine (royal cuisine, at the time) got increasingly absurd, there was a recipe in Le Cuisinier Gascon (1740) that I always thought was instructive – it called for a sauce for chicken to be made from a roast duck that was squeezed over the chicken and then discarded.

  3. Ah, fair enough. I misinterpreted your argument as calling the whole enterprise excessive. I have a little more patience for the field’s self-indulgence, but some chefs certainly take wild leaps beyond the justifiable.

    As for squeezing a duck over a chicken, why wouldn’t you just keep the duck, or squeeze it over another duck?

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