Jacques Pepin and his feathered friends (Photo by Tom Hopkins)
At 86, Jacques Pepin is a household name among home cooks, not to mention people who grew up watching a lot of PBS. (When I texted my boyfriend to tell him I’d be interviewing Jacques Pepin, she excitedly asked me to invite him over for dinner at her house. I told her I’d see what I could do.)
A recitation of Pepin’s resume is unnecessary; Suffice it to say that if you’ve been interested in the culinary world for the past half century, you’re familiar with this French chef, teacher, television personality, and cookbook author.
After writing 30 cookbooks, Pepin, who has also painted for decades, now writes Art of the Chicken: A Master Chef’s Pictures, Stories, and Recipes for the Humble Birdwhich contains dozens of his paintings – bright, energetic and whimsical renderings of all types of polettes.
Dandy Cock By Jacques Pepin, watercolor
“I was married for 54 years. [Pépin’s wife, Gloria, died in December 2020.] When people came to the house, I wrote down the menu in the book. And on the other side, let people sign. So we have 12 big books, which are basically my whole life menu,” Pepin said. “I realized that I also loved drawing pictures of chickens on them, so I started painting chickens that way.” (You can see — and buy — Examples of these hand-drawn and illustrated menus at jacquespepinart.com.)
Pepin initially wanted to do a book dedicated only to his chicken paintings. His publisher initially agreed, but later requested recipes. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do the recipe!’ So I decided to do a memoir, the chicken and the egg, of course, talking about my experiences in different parts of the world.” Yes, there are recipes, but they have no measurements or directions, just a story of the steps Pepin went through in making them. “Some of them are probably viable and some are not because they are stories,” he said.
The book shows Pepin’s reverence for chickens in all their forms, from models to meals. Through his memoirs he argues that chicken is the most democratic food, not to mention the passport of other cuisines.
“I could probably do a book with 10,000 recipes for chicken,” he said. “From China to Africa, from roadside truck stops to cafeterias to three-star restaurants, you’ll have chicken with truffles under the skin or just fried chicken or whatever. I don’t know of any country in the world that doesn’t have chicken, any kind of cuisine. That’s why I say it’s democratic.” There’s food. So, you can always learn. You just have to travel a little bit, go to Australia or Turkey, and all of a sudden you see things that you’ve never seen before and that you’ve never had.”
“I don’t know any country in the world that doesn’t have chicken… it’s the food of democracy.” – Jacques Pepin
Learning, and even more so teaching, is a big part of Pepin’s brand. He not only co-founded Boston University’s Metropolitan College Certificate in Masters in Culinary Arts and Gastronomy with Julia Child, but was the founding dean of the French Culinary Institute in New York City (later the International Culinary Center, which merged with the Institute of Culinary Education in 2020). Since the start of the pandemic, he has channeled the energy of his old PBS cooking show into filming nearly 300 instructional cooking videos (the most recent being for a country omelet with potatoes, onions and herbs).
Indeed, just as chickens are a democratic ingredient, cooking is a democratic skill. To that end, a portion of proceeds from sales of Pepin’s books and paintings benefit the Jacques Pepin Foundation, which provides free culinary training to people facing employment barriers such as homelessness, incarceration and other challenges. “I’ve always said that everyone is the same in Stove’s eyes,” Pepin said. “The kitchen is a great equalizer, as well as the dining room for that matter. That’s how you bring people together and we probably don’t have enough of that.”
Jacques Pepin will discuss his new book, Chicken art, Saturday, Nov. 5 at 1 p.m. at Central Presbyterian Church, 200 E. Eighth. This is a ticketed event. Tickets are $37 and include a copy Art of the Chicken: A Master Chef’s Pictures, Stories, and Recipes for the Humble Bird (Harvest, 256 pp., $30).