Alone In The Kitchen With An Old Frenchman

Starting this weekend, we are introducing a new series on cooking. Recently French chef Jacques Pépin turned 80 and retired. Over the years, he educated viewers of Public Television on how to cook and, something that no other cooking show host has done, techniques in the kitchen with wisdom, humor and a smattering of French lessons. As Gilad Edelman wrote in a Slate article, this man will teach you how to cook

One of the best TV chefs ever just retired, and you probably never watched him.

Not that Jacques Pépin—classically trained French chef, intimate of the late Julia Child, and former New York Times food columnist—is obscure, exactly. He served as the personal chef to three French presidents, including Charles de Gaulle, and worked at the renowned New York City restaurant Le Pavillon in the 1950s and ’60s. His encyclopedic 1976 guide to French cooking, La Technique, is legendary among professional chefs. But because his many cooking shows were tucked away on public television, he never became a household name on the level of Emeril Lagasse or Rachael Ray. (Pépin, who turned 80 last year, has said that his 13th PBS series, Heart & Soul, which concluded in March, will be his last.) That’s a shame, because his shows are an antidote to much of what ails modern food TV and, by extension, American cooking culture.

It has become cliché to observe that Americans spend more and more time watching cooking shows and less and less actually cooking. Usually the phenomenon is blamed on competition shows like Top Chef or Chopped, in which the actual preparation of food is secondary to the heat of competition and the novelty of exotic ingredients. But it’s the more traditional cooking shows—the ones in which a host, alone in a kitchen, shows the audience how to make a dish—that tell us more about the disconnect between food TV and American kitchens. That’s because even these aren’t really cooking shows; they’re recipe shows.

If you don’t know how to cook, or think you don’t know, it’s probably because you’re wary of peeling an onion or trimming the fat from a cut of meat. Yet most TV cooking hosts skip or breeze past precisely these moments: the vegetables are diced off-camera, the garlic is pre-minced, and the duck, I swear to God, may be pre-roasted. The host does little more than narrate the recipe, as if literacy were the greatest barrier to making dinner. With the trickiest details left unilluminated, these shows can make cooking seem harder, not easier.

For decades, Pépin was a quiet but glorious exception to this rule: a TV chef who explained the how of cooking, not merely the what. In his shows, very few steps are elided, very few ingredients prepared in advance. Pépin is almost a compulsive teacher; he can barely pick up a carrot without explaining how to peel it. Teaching is fundamentally about appreciating the gap between what you know and what your student knows, and Pépin is unusually sensitive to the moments in which a fledgling cook can wander off course.

Minute Recipe: Basil Cheese Dip.

Born in Lyon, France, Jacques demonstrates his regional versions of fried and poached eggs as he makes the classic salad Frisée aux Lardons. Then, with thoughts of summer, he makes Spaghetti with Fresh Tomato and Anchovy Sauce. In a sweet ending, Jacques talks about spending time with his granddaughter while he makes an impressive-looking — but simple to assemble — Chocolate Cups and Chocolate Rocher with Hazelnuts and Cornflakes.