A look back – An interview with Jacques Pepin, chef and snowbird extraordinaire

By Anne H. Oman
July 3, 2021

Originally posted March 17, 2019

Editor’s Note:  From Friday, July 3, until Monday, July 5, the Fernandina Observer staff is taking a  holiday break.  For your Independence Day weekend enjoyment, we are “looking back” and posting articles from the past. Enjoy the 4th!

Jacques Pépin spends time with Anne Oman, reporter-at-large, after a luncheon event at Story & Song. Photo courtesy of Patricia Davenport

Jacques Pépin got his first taste of Amelia Island when he came to the Ritz-Carlton to do a cooking demonstration for WJCT. He returned the next year with his team from Madison, Connecticut to compete in the annual Pétanque America tournament organized by Phillippe Boets.

“I’ve been playing for 70 years, and I’m no better at it,” he confessed.

Now, every winter, Chef Pépin leaves the cold of Connecticut for Fernandina Beach, where he rents a house, and can be seen walking his small black dog, Gascon, shopping at Atlantic Seafood or at the Saturday Farmers’ Market and dining with his wife of 53 years, Gloria, at his favorite restaurant, Espana, often on “drunken clams” (“almejas borrachas”) or paella.

Why Fernandina?

“We just like it,” he told the Observer. “It’s drivable from Connecticut. It’s not too hot – like Miami. And the food scene is good – there are an amazing amount of good restaurants in town.”

Last week, over a luncheon event at Story & Song, where bistro chef Tanya Clark prepared Hot Pǎté in Puff Pastry, Potato Salad with Mayogrette Dressing, Salad Vinaigrette and Chocolate Nut and Fruit Treats from recipes in his latest book, A Grandfather’s Lessons, and in an after-lunch interview with the Observer, the genial 83-year-old talked — with just a soupc̡on of a French accent– about his life in the kitchen and beyond.

Born at Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyon, he grew up in wartime.

“My father left to join the resistance,” he recalled. “We lived next to a railroad station. Our apartment house was bombed three times, but all three times it was empty.”

The biggest challenge was getting enough to eat. His mother combed the countryside on a bicycle, buying whatever she could from farmers. To supplement these gleanings, the family grew potatoes, onions and salad greens in a community plot. In summer, six-year-old Jacques was sent to a farm, where he got room and board in exchange for chores, such as herding and milking cows. After the war, his mother opened a restaurant.

“My father was a cabinet maker,” he said. “My mother ran a restaurant. There was no chance I could be a doctor or lawyer. I could be either a cabinet maker or a cook.”

He left school at 13 (he later earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in French Literature at Columbia University, which recently awarded him an honorary doctorate) and started as an unpaid apprentice in a local hotel, where he performed such humble chores as cleaning the stove and feeding the hotel dogs before he was allowed to advance to such elevated duties as chopping parsley, scaling fish, and plucking poultry. (His slog to the pinnacle of chef-dom is chronicled in his book, The Apprentice).

At the age of 17, he decided to try his luck in Paris, where he found work at La Rotonde, the Montparnasse brasserie frequented by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and other intellectuals, and, later, at the posh Plaza Athénée hotel. Then along came the Algerian war, and M. Pépin was drafted into the Navy. As part of his Navy service, he acted as chef to three French heads of state, including the formidable Charles de Gaulle.

Was le General very demanding?

“I dealt with Madame de Gaulle,” he said, describing her as a soft-spoken, unfailingly polite woman very solicitous of her husband’s health. Although the General liked lamb, Mme. de Gaulle cautioned the chef not to make it too rare as rare lamb would be bad for the General’s blood.
“They were very religious and very honest,” he said. “After church on Sunday, they would host a lunch for eight or ten family members, including children. They would have me put the expenses on a special ledger so they could pay for it themselves.”

In 1959, his Navy service completed, M. Pépin embarked on a new adventure — to the new world and New York, where he promptly found work at the august Le Pavillon, under Chef Pierre Franey, who became a good friend – as did Julia Child, New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne, and cookbook author James Beard.

“The food world in New York was very small then,” he recalled.

While working at Le Pavillon, he moonlighted as a ski instructor in the Catskills, where he met his future wife, Gloria, a native New Yorker with a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father.
“She took a private lesson from me, but didn’t tell me she was already an excellent skier – a member of the ski patrol,” he said.

The two were married in 1966 at Craig Claiborne’s home in East Hampton, and Chef Pépin cooked the food for the wedding feast.

“I was cooking a couple of hours before the wedding,” he recalled.

Today, he does most of the family cooking, but has high praise for his wife’s cuisine and has included several of her recipes in his books.

What foods does he favor?

Although he applauds the local shrimp (he once grilled shrimp at the harbor front courts for the pétanque players), he insists “I am a glutton – I eat anything.”

Asked what he would demand for the last meal, he grinned and replied:

“It would be a very long meal, caviar, squab, maybe a hot dog… Actually, if I knew that I were going to the guillotine, I probably wouldn’t be able to eat.”

With 28 cookbooks and several television series to his credit, as well as three of the French Government’s highest honors and a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award, Jacques Pépin is clearly a “celebrity chef.” But he seems a bit uncomfortable with the phenomenon.

“When I started out, it wasn’t as fashionable to be a chef as it is today,” he said. “Everyone wanted their daughter to marry a doctor or lawyer, not a chef. When Jacqueline Kennedy started having her picture taken with chefs, it became a different world. Today, young chefs think they are geniuses – it’s pretty dangerous.”

Instead of the glitz, Chef Pépin is currently devoting his energy to the nitty-gritty of the profession, following his maxim that “We are all equal in the eyes of the stove.” With his daughter, Claudine, and his son-in-law, Rollie Wesen, a Ph.D. candidate at Johnson and Wales University, he has started the Jacques Pépin Foundation to provide culinary training to disadvantaged people. He will soon head to New York for an April 4 benefit for the foundation at the Yale Club.

Next fall, in his role as Executive Chef for Oceania Cruises, he will host two voyages: one along the Atlantic coast of France and one in the Mediterranean. But, come winter, along with the other snow birds who flock to Amelia Island, this oiseau de neige will return to Fernandina – and to a hearty “welcome back.”

Editor’s Note: Anne H. Oman relocated to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle and other publications.