The Apprentice - My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin - The famed French / American chef's autobiography, is different from most autobiographies because it focuses as much or more on his early life as it does on the years he became famous.
He is as wonderful a writer as a cook. In prose that reads exactly like he sounds Pepin tells of a life devoted to cooking and of his passionate love of good food.
Growing up in rural France on the edge of the mountains he was working in a restaurant kitchen from the time he was 10 as he helped his mother in a series of restaurants she owned.
He left school at 13 1/2 in 1948 to enter into an apprenticeship in the restaurant of a prominent local hotel. While startling today that he left school so young it was common in France at that time to be out of school at 14.
His apprenticeship was grueling. Long hours were spent in the kitchen on menial tasks. Each day it was his responsibility to get the huge black stove started and properly heated with wood and coal. It was a year before he was allowed to actually cook anything on the stove.
While the demands of the apprenticeship were excessive he enjoyed his life in the kitchen and learned the skills that were to make him a great chef.
I had not known that the French chefs of that era did not have written recipes. They learned by watching and following senior chefs. He learned to cook by using his senses. He says:
By touching a piece of meat, I learned to determine its degree of
doneness. Raw meat was spongy, well-done meat hard. I learned
precisely how to determine all the stages in between by pushing
a finger against the meat. Hearing was significant, too. The snap
of an asparagus spear, the crunch of an apple, the pop of a grape
are all indicators of freshness and quality. I learned to listen to
the sizzling sound of a chicken roasting in the oven. When le
poulet chante (the chicken sings) I knew that the layers of fat
had clarified, signifying that the chicken was nearly done. Smell
was of importance in recognizing quality. A fresh fish smells of
the sea, sea weed and salt. Fresh meat has a sweet smell, fresh
poultry practically no smell at all. Melon, pears, tomatoes,
raspberries, oranges and the like each have their own distinctive
fragrance when perfectly ripe.
In almost every biographical description of Pepin he is described as a personal chef for Charles de Gaulle. It seemed incredible as he was in his early 20's when de Gaulle was in power in the mid-1950's and was in America when de Gaulle was back as leader in the 1960's.
In the book he explains he was drafted into the French navy. Because of his friendship with a fellow native of Lyons he was assigned to a posting that had him cooking for the Secretary of the Treasury. From there he became chef to the Prime Minister when the Secretary was made Prime Minister. Pepin stayed as chef when de Gaulle became leader. It was a job, not the prestigious position it is today.
Still Pepin already had formidable cooking skills. By the time he reached 21 he had already spent 11 years in restaurant kitchens.
Looking for a change in life he came to New York City in 1959. He immediately entered the upper echelon of American chefs.
In an era when "foodie" had yet to be invented the number of devotees of fine cuisine were limited. Pepin knew all of them. He cooked with Julia Child, partied with Craig Claiborne and dined with James Beard.
He became famous in America for his fine lucidly written cookbooks and his cooking shows on PBS. His love of food shines through in every telecast.
Unlike many of the chefs on the Food Network today who seek attention by their aggressive loud personalities Pepin always made the food the star of the show.
At the end of each chapter there are favourite recipes from the simple (Eggs Jeanette) to the complex (Braised Striped Bass Pavillion). Reading them makes you want to head to the kitchen.
While America simplified some of his cooking and made him informal the evening meal for some fresh fish (bluefish, black fish and striped bass) he had caught with a friend is amazing.
We smoked some of the bluefish fillets, because that brings out
the best in this oily, thoroughly American fish, and we garnished
them with a mustard potato salad seasoned with dill. Drawing on
influences of both the Far East and nouvelle cuisine, we took
some of the striped bass and made carpaccio flavoured with
sesame seed oil and soy sauce. We grilled the blackfish, adding
just a little oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice and also prepared a
seviche from the same fish, flavoured with hot pepper, cilantro,
mint, and lime juice. As the piece de resistance, we poached
some of the striped bass fillets in Champagne and white wine
and accompanied them with a cream sauce that included
mushrooms and shallots, a dish that I prepared back at Le
Pavillon when I first came to this country.
I can only dream of being invited to his home for a meal. It would be a great experience with wonderful food and good wines.
It is one of the few non-fiction books that I have read that drew me along like a great novel demanding I keep turning the pages to find out what new interesting experience was ahead. It is a great book.
In my next post I will discuss why I read the book and more about Pepin. (Sept. 3/13)
A blog reviewing mystery books, with a listing of Saskatchewan mysteries, and a sprinkling of non-fiction books, especially history and biographies
- Bill Selnes
- Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
- I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.
Saturday, September 7, 2013
The Apprentice - My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin
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Bill - What an interesting life! One of the things I sense from your post is that like many really talented artists (and being a chef involves artistry if you ask me), Pepin developed the basic skills first. It's those routine skills and that knowledge that you build on I think, and that comes through here.ReplyDelete
Margot; Thanks for the comment. Pepin certainly learned basic skills! Working for his mother and then as an apprentice and then searching out jobs at different restaurants he was thoroughly trained as a chef.ReplyDelete
Bill, thanks for a fine review of an interesting book. It reminded me of the late Chef Gustav, the fictional character in the wonderful animated film "Ratatouille" and his famous line, "Anybody can cook." He was French too!ReplyDelete
Prashant: Thanks for the comment. It was good to think of Chef Gustav. I wonder what Chef Pepin thinks of the animated Chef.ReplyDelete