This story first appeared on MELwith features writer Eddie Kim interviewing the father-daughter duo.
For her entire life, Claudine Pépin had insisted that she didn’t want to cook in a professional setting. She had no inkling to follow in her father’s footsteps, and indeed pursued a degree in political science while attending Boston University. But when the Jacques Pépin asks you to cook, you can’t say no — which is exactly the situation she found herself in while traveling from the East Coast to San Francisco with her father.
“He tells me, ‘We’re going to Aspen for the Food & Wine Classic.’ And an hour before his demonstration on stage, he looks at me and goes, ‘You’re coming with me.’ I just replied, ‘I’m going to what?Claudine says. “He goes, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.’ I asked him why he just didn’t tell me more in advance, and he just said: ‘What good would it have done?’ ”
Thus began the first collaboration of many, though Claudine did not quite know it yet. The duo would go on to shoot three television series together, starting with Cooking With Claudine in the 1990s. The episodes have aged beautifully, balanced on the chemistry between father and daughter; she is the perfect foil for Jacques, playing the everyman and asking lots of fundamental questions.
“But all through that initial time we started working together, people would always come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you know what you’re doing! You’re just faking! ‘”Claudine tells me, laughing. “It simply came to our notice then. I really was learning everything for the first time. ”
To be fair, it is hard to believe that the daughter of Jacques Pépin — as mythical and revered a figure in food as one can find — ever avoided learning how to cook. He started his professional career at just 13 years old, training in some of France’s best kitchens, then cooking for French President Charles de Gaulle, leading New York’s legendary Le Pavillon, and even revolutionizing the menu at Howard Johnson’s during the heyday of the casual restaurant .
Jacques is the author of countless influential books, including the indomitable cooking bible The Technique, and an educator who has lectured around the world. He is also a pioneer in food television, growing into a household name in the 1980s thanks to his blend of brilliant skills, relaxed storytelling and practical advice. Much like his good friend Julia Child, Pépin became an aspirational figure to those trying to learn not just how to cook, but to truly love all aspects of food and eating.
Being raised by Jacques and Gloria Pépin, who was a culinary force of nature herself, left quite an impression on Claudine. She may not have fully understood Pepin’s renown, nor picked up on the fact that his friends were towering legends in the food world. But she did learn to eat really, really well — and despite never wanting to cook for a paycheck, Claudine forged a professional bond with her father that has informed and strengthened their relationship over decades.
Claudine has built a formidable career for herself, becoming an expert voice in the wine industry, lecturing at the French Culinary Institute and authoring several books. Today, she is the president of the Jacques Pépin Foundation, which started in 2016 and aims to train and assist people who are struggling and disenfranchised from the workforce. But she is also forever intertwined in the myths of her heritage, and is continuing to add upon the legacy of her father and late mother. Claudine’s own daughter, now a high school graduate, also claims she won’t work in food — but then again, her grandfather already got her on TV and in a cookbook, so who knows?
I recently spoke to Jacques, 86, and Claudine, 53, to reflect on a lifetime of incredible food, memories from the road and how the kitchen became their conduit for bonding.
So that first experience, at Aspen Food & Wine… did you have that surprise for Claudine all planned out, or was it a spontaneous decision?
Jacques: I don’t know if it was planned out before, but I thought it was time. I did three series called Today’s Gourmet, each 26 shows, and afterward I thought, “Maybe I should have someone with me.” I didn’t want to have another chef next to me, trying to compete or anything like that. I wanted someone that I love next to me, to be the vox populi, if you will. To be able to ask questions that everyday people would want to ask, if they could be with me. So I thought Claudine was great — she was good on camera, and comfortable.
When we worked together, I never told her what the menu would be, on purpose. People would say, “Well, she must already know that.” She didn’t! Maybe she ate that over the course of her life, but she was never interested in how things were done.
I mean, I remember when she was 10, 12, whatever, she didn’t know what she would do in life, but she thought she would never, never do what I’m doing.
Claudine: That’s true!
Claudine, when you were growing up, how aware were you of your father’s renown? Like the fact that JFK had wanted him to be his chef, or the fact that he knew all the superstars in the cooking world.
Claudine: I think the awareness really started when I went to college. I didn’t think much of it at first. We were friends with Julia Child, so we’d go to her house all the time when I was young. I mean, she wasn’t terribly interested in chatting with me. [Laughs] But we were surrounded by all of these chefs who were really, really, really famous in their own right. So it was hard for me to see my dad as a standout when you’re hanging out with Martin Yan. You go to Chinatown with Martin Yan, which we did, and my dad isn’t the famous one.
But I remember we were in San Francisco or something, and we were walking down the street and one guy the size of a Mack truck started running straight at us. I had no idea what was going to happen, but all he wanted was to hug my father and say, “Oh my God, I love your shows.” Two people also stopped us on the street, unprompted, just to say how much they loved my dad. My awareness grew a lot when that happened.
So it was clear from a young age that Claudine didn’t want to cook, but when did you first see and realize that she loved to eat, Jacques?
Jacques: It was always like that. As a family, we didn’t eat a la carte — every day we sat down to have dinner for an hour, at least. She did that since she was born. Even when she was very, very small, we never bought baby food. Whatever we ate that night, I put it into a blender without too much salt and pepper, and made a puree out of it. So she had that taste. It was a part of who she was, and she knew the taste even when she was tiny.
I love the story in your memoir when she’s young and she’s over at a friend’s house for dinner, and her friend’s mother asks her, “Why aren’t you eating your asparagus, Claudine?” And she responds along the lines of, “I’m waiting for the Hollandaise!”
Jacques: Right, yes. [Laughs] That’s funny.
Claudine: I know Mrs. Pratt, and I still call her Mrs. Pratt, and yeah, she loves that story. She called my mom. She’s like, “What kind of insane child did you send me?”
Jacques: Claudine did not realize how sophisticated her taste was. She maybe wasn’t interested in cooking, but all her life she had been going to places like Lutéce in New York, led by André Soltner. He was a good friend of mine; she called him “uncle.” And many other great restaurants from Le Cirque to whatever. She had been going to France since she was six years old. So she may not have known regular elements of cooking technique, but she was exposed to the greatest restaurants and markets in the world.
Claudine, what was it like to start cooking with your dad and think about it more critically, having avoided the nuts and bolts for most of your life?
Claudine: Well, it was interesting. It firmed my resolve that I didn’t want to ever work in a professional kitchen, I’ll tell you that. That’s just a lot of work. But I do remember a few events that we did where we had to put food out for a lot of people. I was needed in the kitchen, and after all those years, I was surprised by what I had learned just through osmosis.
Well, Jacques, maybe in a different universe, Claudine never ended up working in wine. Never ended up on a TV show with you. What would you be missing in your life?
Jacques: She taught me to be patient. I mean, I don’t work with her now the same way I did back in 1989, when she really didn’t know anything, and so forth. I’m not sure if you remember, but in my book, I mention that when she started at Boston University, she had a little apartment near the campus, which I fixed up for her. And she invited me one night for dinner. You read that one?
Yeah. She made the infamous chicken.
Claudine: No, it wasn’t a chicken. I made a hen. I roasted an old hen. Because it was more expensive, therefore it was better. I went to the store, saw chicken, then saw hen cost more money. It turned out pretty much like whatever shoe you’re wearing. [Laughs]
Jacques: It’s quite different now, because she has quite a knowledge of cooking and has her own ideas. She does it her own way now, not necessarily my way.
What was something challenging about working with your father, Claudine?
Claudine: I think that probably what’s challenging is to never be seen as a professional in your own right. Because it’s family. So I am a professional, and I know a lot about what I’m doing, whether it’s with the foundation or anything else. It’s very challenging for him to see me as anything other than his daughter. So, look, I feel like my professional opinion always has to be supported by someone else. That’s challenging to me. But it’s probably that way with everyone that works with their family.
To be fair, I follow the Tony Bourdain line to a T: If Jacques Pépin says this is how you make an omelet, I consider the matter closed. My husband, who is a chef, might say there is a different way. And I would reply, “Well, that’s wrong — my father does it this way, and that’s how it’s done.” So maybe there’s blind spots on both sides.
Jacques: I don’t know if I agree with her that I don’t respect her opinion on one thing or another. That’s not really true. I mean, maybe it was when you were six years old. But now, if you don’t like this or that, I will respect what you feel, even if I don’t agree with it.
Claudine: [Pauses] Oh, that’s progress!
It’s always tough when you work with family, I think. But nonetheless, Claudine: You’ve seen your father be a pro for your entire life. Jacques: You raised her and now work with her, 50 years later. What has this bond given you both?
Jacques: Well, Claudine is my whole life now. So working together is very rewarding. I mean, I can picture when she was four years old, and I can see her now when she’s a little older, and see the way she has progressed. Now she has a kid, and we are very close, maybe even closer than [Claudine and I] were when she was a child herself. So it’s been very rewarding, and all of that is basically based on cooking and being together and sharing food.
When a kid comes back from school, the best place is in the kitchen. To hear your mother or your father’s voice, and the smell of the kitchen, and the taste of those dishes — it will stay with you the rest of your life. They are very visceral moments. Very powerful. So this is a culmination of what we’ve been doing our whole life. And we are happy to be able to do that together now. I mean, I am.
Claudine: And for me I think it’s 100 percent trust. Like one million percent. And for me, a father is the first man in your life — and unfortunately for every boyfriend I’ve had, he’s been the one by whom all others shall be judged. I know he has my best interest at heart, of course. So it’s just trust. There’s nobody I trust more.