(Roughly) Daily

“He who can pay every day for a dinner fit for a hundred persons, is often satisfied after having eaten the thigh of a chicken”*…

Jacques Pépin: Cherry Pear Chicken, 2020

In a review of Jacques Pépin’s recent book, Jacques Pépin Art of the Chicken, a collection of stories, recipes and the authors own paintings (like the one above), Daniel M. Lavery considers both its subject and its author…

If you are a bird, odds are that you are a chicken. Since the sixteenth century the global bird population has steadily decreased, in both the number of species and the number of individuals, and each year more of them are chickens. Today there are some 33 billion chickens in the world, although this number can fluctuate substantially according to slaughtering trends.

If you are an American, odds are that you eat meat. In this country roughly 4 percent of the population identifies as vegetarian. Americans who do eat meat most frequently choose chicken, the consumption of which overtook beef sometime in the late 1990s. Pork has maintained a steady position in third place for decades. Pigs become pork when they are processed and eaten; cattle become veal or beef. But chicken is chicken everywhere, and chicken is everywhere.

If you are a home cook preparing a whole carcass for dinner, you are almost certainly roasting a chicken. Only the very adventurous or committed will roast an entire pig or goat, and usually only as part of a special celebration. The home cook can still with relative ease purchase a whole chicken (albeit usually with the feet and head already removed) almost anywhere meat is sold. She can address the carcass herself: whether to split the breast or separate the drumstick from the thigh; to section the wing into flat, drumette, and tip or leave it intact; to toss the neck and innards or keep them for stock.

It is through the chicken that most American cooks acquaint themselves with the techniques of butchery, if they butcher at all, and often it is through the work of Jacques Pépin that the introduction is made…

It is difficult to become an excellent chef. Once you are an excellent chef, it gets easier to become a beloved chef, since people already love food. Pépin has the Chrysler Building of culinary reputations, prestigious but not daunting, popular but not inane, an amalgamation of influences and opportunities only possible in the midcentury United States. He has unimpeachable old-world credentials, having left home for his first kitchen apprenticeship at thirteen, only earning the right to turn on the stove after a year of scrubbing pans, hauling coal, and plucking chickens. He has served as official chef to two French prime ministers. In 1961 he turned down an invitation to cook for the Kennedy White House in order to become the head of research and development at the central commissary for the Howard Johnson hotel and restaurant chain.

Writing came as a relatively late-in-life reinvention for Pépin, who was unable to continue working restaurant hours after a 1974 car accident. At the time he had written only one book, The Other Half of the Egg, with two co-authors, the McCall’s editor Helen McCully and William North Jayme. Since then, he has written over thirty. He has been cooking on American television since 1982, usually on PBS and its San Francisco affiliate, KQED, and often appeared with his friend and collaborator Julia Child during her lifetime. There is a loose biographical framing to Art of the Chicken, but Pépin gave a fuller account of his career in The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen (2003). In the newest book, his life story is only drawn out insofar as it informs his relationship to chicken…

If it sounds pat to suggest that people enjoyed watching how easily French and American cooking traditions could come together when Jacques and Julia did it, we must remember that in the 1980s and 1990s, cooking shows were still in the business of generating ease. There remains excellent cooking on-screen today, but it is almost never permitted to be exhibited calmly. Pépin is one of the few remaining on-camera chefs who seems to have relaxed for longer than five minutes at a time. His quietly competent air, his teeth-sucking ease, and his gentle, affirming style all played beautifully with Child’s patrician heartiness (her maternal grandfather was lieutenant governor of Massachusetts). She was outdoorsy, unselfconscious, cheerful, unaffected, practical, uninterested in euphemism but given to nicknaming; she naturally complemented Pépin’s tidy, dynamic, unpretentious Gallic enthusiasm.

How unpretentious? Here Pépin recalls with equal parts alarm and delight the transition from Henri Soulé’s restaurant Le Pavillonon Park Avenue and 57th Street to the short-order grills at Howard Johnson’s:

Quitting one of the very finest kitchens in the country, I found myself standing over a grill flipping burgers and hot dogs at a Howard Johnson’s in the nether reaches of Queens…. Nothing in my career…had taught me the finer points of preparing food on a flat-topped griddle. I scrambled eggs, cooked them sunny-side up, and flipped them over hard. Piles of hash browns sizzled beside the eggs, along with hot dogs, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and pancakes.

This was cooking at a superhuman scale. The job of a chef in most restaurants, no matter how exclusive, is usually to make dinner for customers who order it, but at Howard Johnson’s Pépin was tasked with the general improvement of the menus for “more than a thousand outlets.” He describes being introduced for the first time to pressure cookers and the food-safety protocols necessary to cooking for an entire chain. More than almost any other public culinary figure, in his career Pépin has followed the trajectory of twentieth-century scientific development, as if he had been planned ahead of time as a shorthand for modernism. He went from learning to slaughter chickens efficiently and humanely as a child in his mother’s backyard, holding the head down carefully over a bowl after severing the jugular vein to ensure the bird bled out quickly, to mastering oeufs à la neige at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée as part of a forty-eight-chef brigade (a loose method is provided in Art of the Chicken), to poaching a thousand chickens simultaneously in an enormous commissary kitchen.

From Howard Johnson’s he went on to found La Potagerie in Manhattan in 1970; from there, television, Julia Child, and the world. Each reference to a new career highlight comes without either arrogance or false modesty and is almost always framed as a gentle request: “I was asked” to consult for the Russian Tea Room’s remodeling of its menu in the mid-1980s or to start teaching at Boston University—a casual, unanxious relationship to excellence…

Fascinating and delightful: “Coq au Pépin,” from @daniel_m_lavery in @nybooks.

* Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste


As we reach for the deep fryer, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966 that Simon & Garfunkel released their paean to a suite of herbs often used as seasoning in the cooking of chicken, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.


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