In Traffic with Jacques Pepin

pepin.jpgAlthough my commute is a short one, traffic puts me in a bad mood. I’m impatient and irritated, not qualities that make for a tranquil drive. My commuter’s grumpiness was recently soothed by none other than Jacques Pepin himself, master chef, teacher, and internet star along with the beloved Julia Child and others. He didn’t actually sit next to me flipping crepes in the passenger seat, but he did write the wonderful book The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), and I borrowed the audio book from the equally wonderful public library.

Pepin does not do the narrating on the audio book himself, and I suspect his accent may have been one of the reasons. The lack of his own voice is perhaps the only issue I have with the audiobook. The narrator speaks with just a smidge of a French accent, so he is easy to understand, but he is not a skilled reader and sometimes lets the natural drama in some of Jacques’s stories fall flat. If you’ve ever seen Jacques Pepin on one of his television cooking shows, you know he has personality, and his energy and humor would have made the audio version of a wonderful read soar. Stories of childhood summers spent on farms during World War II and then years in his mother’s restaurant followed by grueling apprenticeships in classical French restaurants often made me wish my drive home was longer.

The book begins when Pepin is a 6 year old being sent alone to spend the summer at a farm in France’s countryside, something many French families did to give their children a few months of fresh milk and vegetables during the severe food shortages brought on by the war. At 13 Pepin quits school to begin a three year apprenticeship in Lyon at Le Grand Hotel de l’Europe, and from the stories of his apprenticeship, being at the bottom of the food chain in a high end French kitchen, would have driven less hardy souls into despair.

apprentice1.jpgA stint in the Navy later takes him to duty in, of all places, the presidential kitchen of General Charles de Gaulle. From then he crosses the sea and finds himself with the possibility of cooking for Jacqueline Kennedy as the White House chef or as the creator of a new menu for Howard Johnson’s Restaurants (a position offered by Howard D. Johnson himself).

I’ll let you have Pepin accompany you in traffic as he did me or be a wonderful reading companion in book form to find the resolution of those two job offers. His cooking skills led to an extraordinary life, and his later friendships with Craig Claiborne, Julia Child, James Beard and others put him at the center of the tidal wave in change of American eating in the 20th century.

Pepin’s embrace of the cooking and cultural freedom he experienced in the U.S. is a testament to his open mind and love of food. Take him with you in traffic or take him home as a lively read. He wishes us “happy cooking” on his television shows. For me, it was happy driving.

This is his mother’s recipe for cheese soufflé as published in the printed book. There are no recipes in the audio version – safe driving trumps good cooking.

Maman’s Cheese Souffle
(from "The Apprentice, My Life in the Kitchen," by Jacques Pepin)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter (3/4 of stick), plus more to butter a 6-cup gratin dish
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups cold whole milk
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
5 extra-large eggs
2 ½ cups grated Swiss cheese, preferably Gruyere (about 6 ounces)
3 tablespoons minced fresh chives

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Butter a 6-cup gratin dish and set it aside. Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the flour, and mix it in well with a whisk. Cook for 10 seconds, add the milk in one stroke, and mix it in with a whisk. Keep stirring with the whisk until the mixture thickens and comes to a strong boil, which will take about 2 minutes. It should be thick and smooth. Remove from the heat, and stir in the salt and pepper. Allow about 10 minutes for the white sauce to cool.

Meanwhile, break the eggs into a bowl and beat well with a fork. Add the eggs, the cheese, and the chives to the cooled sauce, and mix well to combine. Pour into the buttered gratin dish and cook immediately, or set aside until ready to cook.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the soufflé is puffy and well browned on top. Although it will stay inflated for quite a while, it is best served immediately.


Rachel Parker is a middle school teacher and home cook.