Jacques Pépin Remembers Cooking For Charles De Gaulle - Exclusive

Although Jacques Pépin is best known these days for his tenure as a TV cooking show host in America, he had a long career as a restaurant chef both in the States and in his native France before he ever stepped foot inside a television studio. This part of his life was full of impressive achievements, including working in the influential restaurant Le Pavillon and serving as the director of research and new development for the hotel and restaurant chain Howard Johnson's (via The Jacques Pépin Foundation).

By the '60s, Pépin had become such a well-respected cook that he was offered a job as the White House chef for John F. Kennedy. Shockingly, he turned down the position. Partly, it was because in the era before celebrity chefs were commonplace, Pépin didn't realize how well-known he could become as the White House chef. He also had built a life for himself in New York City that he didn't want to leave. Perhaps most importantly, he had already cooked for a head of state back home in France — three of them, actually, including Charles de Gaulle. In an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, Pépin reminisced about what it was like being the personal chef for the French president.

Charles de Gaulle had simple tastes

For those of us who may need a bit of a refresher on French history, Charles de Gaulle was a military officer who first rose to prominence as a leader of the French resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II (via Britannica). Jacques Pépin cooked for de Gaulle during the late 1950s, which would have been the politician's second stint as the head of the French state.

The type of meal Pépin cooked was dictated by whether he was serving a state dinner or just the de Gaulle family. When entertaining foreign leaders, the kitchen turned out grand, multi-course feasts. When the de Gaulles weren't hosting politicians, it was a different story. "The de Gaulles were very devout Catholics who, after church, always had family dinner with children and grandchildren. I always made the menu with Madame de Gaulle and then did whatever they wanted," Pépin said. Those meals consisted of comparatively simple fare like leg of lamb or fish.

The job of presidential chef wasn't all that glamorous, but it did have perks, like borrowing the presidential car to go on an emergency bread run. "One day, I needed to get bread fast, and so [the Secret Service] gave me a car with the siren and all that to go there [and] get bread," Pépin shared.

Jacques Pépin's "Art of the Chicken" is in bookstores now. You can buy the book here.