It's hard to imagine culinary legend Jacques Pépin at six years old underfoot at his mother's French country restaurant, where a three-course menu cost five francs. But long before the chef was cooking for Charles de Gaulle or with Julia on PBS, or palling around with James Beard and Craig Claiborne, Pépin spent his afternoons peeling potatoes and cleaning up around the place. "It's not like we came home from school and said we were bored," he jokes. Even before heading to school in the morning, Pépin and his brother were regularly sent to the nearby market to purchase ingredients for their mother's restaurant.
Nearly 75 years later, Pépin says the memory of his mother's cooking is still strong. "You make food, you eat it and it disappears. What's left is food memory, and those food memories are powerful—essential for a cook," he tells us in our Test Kitchen. He's getting ready to make her chicken jardiniere, or gardener's chicken, with pancetta, white wine, potatoes, carrots and baby peas (see the recipe). A dutiful son, Pépin says, "I can never do it as good."
The recipe, which appears in Pépin's newest cookbook, Jacques Pépin: Heart & Soul in the Kitchen, is a quintessential French country dish made at home more often than in restaurants. It easily bends to accommodate the seasons and highlights what's just come into the market, like sweet potatoes, parsnips and chestnuts in the winter; fresh peas in the spring; and potatoes to make the dish hearty year-round. When we ask what he would serve with the dish for a complete meal, Pépin laughs: "I would serve that with a fork and knife." Adding a simple salad and a piece of cheese would easily round out a Sunday supper.
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Many of the book's recipes follow a similar style. They are homey, easy-to-execute dishes, both French and non. "For this book, mindful that as I approach the age of 80, I have a limited number of cookbooks in my future, I decided to gather a collection of the recipes that I cook at home today," Pépin explains in the book's introduction. There's a recipe for his hamburgers, grilled snapper with olives, baby zucchini with chives, and prunes simmered in red wine and honey with lemon and walnuts. These are accompanied by some of his favorite menus from dinners over the years, as well as his colorful paintings.
Back in our kitchen, Pépin's chicken is perfuming the room with a rich wine-infused scent. "It's earthy," Pépin says. "It's a type of cuisine that's very simple. It goes for taste, not embellishment." As soon as it's done, we dive in with forks. There's no time for plates.
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