Yale Bulletin
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May 31-June 21, 1999Volume 27, Number 33

To eat well, relax at the table, advises master chef Pépin

It was standing room only when chef extraordinaire Jacques Pépin came to the School of Medicine's Beaumont Room earlier this month to talk about "Culture and Cuisine" -- confirming the television gastronome's observation that in America "the chef has been elevated to the status of rock star."

Pépin, however, showed none of the Dionysian excesses of a rock star when presenting the final talk of the season in the Program for Humanities in Medicine lecture series. Instead, he served up his observations with a style that was urbane, wryly humorous and seasoned with more than a soupcon of Gallic charm.

In a talk that was peppered with allusions to the classics and French literature and was as much about the manner of eating as the matter of food, Pépin reviewed the cultural history of the food ethic from the ancients to Taco Bell, larding his speech throughout with references to the "health issue."

According to Pépin, the nation's "healthy eating" fixation is linked to Americans' narcissistic preoccupation with their bodies, a cultural phenomenon that has been growing since the 1960s.

"The link between food and health has always existed," he noted, "but we've made that link with a vengeance in the past few years."

The author of 17 cookbooks, a longtime faculty member of Boston University and dean of the French Culinary Institute in New York, Pépin was not formally trained in the traditional manner of French chefs. In fact, he was a student of 18th-century French literature, and holds a master's degree in the subject from Columbia University. Today, however, Pépin commands an encyclopedic knowledge of food facts, including the inside secrets of the cuisines of many cultures and the nutritional value -- real and imagined -- of what we eat.

The chef's own approach to eating, and the approach he suggests others adopt, is first and foremost to enjoy it. The two essential ingredients of his recipe for happy and healthy eating are "time spent at the table and lack of guilt."

"Relaxation around the table," he commented, "is the most important." His own family usually spends an hour or more at the dinner table each evening, and he holds that without this daily ritual there can be no communication in a family.

In fact, despite his culinary credentials, Pépin is not the only chef in his house, he said. His daughter, Claudine, has been trained by Pépin and now co-stars on his television show. His wife, while not a cook by profession, is a great amateur, said the chef. Sometimes the Pépins cook together, but when it is his wife's turn in the kitchen, she becomes territorial, he noted. "Don't touch a thing," she warns her husband, before donning her apron and taking up the whisk.

On the matter of what people should eat, Pépin's attitude is laissez-faire. "Nothing is taboo, as long as it's fresh," he advises. He advocates buying produce in season, diversifying the menu as much as possible, and choosing organic fruits and vegetables when available.

On the act of cooking itself, he is equally free of dogma, allowing for individual styles and personal idiosyncrasies in preparing food. "The interpretation of a recipe is the same as a performer's interpretation of music," he said. "It has to do with temperament.

"You are who you are, and you are how you cook," he concluded.

-- By Dorie Baker


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New Haven attorney Julie Carter joins Office of General Counsel
To eat well, relax at the table, advises master chef Pépin
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Guests at French chef Jacques Pépin's talk at the medical school were anxious for autographs and advice. On the matter of food: "Nothing is taboo as long as it's fresh," said Pépin.