Last week, celebrity chef Jacques Pepin (GS’70, GSAS’72) spoke to more than 250 students and alumni from across Colombia at a virtual event hosted by the School of General Studies (GS).
in a An evening with Jack Bthat itpin, Columbia GS Dean, Lisa Rosen-Mitch (GS’90) led a lively conversation that included Pippen’s favorite memories as a Columbia student, as well as his favorite kitchen gadgets, and tips for aspiring chefs.
Pépin is a man of many talents beyond his skills in the kitchen – artist, author, TV host, culinary educator – and by trying many different things throughout his long and varied career, he has never been bored. I wrote a column once a week for 10 years New York times. “If I had to do this every day I would probably go crazy,” he said.
Some of the happiest years of his life
Pepin praised his experience in Colombia and how his education in America affected his career. Although he admitted that he had never heard of Columbia University before it came to New York, he soon learned that it was one of the greatest universities in the world. “In France, I left school when I was 13 – I never went to high school,” he said. “I had a good job in Paris, but I came for a year, and I came to study English.”
While studying English at Columbia GS, Pépin and his classmates – of all ages and from all backgrounds – would gather for coffee after each class and have exciting conversations. He remembers those years as one of the happiest years of his life, and that positive experience was one of the reasons why he stayed in America.
He said, “My years at Columbia have completely changed me. I would have done well, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t have done what I did without Columbia. That was the reason I stayed in America.”
Pépin has received honorary doctorate degrees from five US universities, received France’s highest civilian honor, La Légion d’Honneur, and received 16 James Beard Foundation Awards, among a long list of awards. As for his favorite award of them all? Ph.D. from Columbia University.
When asked about celebrity chefs today, Pepin described how his life had never been so magical. “The chef was really at the bottom of the social ladder. Any good mother would want her child to marry a lawyer or a doctor, certainly not a cook.”
In 1960, when Pépin turned down his cooking role in the Kennedy White House to work for Howard Johnson, it was hard for people to understand why. “At that point, I had no idea that publicity was possible because the chef was really at the bottom of the social ladder,” he said. “The position of the chef has changed a lot. It is so much fun now. It wasn’t like that back then.”
Often asked to advise young chefs, Pepin’s response is simple: “Get a job in a restaurant kitchen or in the dining room. If you survive the summer, make sure you still love him. You have to give a lot of yourself to cooking. You You don’t make a lot of money, it’s very hard work, you work Saturdays and Sundays. He said it would be very hard work – unless you liked it.
A chef’s most important tool: his fingers
An enthusiastic member asked Pépin which utensils he considered the most important in his kitchen. He immediately answered: “My fingers!”
He continued, “Also, a knife, a board, a good skillet. A very basic kind of thing. The more you cook, the better. The more you enjoy it.”
Several guests wanted to know what advice Pépin would give someone trying to break into a career as a chef. “School is expensive. It is good to go to a culinary institute, but if you know a chef in a restaurant who will take you as an apprentice, that is good training. In my time, there was no school, it was just professional training.”
Thinking of what cooking meant to him, he spoke without hesitation. “There is no place for me as comfortable as the kitchen. As a child when you come home from school and you hear your mother’s voice, your father’s voice, you hear the sounds of machines, whether you come from Norway or West Africa, there are dishes from your youth. These dishes stay with you forever,” he said. . “To cook for someone – you want to please someone. You really don’t want to please yourself. It is the same when you cook for your children or for your parents. That is its beauty, especially in a time of polarization. There is really no political influence on what we do. Everyone seems Similar in the eye of the fireplace. Sitting around the table is the wonderful equivalent.”
Aviva Zabloki is the Director of Alumni Relations at Columbia University’s School of General Studies.