Talkin’ Chicken With Jacques Pépin at the Texas Book Festival
The revered culinarian’s new book showcases his paintings and stories of poultry
At 86 years old, Jacques Pépin is a household name among home cooks, not to mention folks who grew up watching a lot of PBS. (When I texted my bestie to tell her that I was going to interview Jacques Pépin, she excitedly asked me to invite him to her house to cook a meal with her. I told her I'd see what I could do.)
A recitation of Pépin's résumé is unnecessary; suffice it to say that if you've had even passing interest in the culinary field over the past half-century, you're familiar with this French chef, educator, television personality, and cookbook author.
Having authored 30 cookbooks, Pépin, who has also painted for decades, has now written Art of the Chicken: A Master Chef's Paintings, Stories, and Recipes of the Humble Bird, which features dozens of his paintings – bright, energetic, and whimsical renderings of all kinds of poulet.
"I was married for 54 years. [Pépin's wife, Gloria, died in December 2020.] When people came to the house, I wrote the menu in a book. And on the other side, let the people sign. So we have 12 big books, which is basically all my life, of these menus," said Pépin. "I realized that I very often like painting chickens on them too, so I started painting chickens this way." (You can see – and purchase – examples of these hand-drawn and illustrated menus at jacquespepinart.com.)
Pépin initially just wanted to do a book dedicated solely to his paintings of chickens. His publisher initially agreed, but then requested recipes. "I said, 'I don't want to do recipes!' So I decided to do a memoir, talking about chickens and eggs, of course, in different parts of the world, and my experiences." Yes, there are recipes, but they don't have any measurements or directions per se, just a narrative of the steps Pépin takes when making them. "Some of them are probably feasible and some are not because they're stories," he said.
Pépin's reverence for the chicken in all its forms, from model to meal, is palpable in this book. Through his reminiscences he argues the case for chicken as the most democratic food, not to mention a passport to other cuisines.
"I could probably do a book with 10,000 recipes for chicken," he said. "From China to Africa, from a truck stop in the street to a cafeteria to a three-star restaurant, you will have chicken with truffle under the skin or just deep-fried chicken or whatever. I don't know of any country in the world that doesn't have chicken, any type of cuisine. So that's why I say it's a democratic type of food. So, you can always learn. You just have to travel a little bit, go to Australia or Turkey and all of a sudden you see things that you've never seen before and that you've never had."
Learning, and even more so teaching, is a huge part of Pépin's brand. Not only did he co-found Boston University's Metropolitan College certificate in the culinary arts and master's in gastronomy with Julia Child, he was the founding dean of New York City's French Culinary Institute (later the International Culinary Center, which merged with the Institute of Culinary Education in 2020). Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has channeled his old PBS cooking show energies into filming almost 300 instructional cooking videos (the most recent is for a country omelette with potatoes, onions, and herbs).
Indeed, just as chicken is a democratic ingredient, so too is cooking a democratic skill. To that end, a portion of the proceeds from sales of Pépin's books and paintings benefit the Jacques Pépin Foundation, which provides free culinary training to folks with barriers to employment, like homelessness, incarceration, and other challenges. "I've always said everyone is the same in the eye of the stove, you know," said Pépin. "The kitchen is a great equalizer, as well as the dining room for that matter. That's how you bring people together, and we probably don't have enough of that."
Jacques Pépin discusses his new book, Art of the Chicken, at Central Presbyterian Church, 200 E. Eighth, Saturday, Nov. 5, 1pm. This is a ticketed event. Tickets are sold out.
Art of the Chicken: A Master Chef’s Paintings, Stories, and Recipes of the Humble Bird by Jacques Pépin, Harvest, 256 pp., $30