Hungry for a special treat? Leave it to PBS Distribution who is about to serve American Masters: The Art of Craft on DVD. This culinary journey traces the life of Jaqcues Pépin, a young immigrant with movie-star looks and a charming Gallic accent, who elevated essential kitchen techniques to an art form to become one of America’s most beloved food icons. The delight goes on the table when it’s released June 6; the program will also be available for digital download.
At the age of 13, Pépin leaves home to begin a formal apprenticeship at the distinguished Grand Hôtel de l’Europe. His first break comes at 16, when, as the sole chef, he cooks the fireman’s banquet in the alpine resort town of Bellegarde, a success that results in his first newspaper photo op. “I start to realize that I could put some of myself in the food. It didn’t have to be exactly the way my mother wanted it to be,” says Pépin, recalling this pivotal moment in his life.
Nearly 17, Pépin moves to Paris, initially without a job, and eventually works at dozens of restaurants learning about classical cooking. He trains under Lucien Diat at the Hotel Plaza Athénée where the emphasis is on technique. Four years later, he is drafted into the Navy, but because his older brother is already on the front, Pépin is assigned to stay in Paris as a cook at Navy headquarters.
Now an accomplished chef, he is assigned to create special dinners for the top brass and becomes the personal chef for three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle. But Pépin understands that in the late ’50s, the cook, even if “first chef,” is really at the bottom of the social scale and viewed as the help. Not content cooking in French palaces; Pépin decides to move to the United States in ’59.
In New York, Pépin lands a job at Le Pavillon, the most influential French restaurant in the country, and soon meets the three people he calls the “Trinity of Cooking”: Craig Claiborne, food editor of The New York Times; James Beard; and Julia Child. In later years, he partners with Child on a television series, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, for which he and Child win a Daytime Emmy in 2001.
While at Le Pavillon, Pépin is courted for the position of “first chef” in the new Kennedy White House, a position he turns down. Instead, he goes to work in the kitchens of Howard Johnson’s hotel and restaurant chain (1960–70) where he learns about mass production, marketing, food chemistry, and American popular food.
In 1974, a near-fatal car accident is the catalyst that pushes Pépin’s life in a different direction as writer, teacher, and ultimately a media star. With his early landmark books on the fundamentals of culinary craft, La Technique (1976) and La Methôde (1978), and television shows, Pépin ushers in a new era in American food culture.
An American citizen for more than half a century, at age 81, Pépin continues to crisscross the country teaching, cooking, speaking, consulting, and enjoying the celebrity generated by 14 television shows, nearly 30 cookbooks, and accolades including the French Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor.
Interviews with Pépin’s wife Gloria and daughter Claudine, culinary stars and media personalities including José Andrés, Daniel Boulud, Anthony Bourdain, Tom Colicchio, Rachael Ray, Marcus Samuelsson and Fareed Zakaria, offer insights about the man, who with his catchphrase “happy cooking” has always emphasized honesty of ingredients, simplicity of approach, and a joy for sharing food with loved ones.
The film is produced and directed by Peter L. Stein, a Peabody Award–winning documentary filmmaker who first started working with Pépin in 1989 as producer of what became Pépin’s landmark public television series Today’s Gourmet, and who went on to oversee seven seasons of cooking programs with Pépin in the ’90s.