Throughout the 1960s Americans flocked to Howard Johnson’s, then the country’s largest restaurant chain, for hearty, comforting feasts of charcoal-broiled steaks and breaded veal cutlets. Emblems of vintage roadside Americana, these orange-roofed oases—which sometimes offered a welcoming bed for the evening to boot—heightened the allure of familiarity and convenience with each order of golden-brown Tendersweet Fried Clams.
What few diners might have realized as they sank into their booths was that the menu, built around quality ingredients, was hatched in a Queens commissary, and its director of research and development was an unlikely Frenchman by the name of Jacques Pépin. One of the world’s first celebrity chefs, Pépin is known for demystifying French cuisine over the decades, sharing the spotlight with Julia Child on public television, and cranking out comprehensive cookbooks such as his opus, Essential Pépin. The forthcoming Jacques Pépin: Heart and Soul in the Kitchen makes its debut this fall in tandem with his final PBS series.
Pépin, who hails from just outside Lyon, arrived in New York in 1959 to work at Henri Soule’s Le Pavillon. The game-changing restaurant, spawned at the 1939 World’s Fair, successfully introduced Americans to refined French cuisine. Shortly after stepping into the kitchen, Pépin made the acquaintance of Johnson, who boldly asked him (and chef Pierre Franey) to leave the grandeur of Le Pavillon behind for the decidedly unglamorous confines of the flagship HoJo on Queens Boulevard. Pépin said yes. Turning his back on white tablecloths, he enthusiastically embraced the grill and the restaurant’s famed spectrum of 28 ice-cream flavors. “Rum raisin was my favorite. It was so good, made the right way with 15-percent butter fat,” he recalls.
I feel like doing what I do brings pleasure to other people.
Likening the experience to an “American apprenticeship, absolutely different from anything I knew,” Pépin learned about mass production and marketing—“stuff I had no idea about.” Afterwards he opened the soup restaurant La Potagerie, consulted at the Russian Tea Room, and worked at the World Trade Center with Joe Baum. “If I hadn’t had the training of Howard Johnson’s, I wouldn’t have been able to do these things,” he says.
While he could have remained at Le Pavillon, working at the White House was another option for Pépin. Jacqueline Kennedy asked him to take on this prestigious post, but cooking for dignitaries was nothing new for the chef; he was French president Charles de Gaulle’s private chef and he didn’t see how this American variation on a theme would be any different. “I had no inkling for the potential. Back then TV didn’t exist. Guests didn’t call chefs into the dining room. Cooking was the bottom of the social scale,” he explains. Making satisfying food for everyday Americans was a far more eye-opening alternative.
His father was a cabinet maker and his mother presided over the kitchen of the family restaurant Le Pélican, where Pépin was first exposed to the culinary world. At just the age of five or six he knew cooking was his fate. “There were no televisions or magazines, so the choice was easy at the time. I did what my mother did. I liked the excitement and left school at the minimum age to enter a formal apprenticeship,” he explains. “I feel like doing what I do brings pleasure to other people.” Whether by working in the fabled kitchen of the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, turning out high-volume clam chowder in Queens, or showing TV viewers how to make petite croque-monsieur, he’s certainly left an indelible and joyful imprint on American eating.
From the Lyonnaise potatoes his mother plucked straight from the earth, to the heady tripe that doubled as a pre-hunt breakfast of champions, here are 10 of the dishes that have inspired Pépin’s long, legendary career.
Bread and Butter
Put butter from Brittany or Normandy on great country bread or a baguette, and I can’t think of anything better. Bread is a seminal food for me because the second I came home from school it was time for quatre heure, the little ‘four o’ clock’ snack. I had a very crispy ficelle with a piece of Menier dark chocolate—I remember the brand—and it was very visceral for me. (Photo: Blackberry Farm)
Apricots from the Rhône Valley
My godfather Marcel drove a big truck for a fruit plantation in the Rhône Valley, picking up apricots, white peaches and almonds. I remember riding in the truck with my brother and peeling off the green top, a bit of the skin, and finding the kernel, which was relatively white. During this time, after the war, people ate their fruit fresh. It was either directly delivered to them or they would come get it at the plantation right when it was ready to be eaten. We picked all that were ripe and ate them—to the point I remember some indigestion. (Photo: cooperation.ch)
Pommes de terre Nouvelles
These are kind of a small fingerling potato. I remember going home to Lyon and my mother would go into the garden and pull them out. You’d rub them with your finger and the skin would slide off. They were very fresh, and she’d sauté them with a lot of butter and serve them with a salad of escarole also from the garden, with garlic dressing, peanut oil, vinegar, and mustard. When I came home during the summer the potatoes were so perfectly in season; they were unbelievable. (Photo: bellitasty.com)
There were seven restaurants in my family, and all seven of them were run by women. I was the first man. My cousin made chicken livers like custard with garlic and herbs. At the time we didn’t have food processors. She served it with quenelles, fresh tomato sauce, green olives, mushrooms, garlic, onions, and a cockscomb garnish. I have duplicated that dish in some of my books. Or have tried to. It never tastes exactly the same. (Photo: Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
My wife was born in New York to a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father. She introduced me to some of the Latin dishes she knew so well. Her black-bean soup, garnished with banana and cilantro, half-cooked eggs, and a sprinkling of olive oil, opened my eyes to different flavors. We had an apartment in Playa del Carmen that we just sold, but when I was there I would eat a lot of that type of cooking.
I was born in France and when I came to this country my best friend Jean-Claude Szurdak followed me a few months later. He raised a steer every year and I would go and help him kill and eviscerate it. We would take out the honeycomb tripe and put it in the fireplace and cook it overnight, very slowly with onion and garlic. We’d add a bit of Calvados and some potatoes and eat it in the morning before hunting. (Photo: chefs-resources.com)
The clams we made at Howard Johnson’s don’t exist at restaurants anymore. They were oversized, covered in breadcrumbs, deep fried, and served with tartar sauce. They were very popular because they were so good. We fried the clam tongues, then used the rest of the bodies in our clam chowder. We made 3,000 gallons at the time. (Photo: ipswich.wordpress.com)
Striped Bass at Le Pavillon
I had never had anything like this before until I worked there. It was braised with champagne, mushrooms, and shallots and baked in the oven. The juice was reduced to a glaze and finished with butter. It was a special dish I still occasionally make at home. (Photo via kqed.org)
Chicken in Cream Sauce
I was born in Bourg-en-Bresse, an area known for the best chicken in France. One of my mother’s favorite dishes using it was a very simple one made with a bit of chicken stock, white wine, and onion. She would poach the chicken and finish it with cream. If you put a blinder on my eyes and then put this dish in front of me, I will recognize it. That taste is part of my effective memory. (Photo: chefcouscous.wordpress.com)
Lobster Soufflé at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée
There were 48 chefs in the kitchen when I worked at the Plaza Athénée, and at that time the idea of a great restaurant meant everyone who cooked needed to conform so no one knew who actually made the dish. Now, every chef wants to leave a signature. It’s a different way of learning and cooking. The lobster was a specialty of the restaurant, a gratin dish with a sauce of shells, herbs, and white wine finished with cream and cognac served on the side. When it came out of the oven, we put a spiral of sliced lobster tail meat and black truffle on top. It was a quite expensive, lavish dish. (Photo: dorchestercollection.com)