Jacques Pepin At Home In Connecticut: A Chef's Life Explored


At 6, Jacques Pépin was taken by his mother on the handlebars of her bicycle for a 45-kilometer ride away from his home near Lyon, France, to live with a farmer's family where he would be safe from the bombings of World War II.

The farmer's wife took the sad and lonely boy to the barn, sat him on a stool and taught him how to milk a cow, then told him to taste the fresh, foamy, buttery liquid. It was a Proustean moment that the celebrated chef, now 81, can still recall vividly.

It's a moment recreated in PBS's "American Masters" profile on Pépin, which will be broadcast May 26.

Pépin is honored to be a French-born "American Master" in the series, which also pays tribute in May to food legends Julia Child, Alice Waters and James Beard.

"I am amazed, actually," he says on a crisp, sunny afternoon in his Madison kitchen. It's a large, high-ceilinged open room with a massive central island that would accommodate a bevy of chefs working at full-whisk. Dominating the room is a tall wall filled with a dazzling array of dozens of copper pans and pots.

"Strangely enough, people often look at me as the quintessential French chef but," he says, pointing to a stack of his cookbooks, "I have a black bean soup recipe and one for a lobster roll, fried chicken and even sushi." With this eclectic sensibility, he says, "I really am the quintessential American chef."

But it's a bit unsettling for him to see his life presented in such a prestigious series — he is the first professional chef to be profiled — "because then it's all set in stone."

Pépin sees himself as an ever-learning apprentice with a life that's continually adapting to new tastes, new approaches and new opportunities, all grounded in masterful skillsets.

For more than 40 years Pépin and Gloria, his wife of more than 50 years, have lived in their Connecticut home, which Pépin helped renovate. His father was a cabinetmaker — and a member of the Resistance during the war — "and I've always liked to work with my hands."

Beyond putting up sheetrock or deboning a chicken with flair, Pépin is also handy at creating brightly-colored watercolors which decorate the tiles of his kitchen, his cookbooks and the canvases.

"It fulfills me in the same way that cooking does."