The Demos of Two Jacques, Jacques Pépin and Jacques Torres, French Culinary Institute, SoHo, NYC
Diana, SuSu, Wraith6
SuSu's Culinary Padawan reports have many of us thinking about cooking school. The one she goes to is a bit extreme for casual and home cooks, or those who simply love to eat ... but it's intriguing.
So when she told us about two gods of French cuisine giving free shows at the prestigious French Culinary Institute in downtown New York City, I cleared my schedule and arranged to go. A bit inconvenient at 3:30 on successive afternoons, but I hoped it would be worth it.
First up was Jacques Pépin, who is Dean of Special Programs at the Institute, and one of the "Masters." Normally, chefs are titled "Chef" and are referred to as such, but he is "Master Pépin," the equivalent of one of the top Jedi Council members, somewhere between Yoda and Mace Windu.
He had just published My Life As An Apprentice, so many people were there with copies for him to sign. He had decided to demonstrate the French concept of cuisine economique which he had popularized since he first arrived in the USA in the 1960s. The idea is to "waste nothing" (as Anthony Bourdain recites as a mantra when he watches others cook), and he chose to show how a single duck can provide a four course meal for up to 8 people. Actually, in the course of the demo, he prepared four ducks, and they fed the 100 or so assembled in the audience!
Pépin's background is impressive -- he learned to cook as a child of post-war France, where his mother opened a restaurant to make ends meet. A four-course meal of appetizer, main, salad and a fruit tarte for dessert cost 5 francs in those days -- about a dollar! So they had to work the ingredients hard to make any money. Of course, he points out that food in the United States is cheap, while labor is expensive, which is the reverse of what is true in most countries. Even so, there is no need to waste money, plus killing an animal for meat requires that the cook respect it by not wasting any part of it. Same goes for the efforts of the people who grow and gather vegetables, etc.
His menu: Peking Duck, Cassoulet, Roasted Duck, Pâté, all from the same duck. He points out that the skin and the meat cannot be cooked to perfection on the same duck. You need to decide which you want. There are many complex preparations to try and take advantage of both, but they are arduous and expensive (thus duck is usually more expensive on menus). Or you get good meat and a flabby skin. Or a crisp skin and overcooked meat.
Peking duck is all about the skin -- that's the whole point of this dish. So Pépin cleverly decided to remove the skin to make it, and still have the meat to cook another way. As we watched and he talked, he first removed the wings, then proceeded to remove the skin off the duck, in one piece! He used a simple but sharp utility knife. It was interesting that he seemed to have a preference for the cheaper stamped knives, rather than for forged knives -- he's no snob.
The skin has to be glazed with "sweet water" and roasted, so he scored the skin, dipped it into the liquid, stuck it on a dry sheet pan, and roasted it. He explained that the fat needs to drain out, and the scores expose the skin to more heat, and the dry sheet pan should cause the skin to stick to it. As it cooks, the skin will contract, but since it's stuck to the pan, it will get thinner, rather than bunching up, which will help the fat cook out. As it cooks, he can drain away and save the fat, and can brush on more sweet water. He also pointed out that in order to render fat, you need to cook in fat. It's a simple matter of "like attracts like."
He showed how to make the Chinese pancakes that will wrap the strips of crispy skin like a tortilla ("Every culture has a pancake recipe"), and how to prepare the garnishes. He commented that his daughter Claudine, who is now a grown woman and a food authority in her own right, loved to roll out the pancakes for him as a child. He advocated teaching children to cook and appreciate "as young as possible, or you lose your chance forever." His arguements are certainly compelling, and his affection for his only child is worn on his sleeve.
He took the rendered fat and cooked it with the liver to make a pâté. He said that the lumps of fat found in the duck's vent -- at the thighs -- is equal in volume to the liver, so if no source of duck fat can be found, to use that. You shouldn't be wasting it anyway. Duck and goose fat are high-temperature fats, so you will get the crispiest finishes using it. True, they are bad-for-you monosaturated fats, but you are not eating duck every day. Everything is about balance.
He told a story about how he once opened a restaurant named for his wife, Gloria, with a mere $50,000 of his own money. His wife made the curtains, painted the walls, did the bookkeeping, etc. And though they wasted nothing, Pépin noted that being a restauranteur means always giving away things. He would make a pâté from chicken livers, scavenging the fat from chicken backs he'd use for stock, slice up bagettes thinly, and give this to the guests as a free meal starter. (He did joke that he opened the place because everyone wants a restaurant named for them, and his wife had been so patient as he opened establishments over the years for others ...)
Chef Pépin filleted the duck in less than a minute, removing breasts and boning out the thighs. He lectured that this profession is about speed -- since labor is so expensive, you have to be fast. He hacked up the bones and threw them in some water to make a duck stock, which would be boiled with white beans, an uncut mirepoix, and a bouquet garni. The meat was sautéed, then finished in the oven. He told a story how an important couple came into a restaurant, and the owner came to the kitchen in a fluster, "Jacques, you must cook something off the menu! They want duck, white meat only!" Now, duck and game are all dark meat; because chickens and domestic turkeys don't fly, they have white breast meat. Other poultry do fly, so genetically, the pectoral muscles are filled with oxygen-bearing blood, resulting in dark meat only. His response? "Sure! Let me know if they want dark meat next time, okay?" Presumably, he'd serve the same cut ...
The chef deglazed the pan with basalmic vinegar and wine (he looked at the labels, thought about it, then shrugged and dumped some in the pan, and stated, "Whatever it is, it is here!"). When the gastrique boiled down without deglazing properly, he said, "You simply put in some 'Chateau Sink' in, this year's vintage is best. You can do it over and over till your flavor is developed as you like." I thought he said "Chateau Cinq" which means "5 chateaus," and was confused, but then he walked over the sink, filled a glass with water from the tap, and put it into the pan ... and all was illumined!
As the cassoulet was drained (save the stock!) and placed on a sheet pan to cool so that the meat could be picked off the bones and the vegetables chopped, he talked about his career in the USA. He had come to work at La Pavillon in New York, then was offered two positions. One was as White House chef for the new President and his wife (the man was John F. Kennedy, of course), the other was as head chef for Howard Johnsons, which wished to create lines of "gourmet" French foods for distribution to their franchises, to capitalize on the new rage for French cuisine. In the context of the time, Pépin chose Howard Johnsons -- they offered him enough so he could court and marry Gloria and start a family. He notes that chefs are now superstars, not like in those days. Thus, he can be forgiven his choice! (True to his economical form, he catered both his and his daughter's weddings himself.)
The man is just so sexy and exudes authority. He is a dynamo; while he was working at la Pavillon, he attended Columbia University for his M.A. in French Literature and worked as a ski instructor. His wife admitted that she was smitten with the handsome Frenchman and pretended to be totally hopeless on the slopes so he'd have to pay extra attention to her! Of course, part of his mystique is the heavy French accent. It's so thick that one of SuSu's friends leaned over and whispered, "He's speaking French again, what did he say???" Then tried not to giggle as SuSu explained that no, he was actually speaking English ...
The prepared food was placed on plates and distributed to the audience. It was all good, really excellent flavors. SuSu was nostalgic, remembering the man who taught her how to cook French food (she had met Pépin with cookbook writer and proprietor Bert Greene when she was 10 years old). The food was rich, and Pépin lectured that if you are having a lot of people, this is how to stretch one duck to feed 8 or 16 people. A complicated menu indicates small portions of expensive ingredients, filled out with cheaper ingredients. -- but no less well prepared! Of course, if there are only two of you, then one duck and love is enough.
Jacques Pépin is older now -- he is close to his 70s -- but no less sexy and dynamic than he was as a beautifully handsome man in his 30s. He kept prompting everyone for questions; he does have an authority of seriousness about him, and he is fearsome and formidable as well. He's also fearless and doesn't excuse sloppiness. Pépin is willing to dress down an apprentice for stupidity -- he scolded one of the students assisting him for not getting the pâté cold enough to serve. When he asked why it wasn't set yet, she shrugged, put her arms akimbo and replied, "I guess the 'fridge is not very cold." He quietly told her, "Your job is to make it work, not to blame the equipment. Put it in the freezer, put it in an ice bath, cool it with a fan, you do what you have to do. You don't come to me and show me your failures. You expect me to make excuses to a 100 people waiting for pâté?" It was embarassing for her, but he was absolutely right, and that interchange was a valuable lesson to all the students gathered to hear the Grand Master speak. The customer or guest doesn't want your excuses, they want the meal! (And Wraith6 pointed out that the apprentice should have gone to the equipment manager or the theater chef, not to the Grand Master ... we suspected she was simply showing off. She kept bullying the other apprentices and jockeying to be the one closest to him throughout the presentation. Another lesson, n'est-ce pas?)
He gave several demonstrations over two days, partly as a book promotion, partly to speak to students at the Institute, partly because he said it's his pleasure. I think he's sexy, the embodiment of all that is good about French food and French people. Sure, many are rat bastards, but if they can produce Jacques Pépin, I forgive them everything else! (They also produced another Jacques, equally masterful ... read on!)
Photographs are the property and courtesy of The French Culinary Institute, JacquesPepin.net, and Station KQED Television.
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