Field Report:
Jacques Pépin, French Culinary Institute, SoHo, NYC
SuSu, MaceVindaloo


We'd been to see Jacques Pépin last year regarding his thoughts on cuisine économique where every scrap of usable food is used and made into good dishes, whether they are eaten all at the same meal or reserved for other meals. He's published a book called Cuisine Economique many years ago which is organized into menus; it was not all that popular primarily because of its organization, and the concept of cooking without waste is not as easy to do as one believes.

In fact, it might be that early training is absolutely essential. If you think about food in America now, things come boneless, skinless, already cooked ... so what happened to the bones and such, which you actually paid for but didn't get in the packet? We usually don't want that stuff, yet if you watch how he prepared a duck into four separate dishes to feed the 100 or so people at the demo, you come to realize what that represents in terms of cost, effort, and the value of a duck or chicken's life. We tend to say, "Oh, it's not worth my time to do that so I'll just buy it ready-made." Does that actually sound like a good, compassionate thing to say? And we are a nation that abhors knowing where our food comes from, not even able to eat whole fish and demanding it be decapitated (as if that might be less gross?).

Pépin is aghast at the prices he's heard to open restaurants nowadays. "How do you recoup an investment of $7 million, even at $300 per prix fixe?? That's impossible, it's just food! And what do you have to do to run a place where people would pay so much for dinner?" Like in all businesses, how much a chef can demand as salary depends on how much he's worth, and that includes how much he can save. "Walk into the refrigerator in the morning, see how many of this is left from yesterday, how much of a sauce is there, what can we do with it all to make today's specials? Then you need to tell the waiter and expediter how many servings you have. By doing this you save the restaurant money -- it comes in instead of going into the trashcan. And the stuff is paid for already, throwing it away is simply throwing away money."

He lamented that professional chefs are simply not trained in this manner since food in the United States is remarkably cheap and labor is expensive. So food gets wasted regularly. To a person who is brought up with the rules ingrained into their psyche, seeing waste can actually result in physical pain!

Admittedly, I was trained by family and professional chefs to practice cuisine économique from a very early age, so I understood Pépin's admonishments completely. I hate wasting meat bones and trimmings, and I hate paying for bones and trimming when I need to make stock for soups or sauces. I have to restraing myself from hollering at people who separate the eggs for a meringue then toss out the yolks because they can't be bothered figuring out what to do with the residuals or how to properly store them. I understand that such waste can make a certain kind of person physically ill.

Ducks on sale cost $1.69/lb, and each weighs about 4½ lbs, so four ducks cost a total of about $30. As before, he showed how to make Mock-Peking Duck (less arduous and less expensive than the real-deal ... after all, must be economical about time, too!), Mock-Cassoulet, Paté Mousseline, and Roast Duck filets and fed over 100 of us with leftovers! The smells of the amphitheatre as he cooked and sautéed and boiled and chopped were mouthwatering, even in the 98°F hot humid weather! How to affect the appetites of a big crowd in rather adverse conditions.

He pointed out that when you create a menu, you should have a focus that is rich and "wow-like." You make small portions with the duck, then fill out with vegetables and interesting side dishes. Menu design is something that must use cuisine economique or you'll go broke every time!

He pointed out that he used cheap vegetables and duck bones to make the mock-cassoulet, a French bean stew. He said he could probably fill a couple of dozen serving-sized crocks with what he made from the four ducks, slice some kielbasa or flavorful sausage into the stew, cover with a perseillade (bread crumbs, garlic, parsley) and run it under a broiler and charge $8 or more for the serving. So considering the whole huge pot cost him $10 at most and the additional sausage and crumbs another $10, he could potentially see a $170+ return on his materials! Of course, he's not considering other costs like salaries, rent, power, etc., but it's clear what he means. "But even if everything is free, how do you make back $7 million???" he kept wondering.

His obsession with saving materials and cost are hard-won, having been the corporate development chef for Howard Johnson in it's heyday as a chain of cheap, elegant fare restaurants; he was also a restaurant production designer for concept restaurants like La Potagerie, the first soup lunch restaurant, and created new mass-production restaurants in the World Trade Center. Other chefs trained in running a restaurant have this drilled into them, too. So don't think of "specials" as throwaways ... they are an integral part of running a restaurant, and to be truthful, they represent the greatest creativity of the chef in residence. How a chef handles the specials is often a greater arbiter of the character of the restaurant than anything else. He or she can't send out anything substandard or bad without incurring the wrath of the owner and the Department of Health, see?

As the demo closed, he noted that when he does demos in professional situations, there are never any questions. When the audience is filled with foodies and housewives, the questions come non-stop! As this venue is a professional school, the questions were indeed sparse, probably because the professsional chefs-to-be didn't want to ask something that could be seen as foolish -- worse, they didn't want to risk a dumb question to be remembered by the master or fellow chefs. But he pointed out, would you be less embarassed to ask a dumb question when you are standing in a professional kitchen? Or is it better to get it over with in school?

Pépin was voted number one cooking teacher in America, in either amateur or professional capacities. Part of his mission is to teach mindfulness in cooking, in addition to an appreciation for food and techniques. That's kind of Jedi, don't you think?

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