Celebrated Chef, Films His PBS Biography at Columbia

Celebrated Chef, Films His PBS Biography at Columbia

Celebrated Chef, Films His PBS Biography at Columbia

August 8, 1999

by Abigail Beshkin

It came as no surprise that famed chef Jacques Pépin, star of the public television series Today's Gourmet with Jacques Pépin and author of 18 cookbooks, wanted to film a segment of his biography on the steps of Low Library, with School of General Studies Dean Peter Awn at his side. "Columbia was a great part of my life," Pépin said. As the cameras rolled, Pépin spoke with Awn about this major chapter in his life -- his 12 years at Columbia, where he gained proficiency in English, then went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees.

He explained why he chose to pursue a degree when his career as a chef was already thriving. "It was something I did for my own satisfaction," said Pépin. "I had always wanted to study again. I'm basically a professional student," he said. Pépin speaks with pride about his years at Columbia. In 1959 he arrived in New York, having already made a name for himself in the French culinary world. He had cooked at some of France's premiere restaurants and served as a personal chef to President Charles de Gaulle of France.

During the filming, Awn, walking down the steps of Low Library with Pépin, asked Pépin to explain what had motivated him to return to school. "I'm always fascinated," Awn said, "by our students' overwhelming desire to study. I like to hear what makes people who are already doing so well in their fields turn to education." Pépin told Awn he had not been inside a formal classroom since he was 13, when he left school to apprentice himself to a chef. "In France," he explained, "it is common to leave school at an early age to pursue a career in cooking. Most chefs in France do not return to school once they leave. There, it's very hard to go back to school, and many people would think it was ridiculous."

Pépin thought differently. While on a boat to Quebec, en route to the United States at the age of 23, Pépin asked new acquaintances what was the best school in New York City. They told him about Columbia and two weeks after arriving in New York, he had enrolled in a language proficiency class at the School of General Studies. While taking courses, he worked first at the celebrated New York restaurant, Le Pavillon. In 1960, he was asked to serve as chef in the Kennedy White House. He turned the offer down. For one thing, he said, "chefs were not big stars like they are now, and I had no inclination of what the possibility of that sort of thing was." But also, he added, "One of the reasons that I didn't go to Washington was that I was going to Columbia." He chose instead to work for the Howard Johnson Company, where he ultimately served for 10 years as director of research and new development. After leaving, he helped create La Potagerie, a successful Manhattan soup restaurant. All the while he was taking courses, and by 1970 he had earned his BA. He then went on to pursue a master's in French literature, which he earned in 1972.

To Awn, Pépin serves as an example of the levels people can reach, even when they've taken a long hiatus from their studies. "Jacques is an example of the extraordinary things people achieve when they make the decision to pursue a degree," said Awn. "He had already accomplished so much, but his Columbia degree allowed him to become one of the country's foremost chefs." During the filming on campus, two sets of cameras trained on Pépin -- one from PBS, which plans to air the biography next March during its pledge drive, and one from French public television. William Echikson, one of the coordinators of the French production, said the interest in Pépin in France is entirely different than it is in the U.S.. He said that U.S. audiences tend to be interested in recipes and the actual craft of cooking. In France, however, producers expect viewers to be more interested in the success of a French cook abroad. "It's an important message for the French to learn, that you can succeed abroad," said Echikson.

"I had no intention of staying in the States," said Pépin. "I really didn't have a plan. I just thought I would spend a year, see another lifestyle. But I fell in love with it." He has since written 18 cookbooks and hosted six television cooking series. His most recent series, which featured his daughter Claudine, was named Best National TV Cooking Show by the James Beard Foundation. This fall, Pépin will appear with cooking legend Julia Child in the PBS series Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, and will publish a 416-page cookbook as a companion to the show.

Pépin tends to take an academic approach to cooking, believing the study of food can be incorporated into all the social sciences. He said he's assigned political scientists to write papers on the politics of controlling food distribution, and theologians to write about food in religion. He serves as dean of special programs at the French Culinary Institute in New York, and he teaches courses at Boston University, including one on "Culture and Cuisine," which covers the history of French cooking and incorporates Pépin's vast knowledge of 18th-century French literature -- the topic of Pépin's master's thesis.

"Columbia did a great deal for me in giving me a certain assurance with myself. The beauty of having a liberal arts education is that it has permitted me to do so much," Pépin said. "The classes here were very stimulating, very exciting. The people in classes with me at GS were older and they had already done so much."