I tell a student that the most important class you can take is technique. A great chef is first a great technician. ‘If you are a jeweler, or a surgeon or a cook, you have to know the trade in your hand. You have to learn the process. You learn it through endless repetition until it belongs to you.Jacques Pepin
Many years ago, in fact decades ago, I was a young culinary student at the New England Culinary Institute. In between classes us young guys and gals liked to pretend we knew more than we did. Over beers, we would boast about how many pans we could control at once in the saute station or how many crepes we could flip. None of of us knew shit. The ignorance of youth. Sometimes it takes real experience to learn how little you actually know. All of us consulted Jacques Pepin’s book “La Technique” as if it were the bible. I still cherish my original copy that has been splattered with chicken fat and lobster juices over the course of it’s 30 year life. It was the bible for us.
We lived and breathed Jacques’ lessons. Even though I only knew him vicariously through his TV shows and books, I felt a personal mentor relationship with him. Many years later I was working at the Copper Beech Inn in Ivoryton, Connecticut running two restaurants. We had a bread guy named Charlie who was close to Jacques. One day, in the heat of a rush, I was barking out orders when I sensed a presence behind me. You know that feeling when someone has entered your space and you know it, yet you do not see them? I turned to see Jacques standing there, smiling. The world stopped. I had one of those Tom Hanks moments from ‘Saving Private Ryan’ when he hit the beaches on D day and motion, time and sound slowed. All he could hear was his heart beating. I couldn’t care less about the machine gun sounds from the ticket machine exploding customer orders onto the kitchen front lines. Or waiters screaming for their coq au vin or grilled steak Bearnaise. I walked up to Jacques, shook his hand and thanked him profusely for what he taught and meant to me. The guy was as humble and gracious as can be. He played it down and walked back into the dining room to enjoy dinner.
My palate is simpler than it used to be. A young chef adds and adds and adds to the plate. As you get older, you start to take away.Jacques Pepin
I cooked for him several times and never lost that nervous anxiety of cooking for someone whose opinion you truly value. Oh that fear and nervousness; second guessing everything and tasting the same sauce thirty times in a row as if it would change. Tonight I am flying to Arizona to join up with Chef Beau MacMillan and cook a special lunch for Jacques on Friday and participate in a celebration of Jacques Pepin’s 80th birthday at the Arizona Biltmore. My lone contribution is a simple braised chicken with wild matsutake mushrooms. The same butterflies have returned. Sometimes simple dishes are the hardest to execute. There is no flash in the pan to hide behind. I am bringing my copy of La Technique to get signed. I am so excited and so humbled. Happy Birthday Jacques!
You have no choice as a professional chef: you have to repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat until it becomes part of yourself. I certainly don’t cook the same way I did 40 years ago, but the technique remains. And that’s what the student needs to learn: the technique.Jacques Pepin