Ten chefs and pastry experts, including Josh Capon, Francois Payard, Joe Realmuto, Claudia Fleming, and Jason Weiner, will converge in Jeff’s Kitchen at Hayground School in Bridgehampton to present an unforgettable meal in honor of world-renowned Chef Jacques Pépin during the 14th annual Hayground Chef’s Dinner. This year’s fête will take place on Sunday, July 29, with Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick as honorary chairpersons.
We recently caught up with Pépin to learn about his Hamptons connection, start in the kitchen, mentors, and more.
Have you ever been to the Hamptons?
JP: Oh yes. Many times.
What are some of your favorite spots?
JP: I used to go there years ago, a lot. I was friends with Pierre Franey and Craig Claiborne. So all of the 60s and 70s I used to go there. In fact, I got married at Craig’s house in 1966.
So the Hamptons must be a very special place for you.
JP: I haven’t been in the last few years, but I went last year. Florence Fabricant of The New York Times invited me to do a question and answer at Guild Hall. I haven’t been going there regularly now, but it used to be one of my favorite places to go.
Prior to being selected as the Chefs Dinner honoree, were you familiar with the Hayground School?
JP: Yes, Florence Fabricant had spoken to me about it.
What initially piqued your interest in cooking?
JP: I was born and it was probably part of my DNA. I was 5/6-years-old when my mother opened a restaurant in France, as well as my aunt. There were many restaurants – 12 restaurants that I can count – in my family in France – owned by women, cousins, aunts, mother and so forth. I left home when I was 13-years-old to go into a formal apprenticeship in cooking. At that time, life was probably simpler for a kid than it is now. My father was a cabinetmaker and my mother was a cook at a restaurant, so it was one or the other. We had kind of blinders on our eyes – I didn’t know that I could be a doctor or something like that.
Did you have any mentors throughout your career or is there anyone that has had a great impact on your career?
JP: Several, certainly in France and in the United States. Certainly Pierre Franey and Craig Claiborne. When I came to the US towards the end of 1969, and within six months/not even a year I knew the trinity of cooking, which was James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne. Certainly for me, Craig was the most influential out of all of them.
You’ve had such a long successful career. Is there anything about the way the culinary world has progressed or trends that you’ve found surprising?
JP: The cook used to be at the bottom of the social scale. Any good mother would have wanted their child to marry a lawyer or doctor, now we are geniuses. This is great! I don’t know how long this is going to last, but this is terrific!
What is the most memorable dish you’ve ever had and what made it stood out?
JP: Usually what makes it stand out is the people you’re with. The people you’re with compliment the simplicity of the food, the freshness of the food – out of the garden. Like yesterday, I was out walking and I picked up two pounds of black chanterelle – now’s the time I pick the wild mushrooms out of the woods. With this, there is a place next door where the woman has beautiful chicken and duck so I go get my eggs and you cannot beat that. I have all fresh herbs in the garden – chives, tarragon. All of those herbs with the eggs and the fresh mushrooms, it was as good as the greatest restaurant in the world.
What advice would you offer someone at the beginning of their culinary career?
JP: The advice I would give to a young, would be chef would be you have to go in that business for the right reasons, which are you like to feed people, it makes you happy. And not just to be famous. This is not advice someone would have given me because when I was kid no cook was famous. Now, with all the television and all that a lot of kids get into this to get on television and be the next Bobby Flay or whatever. I would say these are not the right reasons because you still work Saturdays, you still work many hours, you still sweat a lot, you don’t make a lot of money, but, if you love it, and it fulfills you and satisfies you, that’s what you should do. And, remember to be on time in the morning, if you’re willing to work, the chef will be very happy with you.
Are you working on any projects at the moment?
JP: Yes, I have a book of menus coming out in a couple of months. I have done the menu for the Hayground Dinner, so I just drew up the menu and have done many books of menus like that. In fact, starting with Craig Claiborne at the time of my wedding, my wedding was in The New York Times International Cookbook at that time, so we for many years started doing drawings and menus together. I have one of those menu books cooking out soon.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
JP: I’m looking forward to seeing old friends, Pierre Franey’s daughters who I haven’t seen in a while.
Tickets to the Hayground Chefs Dinner start at $1,500.
Hayground School is located at 151 Mitchell Lane in Bridgehampton. For more information, visit www.haygroundchefsdinner.org.