Blue Collar, White Hat: The Working Class Origins of Celebrity Superstar Jacques PepinInterview by Grace Russo Bullaro
The late guru of French cuisine, Julia Child, has called Jacques Pepin the best chef in America and he is routinely referred to as a celebrity super-star. Chef, author, television personality, painter, educator, he is the author of more than two dozen cookbooks, has been the host of numerous television cooking shows, for which he has won an Emmy, and is the Dean of Special Programs at the French Culinary Institute. These are only a few of his accomplishments. How did Jacques Pepin, visiting America on a lark in 1959, at the age of twenty four, and for what he erroneously thought would be merely a short time, end up with such an illustrious career? And what does his ascent tell us about achieving success in the United States? Furthermore, how does the course of his career illustrate the vicissitudes that have occurred in the world of cuisine and the image of the chef? Jacques Pepin, unlike many other celebrity chefs, is informed and articulate about the past and present of the food industry. In this interview he offers many fascinating insights that answer these questions and invite us to contemplate the central role that the world of food plays in our individual and collective lives. Indeed, the interview illuminates how the beliefs, attitudes and practices of the food industry reflect the entire philosophy of a culture.
We have explored issues related to the food industry and its many facets in interviews with television chefs Lidia Bastianich  and Daisy Martinez that have appeared in previous issues of The Columbia Journal of American Studies and its online version. With Ms. Bastianich we examined the notion of geography and topography (i.e. terroir) and the literal and metaphorical role they play in the cultivation of food and the expression of cultural identity. We scrutinized some of the ways that globalization has led to the reevaluation, indeed redefinition is not too strong a word here, of fundamental concepts such as culture and cultural purity. We explored the manner in which a transplanted national cuisine, when imported by immigrants, gives birth to a hyphenated avatar such as Italian-American cuisine.
In the interview with Daisy Martinez we focused on the Latino community. Once again we probed the boundaries of cultural identity by asking our chef and educator, What constitutes Latino identity in view of the enormous diversity that the term subsumes? How do a Chilean, a Brazilian and a Cuban, for example, embody Latino culture despite their disparate customs and practices? What are the common denominators that allow us to speak of a Pan-Latino identity? Concomitantly, we addressed the important issue of socio-economic uplift and other demographic trends in the Latino community and the impact that they have had on the food and restaurant industries.
Building on this previous work, in the present interview with Jacques Pepin we focus on the role and the image of the chef and how they have evolved in the last few decades. Thanks in great part to the emergence of the FoodTV Network, which has without doubt revolutionized the food industry, the chef, once considered little more than a blue-collar worker chained to the stove, has now become a figure of glamour and excitement. It is not an exaggeration to say, since the comparison is often made in the media, that the chef is today's rock star. This is borne out by the enrollment figures in culinary schools such as the French Culinary Institute and the Institute of Culinary Education, where students are willing to pay very large sums in order to pursue a career that they hope will confer on them the coveted title of chef. Jacques Pepin provides an intriguing perspective on the history of this evolution, remembering a time when the life of a young boy apprenticed to a chef was little better than that of an undergraduate undergoing a brutal hazing. The two different systems that Chef Pepin discusses, the traditional French system of apprentissage and the current American system of a one year course of study at a culinary institute, illustrate not just two ways of learning the trade but they offer an incisive commentary on two philosophies regarding education, the work ethic, our aspirations and our definitions of success—in short, a snapshot of two societies and two time periods.
Equally intriguing are Jacques's views on today's American consumer and how to reconcile his or her gustatory and aesthetic demands with the chef's desire to achieve personal expression and financial success. And he has some excellent advice for young chefs attempting to break into the trade and aiming for that success. Furthermore, having personally known some of the greatest chefs of the last fifty years Jacques Pepin, the man who was personal chef to French President Charles De Gaulle in the past and who presently is in a small and influential circle of international celebrity chefs, is in a unique position to identify and comment on the qualities that set apart the great chef from the mere celebrity, and to report on the status of French cuisine in America today.
Interview with Jacques Pepin
GRB: I know that you prefer to do interviews cold, without looking at the questions. Is there a particular reason?
JP: It's not that I am against it. It's just that I believe that a discussion of food in general, is not such an important thing that you have to be extremely well prepared. So, whatever comes out, comes out; what emerges is your feeling about the world of food in general. If I was preparing for a special exam I would have to do some research but this is not the case here. Doing the interview cold makes for more spontaneity. It is more natural to do it this way.
GRB: You said something very interesting right now, that food, "is not so important." I myself get the impression from watching TV shows currently, that food has never been of greater interest to people. It seems that they can't get enough of the shows, the entertainment, the products. Everything related to food has become a major industry. How do you feel about this current trend?
JP: It is true, there is a paradox in what I said because the food industry represents over $800 billion dollars now. Everyone is involved and there is no aspect of social science that cannot be filtered through food whether it is anthropology or history, sociology and so forth. So it is a very important subject in that context, but what I was alluding to is that I do not put the greatest chefs on a par with the greatest painters. I think we chefs are artisans to start with. Sure, some of us have some talent, some others like Thomas Keller or Jean-Georges Vongerichten have a great deal of talent, but still in my book this doesn't equate to being a great painter like Picasso. It is fine to have talent, but we are still soup merchants. That being said, it is true that the world of food is not only amazingly complex but also all-encompassing in the sense that everyone is involved in it in one way or the other.
GRB: Yet I think it would be fair to say that cuisine has never held such a respected place in our culture. Can you tell us the story of your Ph.D. dissertation and why you abandoned it? I believe that the anecdote would illuminate the ways in which the social climate of those days was different from today's— especially in regard to the respect that cuisine commands today.
JP: Certainly. I left school when I was 13 in France, after I had passed the Certificate of Primary Studies. To be fair, I should add that it was simply of my own free will—my brother is an engineer and in fact, I was doing very well in school. In France if you do well in school you can go on all the way to university without paying for anything, so if I had wanted to, I could have continued my studies. I just want to make it clear that this was not a decision that my mother imposed on me; it was what I wanted to do. While I was still attending school I was also learning the restaurant trade by helping my mother in the first of the restaurants that she would eventually own. This one was a bistro that she opened shortly after the end of World War II, in a little town called Neyron, about ten miles away from where I was born, Bourg-en-Bresse near Lyon. By 1949, when I was fourteen years old, my parents and I realized that if I was to make a career out of cooking I would have to become an apprentice in a big restaurant-. So instead of staying in school I went into an apprenticeship at the Grand Hôtel de l'Europe in Bourg-en-Bresse. However, in those days the chef was not a respected or prestigious figure, as he is today, and certainly not on a high social level. I furthered my cooking knowledge in Paris, working my way up the scale of restaurants by following up one apprentissage with another, each time learning more; and even more significantly, being exposed to the styles of different chefs. At the same time I pursued the studies that I had abandoned for seven years in an "unofficial" manner by attending the Comédie Fran_aise and the Opéra Comique. Back then this kind of entertainment was the cheapest around, cheaper even than the movies because the government supported them. This meant that I was acquiring a kind of cultural education too, the complete repertoire of the French theater. When I came to America I was eager to learn English and so I entered the Columbia University English for Foreign Students program in the School of General Studies. I did this for a couple of years and then eventually got a general equivalency diploma (GED), which was necessary since I had never finished high school. Eventually I earned a B.A. from Columbia University and later I was accepted in the graduate school to work towards a Ph.D. (with an MA thesis that I wrote on Voltaire along the way). I finished most of the requirements for a Ph.D. but at that point I owned "La Potagérie," a restaurant in New York City, and I knew that the degree would be simply for my own gratification. I had already made the decision that I was not going to change the direction of my life, which was cooking. Yet being more educated put an end to my complex about the lack of it, and psychologically it was very important to me. In addition, I agreed with Oscar Wilde who said, "Having an education prevents you from falling into the deadly trap of taking educated people so seriously." Food being my world, I proposed to write my dissertation on the subject of food in French literature. I was fascinated by the presence and role of food in many works of literature. For example, Ronsard, one of the poets of La Pléiade wrote an Apology of Field Salad. I would have traced these references all the way to the twentieth century. Let's not forget the centrality of Marcel Proust's madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past! So what I had in mind was a survey of French cooking, but in the context of civilization, talking about the Encyclopédie of Diderot, the Chevalier de Jaucourt, Voltaire, Balzac and Zola and so on. When I discussed my plan with the French department they said, "Are you crazy?" So I gave up and maybe I shouldn't have because God knows, plenty has been written about the subject subsequently.
GRB: You were really ahead of your time. Today writing about food and its many connections to civilization is a significant part of cultural studies. What year was that?
JP: It must have been in or around1970. Ironically enough I later taught at Wesleyan University in the summer program and someone from Boston University invited me to teach in a new program in Culinary Education that they were starting there. That was the time when my daughter Claudine was about to go to College so when they asked me to teach at Boston University on a regular basis, we made a deal—and that's how Claudine went to College! I taught at BU for the school of hospitality (and still teach there), the students graduated with a B.S. in Hotel Management. Eventually however, about twenty years ago, Julia Child and I managed to convince Silber, the President of Boston University at that time, to create a program at BU, a Master of Liberal Arts with a concentration in Gastronomy. To my knowledge Boston University is the only college that offers this degree—we've come a long way from the time when it was considered trivial and frivolous to write a dissertation connecting food and literature. Now even in courses in the medical field they talk about food, tracing its path—from the physiological point of view—from entry to exit. In the department of art they talk about food and the Impressionist period, from the beautiful white asparagus in Manet to the selection of fruit in the still lifes of Monet and Van Gogh. Almost all topics can now be filtered through food and that makes it very interesting. But anyway, I never wrote my dissertation.
GRB: You still have time, and as we have been saying, now food is a hot topic even in academia.
JP: I've thought of that. Actually at Boston University they said that I could write it if I want to.
GRB: You have known some of the greatest chefs of the past half century. In what ways do you think the chef's world is different today?
JP: That's an interesting question, Grace. We can really say that in the old days the chef did not come out of the kitchen; didn't want to come out of the kitchen; didn't know he could come out of the kitchen. This was true probably up to the time that Paul Bocuse gave birth to what came to be known as the Nouvelle Cuisine, in the 1960s. After that the cook started to make appearances in the dining room. I went into that business in 1949, when I left home. Well it certainly was not "to become famous," because that possibility did not exist. Up to thirty years ago any good mother would have wanted her child to be a lawyer, an architect, a professor, but not a cook. Now the cooks are "geniuses." What has led to this change? I am not complaining. I am part of the trip, and I have been part of it and it is great. But I do not take it too seriously.
GRB: How would you compare the training that today's aspiring chefs get to the practices of your generation?
JP: It is totally different now because when I was an apprentice we stole the trade, we didn't learn it. The chef never told you anything. You asked, "What is this? What is that sauce?" He would have told you "c'est une sauce nonote" which means nothing at all. They never gave anything away, and then all of a sudden after a year, they told you: "Ok, tomorrow you start at the stove," and you said, "Who me?" Yet somehow through some type of osmosis you had learned and you started working the tricks of the trade. As I said, you stole more than you learned. They made it difficult for the apprentice and certainly after three years of this "old school" type apprenticeship, I would have never been able to do what the students do here after six months of courses. However, I was much faster with a knife and other technical skills because of the endless repetition I had performed. Here at the French Culinary Institute, the students pay a fortune, so we cater to them, we show them, we explain to them. Usually they are here to start a second career, the average age of our students falls between 25 to 40. Another factor to consider is that today's young American chefs, whether young or not-so-young, usually start much later than we did and because they are also more educated, they learn much faster. Because they bring a decent education with them they are learning in two ways, both in a hands-on approach and in acquiring book knowledge about the world of food and chefs. On the other hand, on the technical level we were more complete because as an apprentice not only was there no pay, but you were expected to go on repeating and repeating the same skills, trying to incorporate or absorb the techniques which then became second nature. For me this is still a very important part of the trade. This is why in my television shows I can be cooking and at the same time talking about ingredients, texture, color and so on. When you have internalized technique the way we did you never have to think about your skills anymore. Let me give you an example of the consequences of weak skills: you see a beginner cutting an onion, and you ask him a simple question like, "do you have any salt?" He gets totally disoriented because he is so focused on performing just that basic task. As long as you are like this, you cannot go forward in your career. Whether it is in painting, in cooking, in cabinet making or any other craft, you have to become a good technician and repeat and repeat until you reach the point where you have so internalized those skills that they become an unconscious part of you. Likewise in painting, which as you know is another one of my passions, you can work three years in a studio and learn how to mix yellow and blue to make green, and what you can do with a spatula or with your finger or with a brush; you can know everything about the law of perspective, and after three years you start to go outside and you do one painting after another. Would that make you an artist? Not really. You are a good technician. However, if you do have talent, whether that is as a chef or as an artist, you now have the means in your hand to bring that talent to fruition. As an additional illustration, let's just say that a chef who is talented but not a technician would be able to produce great food, but not consistently. It would take this chef twice as much time as it would take me, he or she would have more food left over and — wouldn't be able to reproduce it on a scale required in a restaurant setting.
GRB: Is one form of "apprenticeship" more crucial than the other in forming a chef? I see a lot of celebrities on the FoodTV Network who seem to have little more than rudimentary skills.
JP: And yet their food might be better than mine in the plate and this is the proof of the pudding.
GRB: Are you referring to their creativity?
JP: Well, creativity, yes. I know a lot of chefs who are technically very good. They can run an efficient and cost-effective kitchen, their food comes out pretty good; but it will never be very good. It stops at the level of technical virtuosity. Conversely I know people who are relatively not great technicians but have a great sense of taste. Ultimately great chefs like Jean-Georges, Daniel Boulud or Thomas Keller would be both good technicians as well as have natural talent in the sense of taste. They bring a great deal of their own being to their cooking. In the end the way you judge food is more a narcissistic reflection of yourself than of the food. If I were to go to the ten restaurants in the world or in New York, which have been pronounced by critics to be the best in terms of service, food, atmosphere or experience, I would probably pick out four as being extraordinary, another four as being very good and a couple that I'd say: "I don't get it." What I am saying is that the four that I'd pick as the best would be so merely because they happen to coincide with my sense of taste, my sense of esthetic, my sense of food in general; so it is a narcissistic reflection of my own taste. I cannot escape that to a certain extent. I remember that one Christmas I was working with André Soltner, who is one of the greatest chefs in existence, in upstate New York where we both had a house. For Christmas he brought a pâté of pheasant and I made a pâté of rabbit. His pâté was perfect. It was moist, it was creamy, perfect! But for me it needed seasoning, it needed salt. That was not a mistake. Conversely I served my pâté of rabbit and he told me, "It's good but I think you marinated it a bit too long, it is a bit strong." Yet for me it was perfect. You have to realize that even if you want to be objective you still cannot escape yourself.
GRB: So what would it take to be complete as a chef?
JP: I know people that are very good technicians and can work very fast, that have a little bit of talent, and will do very well because they are hard workers, they are always on time, they are good with the employees. They also have many others qualities like cleanliness. These all go into making up a whole persona of a chef if you like. I know other people that are very talented but impossible to work with. Working at the stove in a big restaurant requires a team effort. What you might be saying is good, but you cannot be yelling it. That does not encourage a good atmosphere in the kitchen. There is no formula by which you say: you need to have so much of this, so much of that. It is a mixture of all those things. Then too, it depends on where you are. For example, the market in N.Y. or in Chicago is going to be much harder than in a small town where you do not have too much competition. In the big cities chefs are kind of forced by the public to be more inventive, to be more creative, and to be more different for the sake of being different. This is a thing that has become especially noticeable in the last few years.
GRB: Do you mean that the restaurant scene is very unstable and volatile in the States?
JP: Yes, that's exactly it. Let me illustrate a contrast: When I was a child my father took to me to Fernand Point in Vienne, one of the three Michelin star restaurants of France, This was very well known for several dishes but one of them was the fois gras en brioche. My father had had it when he was young, and I took my daughter twenty years later to have the same fois gras specialty. These dishes remain forever on the menu because they become classics; the same for the salmon in sorrel sauce at Troisgros. Today in the States things are different because at restaurants like Thomas Keller's or Jean-Georges' the menu must change all the time. They would be criticized if they didn't change their menu. For the mighty god of novelty you have to change and one can become breathless with that type of thing. Especially with young chefs who want to be different, to shock, to be esoteric, to do something that people have never seen before. If you can find a special ingredient that no one has heard of, that is often what the public is looking for.
GRB: What advice would you give a young chef?
JP: I'd say that young chefs put too much on the plate. You have three, four, six, seven types of vegetables, two type of oils, different types of herbs, and that towering presentation! When I go to dinner with food critics or food writers, (I also write about food) often they will ask me, because I'm a chef, "what is that exactly? Is it good?" "Yes," I say, "it is very good, but I have no idea what it is. I think it is a filet of rabbit or a breast of whatever." So I tell a young chef that ideally you should be able to recognize the ingredients in a dish even blindfolded. You should be able to tell me," this is chicken, it has mushrooms in it. I think it is deglazed with wine" etc. That would mean that the flavors in the dish are "clean" and honest. The dish has integrity. That being said, there are two approaches to food. The first time I came to America and the first time I tasted apple pie I thought it was utterly disgusting. I said: "Gee, what did they put in the apple? They put in cinnamon, mace, nutmeg; there is no more taste of the apple." The apple tart in France is flavored with just butter and sugar, so you taste the apple foremost. Throughout my years, especially while I was working at Howard Johnson's, I have learned to like a standard American apple pie but still, it is the combination of apple, butter, cinnamon and the other spices that creates a taste all its own. So we either go back to Brillat-Savarin and Curnowsky, who rightly said that things should have the taste of what they are, or you can conceive of food more as a symphony, an assemblage of ingredients that blend to create a new sensation. Both can work well as long as it is not a question of adding something to the plate simply for the sake of seeing it on the plate. I believe that as you get older, whether we're talking about cooking or any other art, you tend to take away from the plate rather that to add to it. Eventually you get to the essential and you are left with a ripe tomato and a good olive oil on top and that's it. You do not want to fool around with anything else anymore. It reflects the human longing to reach the essential.
GRB: Are you becoming a purist?
JP: Yes. I do not know if the word is purist but certainly to do away with the embellishment, with all of the marginal things which are relatively unimportant and just go to the essence of something.
GRB: What about the saying that we eat with our eyes before we eat with our mouths? You do not believe in that?
JP: Yes, I know the saying, but it is deplorable when two thirds of the world is dying of hunger if we need to titillate your palate and excite your eyes so that you will consent to swallow whatever there is on your plate. When more than half of the world is suffering from famine, then morally there is something disquieting about placing such an emphasis on presentation. It is ridiculous. Even though I am interested in art, maybe it is paradoxical, but I have never really emphasized the presentation very much and I get crazy when I see a chef cleaning that plate around and around while it is getting colder and colder. I say, "Send that plate out! I do not care about that drop of something on the side." The essence of food is in the taste as the essence of painting is in the viewing, as the essence of music is in the hearing. Perhaps in the creation of pastry and chocolate you can decorate more; we can afford to decorate more without compromising the taste. However, for hot food it is more important to put it on the plate and to serve it as fast as you can.
GRB: In your autobiography you describe the kitchens that you knew as: "no recipes, no books, no democracy." I've already asked you about the lack of recipes and books in those kitchens where you served your apprenticeship, but let me ask you now: isn't today's "democracy" in the kitchen, the idea that team work has supplanted the chef's autocracy, a highly inefficient way to run a commercial kitchen?
JP: The answer to that is probably yes, because a chef is like the captain at the helm of a ship. You have to run the kitchen and if you are a good chef you can do it in a democratic way. We go back to Voltaire and the monarque éclairé, the enlightened monarch who is able to govern efficiently and still be good to the people. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the alternative to democracy in the kitchen is total anarchy or that the "monarch" should be a tyrant. But if you work at Jean-Georges' or at Daniel's you must expect to work through their sense of esthetic. As an apprentice you are not there to impose your taste, you are there to come and learn and do what the chef wants. And this is the whole idea of learning cooking. You work for two years with Jean-Georges and you say: "Yes, chef!" You do exactly what he wants. Then two more years with Thomas Keller and then two years with someone or other, and after eight or ten years of learning in this way and filtering the food of those people through yourself, you have accumulated a body of knowledge. Eventually you are going to develop your own taste this way. You will adopt what you like from all these styles, form your own esthetic sense, and your own taste. In short you will develop a personal style. At that point you open your own restaurant and now it will be you who will say, "I want it done this way." However, that doesn't mean that you do not talk with the guys you work with, you talk to your sous-chef and perhaps even compromise. It is not a democracy; it is the point of view of a chef. This is what creates the "soul" of a restaurant, the unmistakable style that you may like or not like but it stands out as unique. That is a very important thing that is often lost with the young chefs who panic when business is slow and so they do a little bit of Tex-Mex, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. The restaurant loses the most important thing, which is its own identity. So going back your original question, no, the kitchen cannot really be a democracy, only in that way can a point of view be imposed—and having a point of view is what makes a great restaurant.
GRB: It seems to me paradoxical that when the pretense of democracy collapsed the superstar chef emerged. What do you think is the connection with that?
JP: It is an interesting point of view. I can tell you that in my time the chef stayed behind the stove and I believe that he was even more dominant from that position. I remember that when I was a kid, whether I worked at the Plaza Athénée or for Maxim's [in Paris] in all the great restaurants the chef would be in charge of the food and the sommelier decided what to drink with it, without even talking to the chef. I only learned when I came to the US that the chef could also talk about wine as well as the right pairing. The chef is still the boss in the kitchen. But today there is a lot more to being a star chef than cooking. Wolfgang Puck or Jean-Georges for example are good examples of what it takes today. They are good enough to imprint their personality on their chefs-in-training so that the chefs can perpetuate it in all the restaurants that they own, and these are usually numerous. Now chefs are as much businesspeople as they are chefs. They create empires consisting of multi restaurants, products, cookbooks, endorsements of cooking equipment and so on.
GRB: Yet you too are a celebrity chef and are engaged in many other kinds of activities.
JP: Yes, I do many things that are on the periphery—I don't mean of the food world but that do not involve standing behind the stove. I teach at Boston University and at the French Culinary Institute, I write books, I've had a column in the New York Times for eight years. I even do consulting work for restaurants. I know that if I had a restaurant I would do none of these things. All I would do would be to stand behind the stove from morning to night and that's it. I have been through that and I know that there is no escape if you own a restaurant.
GRB: Unless you delegate.
JP: Some people are good at that, I am not particularly good at that. The best for me would be to own a restaurant with someone like my dearest friend, Jean-Claude Szurdak. We have worked together fifty years; we are like an old couple. People have told us that when we work we do not talk, but I give him what he needs before he asks me and he gives me what I need before asking him—at the same moment too. However, having a restaurant with him might feel comfortable, it might make for consistency, but it would not be good on the creative level because we think more or less the same way. I have had several restaurants, but in 1974 I was in a terrible car crash and ended up with fourteen fractures; that event acted as a catalyst to push me towards something different. This was a time when cooking schools were opening up right and left. I was then writing for House Beautiful and finishing my degree at Columbia University. I started doing some cooking demonstrations and moving into the directions that are my present occupations: teaching cooking, writing books, doing consulting work, television etc. Believe me; all this is easier than owning a restaurant.
GRB: In your book, The Apprentice, you mention that "nouvelle cuisine" liberated you from the French classics. Why is liberation from a respected heritage a good thing? Should we throw it all out? What should we put in its place?
JP: It was not a total replacement. Nouvelle cuisine was just a few years away when I was working at the Plaza Athénée in Paris. In the classical tradition we cut the tomatoes all in one direction, for example, and I never thought of cutting them in any other direction because it was so engraved in my brain that you do it this way—and this way only. French cuisine is one of the few that started with a set of rules devised by people like La Varenne in the XVII century. Because of the political stability in France under Louis XIV, it became possible to establish certain parameters and certain rules that everyone adhered to. Eventually a vocabulary and a set of practices evolved that everyone recognized and adhered to. For example, mirepoix, julienne, deglazing, all refer to something specific. In traditional French cuisine we still teach this way. Of course after you have learned it you can reject the whole thing; but the act of rejecting something already implies that you have acquired it, otherwise there is nothing to reject. Italian cuisine, on the other hand, which can be as great or even greater than French cuisine, is totally different in its evolution and practices. You can work in Italy and make extraordinary food with different chefs, but not one of them will agree with another—but then, Italy did not become a unified country until 1861. In the Italian system the imprint of the chef is even more noticeable. Nevertheless in France for better or for worse, everyone adheres to the fundamentals as to ingredients and techniques. And this is what we teach here at the French Culinary Institute. That's why people like Wiley Dufresne or Bobby Flay or many of the stars come here and learn how to cook, even though by the time that they leave and open their restaurants their style may have nothing to do with French cooking.
GRB: A lot of them go into "fusion" now.
JP: Yes, fusion and especially confusion.
GRB: And the two go together?
JP: A lot of young chefs go crazy expressing themselves— they have to "sign" that platter as if it were a painting to say: "I made it. I made it." And the irony of this is that whether you like it or not you cannot escape your individuality anyway. Let me give you an illustration. In a course that I teach at Boston University I have one menu that I consider the perfect meal for the students to master: roasted chicken, a salad of Boston lettuce, a bowl of potatoes. This is a very simple menu, but in order for the result to be excellent they must master the essentials. If I have fifteen students, the first thing that I say is, "Do not try to be creative and do all kinds of things to impress people. Just be yourself and do it as well as you can." Well, it never fails that out of fifteen chickens, four or five of them will be under cooked, three or four over cooked, a couple will be burned, some will be totally cold, some totally unseasoned. Only a couple will be perfect. I know that I will always end up with fifteen totally different chickens. I remind young chefs of their inescapable individuality when they try to "sign" a plate just to be different. I sometimes go to a place along the water near where I live in Connecticut where they do a great lobster roll. All it has is a hot dog roll browned in butter, fresh lobster in the middle, and salt, pepper and butter— and this is it. A lobster roll can be as memorable as a lobster soufflé or some other extraordinary dishes. Again I would say to a chef, "You do not need extraordinary imagination to do it better than anyone else. Just keep it simple, have the freshest ingredients and do it well."
GRB: I wonder if that approach can work in a place like America today.
JP: Oh yes. It can. Absolutely.
GRB: It seems to me that we are so infatuated with novelty that we no longer pay attention to the basics and to quality.
JP: No, absolutely not. Years ago I remember reading an article in the New York Times about the new restaurants opening up in New York costing nine, ten or twelve million dollars, and I wondered how can young chefs ever get into the business? So I said, "that's it, I am going to open a restaurant in Connecticut for less $50,000 from the ground up." At the time I was doing some things for the newborn FoodTV Network and I asked them if they wanted to record it. They said yes, so we documented the entire experience and eventually turned it into a one hour show. Naturally in order to accomplish this difficult goal we had to do a lot of the work ourselves. I put down the quarry tile on the floor, my wife painted the walls. I had heard about a school in New York that was changing their stoves and they had to pay $1,000 to have them carted away, so we said we would take them and fix them up. We got what would have been very expensive stoves for free. We went to auctions too and we decorated with beautiful little posters. The result was a really nice French Bistro. We did it for $48,000 including $3,000 to $4,000 for inventory of food and wine before we opened.
GRB: And what was the concept of the bistro?
JP: Simple French with quality ingredients. When the diners sat down we started bringing big trays of pâté, different types of salads, French bread freshly made in the restaurant; we served six different kinds of hors d'oeuvres. This is how it is done in France in a bistro. We had a blackboard on which were listed six choices for the main courses of the day. There was always a steak on the menu to be on the safe side, as well as a fish, a stew, a shellfish, and a roast. The vegetables were also very important. We would have something like a gratin of cauliflower and a stew of peas as the vegetables of the day and there were always three desserts to choose from. All this was offered at a prix fixe. It was all very simple really. People loved it very much. I think that if you open this kind of simple restaurant anywhere and you do it well, people will realize that they are getting value for their money. It's that simple and that difficult at the same time.
GRB: If I'm not mistaken all your TV programs have been on PBS. Can you describe the differences between the PBS approach to cooking shows and that of the FoodTV Network? Do you think the FoodTV Network has changed the very nature of the culinary concept?
JP: I think the answer is yes to all of those questions. It certainly has changed the nature of the culinary world because of the exposure and the idolization of the chef. All of that has been flabbergasting for me. You see young women like Rachael Ray becoming stars in a relatively short period. However, I myself have been sharing in the bounty. I have been on PBS for close to a quarter of a century, I like PBS. I don't have to take account of the sponsor. In fact, I do not have the right to work for the sponsors or to endorse their products. To a certain extent they allow me to do pretty much what I want. However, working for public TV is certainly less lucrative than network television because it's not as if you get residuals each time your show is aired. Still, I am not complaining because I have sold thousands of books that I would not have sold if I hadn't been on PBS. I feel I have a niche there. I have been invited by the FoodTV Network several times to do a show but the problem is that they would not allow me to also stay on at PBS. They claim that I would "cannibalize myself," so at least for the time being I have no intention of leaving PBS. I'm starting a new series this summer. I think PBS is the only channel in the USA that is not commercial television.
GRB: What do you think of the idea that the cooking programs on PBS are more instructional whereas the FoodTV network is all about entertainment? Does the instructional part suffer as a result of their emphasis on entertainment?
JP: I don't know if the right word is suffer. How you feel about this is determined by your reasons for watching television. Many people who never even cook watch cooking shows for the entertainment value. And that's fine too. I happen to prefer the instructional emphasis because I'm a professional chef and I teach cooking. One thing that I do not understand though, is how an organization like the FoodTV Network, a channel dedicated entirely to food 24 hours a day, does not address some serious topics. If we had a television channel dedicated to, let's say, plastic surgery, wouldn't we expect to see programs about the latest developments in the field? But here we have a channel dedicated to food, yet we do not know why we are the fattest people in the world, what the kids are eating in school, anything about the agricultural business, bioengineered food or pesticides. We don't know about food franchises or the distribution of food. We don't learn about the connections of food to the arts. We do not get advice from dieticians and nutritionists; there is none of this. All we have are chefs jumping around—which I do not criticize, that is what I do for living. But I believe that having a few of these kinds of shows would be fine, as long as the rest would deal with some other important topics. I guess the program planners do not feel they have to provide this kind of variety because the public wants to entertained. Personally I feel that if a channel is dedicated 24 hours a day to the food industry it should, at the very least, include some investigative reports on restaurants—something like 60 Minutes, let's say.
GRB: What does it take today to be a celebrity in America?
JP: More than anything else it is a question of luck, certainly of being in the right place at the right time; of knowing what people want to hear at that moment. We so-called celebrities live in our own mini worlds, although without question after being on television a number of years at some point you do transcend that mini world. Essentially however, what this means is that although you might be a big celebrity in the world of cooking, outside of this little circle no one knows who you are. This of course is true in all the arts. If you're a lover of architecture you will certainly know Le Corbusier. But if you ask the man in the street who he is, he will have no idea. When I go to the Food and Wine Festival in Aspen there are five thousand guests. People will come up to me and tell me, "I watch all the cooking shows on television and you are absolutely the best." Well the way I see it, this is a kind of self-selected group. They like me so they come to tell me that. Those who like Bobby Flay will go to him and tell him the same thing. Those who like Emeril will tell him, and so on. So really, you can't take being a celebrity too seriously and let it go to your head.
GRB: That's a very sensible attitude to have towards celebrity. And what are your upcoming projects?
JP: Well, in addition to the new cooking series that I mentioned before, I am doing another show for PBS that was inspired by a number of ideas: the three tenors, the Charlie Rose interviews and the cooking community. It is called "The Artist's Table." I will be interviewing famous celebrities from the world of the arts: cinema, music and painting. Of course it will be someone who loves food and wine and we will also cook together. This will give us a chance to explore the ways in which their art permeates the food and how the food influences their art. We filmed the first show last week with Itzhak Perlman. We shot it in his penthouse in New York. We talked for hours and had a great time. I think it will be a great show and I am really excited about it. It will probably air in the spring of 2008 on PBS as a one hour special. If it goes well and we get funding we will do more interviews, maybe Sophia Loren who is a great cook and loves food. That would be a very exciting thing to do.
GRB: I must tell you that you strike me as one of the most balanced of the celebrity chefs and you seem to be very secure in yourself.
JP: Yes, maybe that's true, but I am older than a lot of the others. Cooking is a very important and serious part of my life and even though cuisine can also be considered an art, it cannot compare with some of the others. Being a great writer, composer, painter or a sculptor, that takes genius.
 "Grace Bullaro Interviews Lidia Bastianich on Terroir, Cuisine, Globalization and Cultural Identity" in The Columbia Journal of American Studies vol. 8, 2007: 174-192.
Grace Russo Bullaro is an Associate Professor at City University of New York, Lehman College, where she teaches English, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary courses. She has published widely in the areas of film studies, literature, and popular culture and is also the author of Man in Disorder: The Cinema of Lina Wertmüller in the 1970s and editor of Beyond Life is Beautiful, a collection of essays on the films of Roberto Benigni.