“The Table is the Great Equalizer”: Jacques Pepin speaks to BU

by Melissa Herrick

BU Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center event
BU Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center event

On December 5, 2012, the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center hosted speaker Jacques Pepin, renowned chef, TV personality, cookbook author, and one of the founders of BU’s Gastronomy program.

The event started out with a reception. Having come straight from work, the full bar and passed hors d’ouevres were a welcome sight. Before the talk began, people milled around in small groups, admiring a selection of paraphernalia from the archives: handwritten recipes, several medals and certificates, personal notes from Julia Child, a Christmas card from President Obama, and some of Pepin’s paintings. My favorite item: a recipe for cherry pie at Howard Johnson’s, calling for over 1000 pounds of cherries.

As cocktail hour drew to a close and people began to take their seats, an air of anticipation settled over the crowd. The low hum disappeared as Pepin’s guests walked out to take their seats in the front row, and the appearance of Pepin himself was met with applause. The older crowd seemed particularly enthusiastic, maybe indicating Pepin’s main demographic. Despite being the
“patron saint” of the Gastronomy program, his popularity with the younger generation is not as pronounced as that of someone like Julia Child. (Then again, there’s never been a major Hollywood production about Jacques Pepin.)

Pepin started his kitchen career in his parents’ restaurant, and dropped out of school at age 13 to work in restaurants in Paris. He also worked as a chef to French President Charles de Gaulle before coming to the United States in 1959. Pepin started working at Le Pavillon in New York on his second day in the U.S. (a career feat that many Gastronomy students would envy, I’m sure). Pepin became friendly with some of the most well-known foodies of the time: Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Julia Child and more. His resume is lengthy and impressive: he opened his own restaurant in 1970, earned a Master’s degree from Columbia University and an honorary doctorate from BU, has been featured on 13 television shows, and has written 20 cookbooks.

photo by Melissa Herrick
photo by Melissa Herrick

But Pepin is much more than his resume. He smiles a lot, and speaks with a French accent. “Usually in front of a crowd I have a skillet in my hand,” he said at the beginning of his talk. Wearing a light blue collared shirt, a dark tie, and an ever-so-slightly oversized navy blazer, Pepin is charming and funny. Despite his long list of achievements, he is not egotistical, nor is he falsely modest: he seemed aware of his celebrity, and proud of what he has done (half-teasingly bragging about his restaurant), yet he often poked fun at himself. He talked a lot about how the food world has changed since he began working in it. There was a time, he said, when chefs were the bottom of the pile. “Now, we are genius!” he said. The diverse crowd was a testament to this statement. The audience ran the gamut—graduate students, undergrads, professors, community members, and a fair number of “Friends of the Library.” All those people were there to bask in the presence of a food legend. Would this have happened 50 years ago? Even 15 years ago? We can only hope that this is a sign that more people are starting to realize the importance of food and cooking.

“The table is the great equalizer,” Pepin said. Maybe this speaks to Pepin’s own career, from cooking for the French President to mass producing cherry pie for Howard Johnson’s—in the end, everyone eats. But, as a gastronomy student, I think this is particularly relevant. Everyone eats, yes, but food also connects people. Inviting someone to share a meal with you is inviting them into your life in a very particular way. We can learn about people, families, and cultures through what they eat. To many, food is simply sustenance. To us, food is about much more than what you’re eating. Though he is often asked about his favorite restaurants, Pepin says that memories of meals have more to do with who you are eating with. “Food and wine is to be shared,” he said. (He also suggested solving political problems by sitting the Republicans and Democrats down to dinner together. It couldn’t hurt, right?)

At the end of the talk, Pepin made his way to the back of the room to sign copies of his new book. On his way down the aisle, he smiled at me, patted my shoulder, and asked me how I was.

I may never wash my sweater again.

Melissa Herrick is a current gastronomy student and member of the Gastronomy Student Association. She has a BA in English from Colgate University.

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