Jacques Pépin is in love with chicken

By Frank Whitman

Chicken is a reliable go-to meal for both restaurant chefs and home cooks. But for master chef Jacques Pépin, cooking chicken is high culinary art – both as carefully crafted comfort food and as the measure of a cook’s skill and technique. 

Versatile chicken – roasted, fried, sautéed, poached or simmered – is inexpensive and flavor friendly. Adaptable to almost any cuisine and presentation, it’s both easy to cook and tricky to get just right. 

In his new book, The Art of the Chicken, the multi-talented  combines his unexpected skill as an artist and a lifetime of cooking experience in a charming book.  Filled with stories from his life in food, it also includes mouth-watering chicken recipes and original paintings of his favorite bird.  

It’s the eye-catching art that grabbed me. Pépin an artist – who knew?  Faithful to life or fanciful, the birds he paints are colorful depictions of chickens he has known or imagined. 

The rooster on the cover, for instance, stands tall with a Gallic attitude – proud of his colorful feathers while slightly disdainful of the viewer.  Other paintings show birds with plumage depicted as fruits or vegetables – decorated with cherries and pears, with the body of an artichoke, or grapes in place of feathers. Others are more true to life with the bold colors of heritage backyard varieties.  

Some are in disarray as though they had just met a fox. One seems to be in conversation with an escargatoire of snails.  All are vivid and engaging – a peek into the chef’s own personality. 

The recipes, all for chicken, do not follow the usual format of listed ingredients and numbered steps. Instead, they are narratives with approximations of quantities, estimates of times, and suggestions about heat. It’s the way apprentices are taught and chef’s exchange dishes.  

Imprecise as they are, the recipes are inviting, encouraging the reader to give-it-a-try with the hope of a successful outcome. Introducing his method for the classic Chicken Tarragon, he says, “We learned to cook by using our senses to guide us.”

With an escargatoire of snails

Chicken Bercy flavored with mushrooms and sausages is described with enough detail to tantalize, but not quite enough to make the dish. Bichon’s (Pépin’s brother) grilled chicken, on the other hand, includes enough information to make it doable. 

The book concludes with Pépin sharing how he would present a roasted chicken for three different occasions: a simple roast served with salad and bread for the family; gussied up with mushrooms and served with fresh vegetable, a cheese course and dessert for a friends’ dinner; or served as part of a classic five-course dinner with champagne and three other wines for a special occasion.  “Country cooking, to bourgeois, to haute cuisine – dress up the humble chicken and it can go anywhere.” he says.

The recipes are scattered among anecdotes of Pépin’s life.  He left home and the family restaurant near Lyon to begin his kitchen apprenticeship at the age of thirteen.  A hard worker and natural cook, he progressed through a series of kitchens including both the prestigious Hotel Meurice and the three star Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris.   Drafted into the navy, he landed in the kitchen of the President of France (Chicken Chasseur was a favorite of the de Gaulles.) 

From there, he moved to New York and the famous Le Pavillon restaurant. A ten-year stint at the Howard Johnson’s commissary, developing recipes and new menu items for the national chain, grounded him in American cuisine and large-scale production. 

Known for his television appearances, he has taught many of us how to cook. His association with Julia Child has created some of the most beloved on-screen cooking as they teamed up to popularize classic French cuisine.  

Pépin is also the author of 38 books including the standard reference, La Technique as well as collaborations with Child, his daughter Claudine, and granddaughter Shorey. They occupy a special place on our cookbook shelf. 

Considered the dean of American chefs, Pépin is still broadcasting cooking videos from his Connecticut home.  With restless creativity, he’s still painting and has started the Jacques Pépin Foundation to support community kitchens that offer life skills and culinary training at no cost to adults with high barriers to employment. 

If you want to know him better, spend an evening leafing through The Art of the Chicken. You’ll feel like an old friend.