Jacques Pepin Week

I apologize for my absence. After Thanksgiving, I had so much going on with projects for school and work. I was so tired, so I put my writing on the back burner. Well, I have made it through finals, meaning my first semester of grad school is officially over. I have completed my Christmas shopping and some of my holiday baking, so I want to catch up on my writing.

I am not going to go through everything we did in the last four weeks of class. I did learn some awesome skills, like how to make puff pastry. I am sure you will see some of those techniques come up in the near future, but for now, I am going to focus on the highlights.

The week after Thanksgiving was Jacques Week aka the week where the Culinary Arts students get to learn from world-renowned master of the craft, Chef Jacques Pepin. Jacques just turned 84 years young yesterday.

Prior to this week, we were assigned to read Jacques Pepin’s memoir, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. I had no idea this book was going to be so good. My family can attest that I just could not put down this book on Thanksgiving until I finished it. Jacques has had such an illustrious career, but he also just had such an interesting life. He left school and his home to work his apprenticeship at 13 years old. When I was thirteen years old, I was busy obsessing over Kelly Clarkson and running around the soccer field.

Jacques is undoubtedly the best chef I have ever had the pleasuring of meeting. He is a true master, which is not surprising given that he has been working in kitchens for 70 years, more if you count the time he spent in his mother’s restaurant kitchen. Even at 84 years old, he is such a technician. His technique is ingrained in his muscle memory. It’s like his hands just know what to do. Every single thing he did, he made it look so easy.

We were fortunate enough to spend three days in the kitchen with Jacques. He was doing a dinner and demo event, and we were helping to prepare and plate the dinner for 80 guests. I truly will always remember this time fondly.

We were watching Jacques bone out a leg of lamb. He was unhappy with how the flexible boning knife was working, so he picked up a pairing knife. He boned the whole leg of lamb using just a pairing knife. I certainly couldn’t have use this, and he made it look so easy.

My favorite part of my time with Jacques was making chocolate souffles with him and his best friend, pastry chef Jean-Claude Szurdak. They have been best friends ever since they cooked for the French President while serving in the military. Their relationship is endearing. They have such a fondness for each other, but they also bicker like brothers. While we may lack their training and years of experience, I hope my best friend and I are like that when we are their age.

Unbeknownst to me, Jacques is also an artist and usually paints menus when he has an event like this. Not only did we get to see the beautiful display, we also got to take a signed copy home. I am still working on finding a frame for my menu, but when I do, I will display it proudly in my room.

I had a great time working with Jacques. Unfortunately, this event came at a hard time for me, as my family had to put down our beloved Boston Terrior Sadie. While she was 13 years old, it was hard coping with her loss. I was sad and distracted, but the event with Jacques really did lift my spirits. I do believe that cooking has healing powers. We can nourish our bodies with food, but we can also nourish our spirits. Cooking for others makes me happy, so I cooking alongside who speaks of cooking with love filled that empty space in my heart. Plus, I got to learn a few new tricks.

For appetizers, we served duck liver mousse with baguette and a molasses cured salmon with pumpernickel bread slices layered with butter. For the entree, we served roast leg of lamb with eggplant cushions and tomatoes. This was a plated dinner, but after we served everyone, we got to make a family style platter for ourselves to eat. For dessert, we had the warm chocolate souffles that we made.

I was blown away by Jacques. I still can’t believe I not only got to eat Jacques Pepin’s food but got to cook with him. What an honor! Jacques feels like a chef from another universe, but he is incredibly humble and down to earth, even after all these years of people praising him. He clearly loves teaching and engaging with students. He chose to stick around for an extra day to have a third class with us. This time, he taught us how to make chicken ballotine. This is where you bone out the entire bird, leaving it whole, and then stuffing it and rolling to cook it. It is a very difficult technique to master, but of course Jacques made it took so easy. He made a couple cuts and then just ripped the carcass off the bird in one clean motion. He said this whole process should take 45 seconds to do; yet, 45 minutes later, we were still trying to figure it out.

We got to eat Jacques’ chicken, but we froze all of ours to save for our graduation dinner. This roast chicken was absolutely in a league of its own. People think that roasting chicken is easy, but it is one of the hardest things to master. Chicken has a small window between unsafe to eat and too dry to enjoy. There was no dry chicken here! Jacques’ chicken was perfect, served with a jus he made with the pan drippings.

What a wonderful few days we had with Jacques. I was sad about losing my Sadie and also had the thought of finals looming over me, but this was an experience I will never forget.