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Jacques Pépin: On Cooking and Painting (5/9)

Chef Jacques Pepin at work on a painting in a photo by Tom Hopkins

Photograph by Tom Hopkins

“I read somewhere that cooking is a “controlled creation,” which is an oxymoron. Yet, there is some truth in this, certainly, in the cooking process, where the talent is controlled by years of practice. Painting is a frustrating process for me, although I get great satisfaction from it.”

“When I have an idea about a dish, I can “cook it” in my head; I can follow the processes of mixing the ingredients and cooking them, and so avoid the pitfalls before actually starting the process. When I finally make the dish, the hammer may not fall exactly on the head of the nail each time, but it will fall close enough so that a few refinements of the dish usually make it taste the way I had imagined and tasted it in my head. In the professional kitchen, the chef has the opportunity to repeat a dish again and again in the course of an evening and this is an important aspect of his learning. Likewise with the musician who repeats and repeats ad nauseam the same tune to get it exactly right.

When I paint, I lack technique. I have never invested the time and the endless repetition necessary to understand the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors and other “tricks of the trade, “ like what can be done with a brush, a knife, a spatula, or a finger. I am a poor technician. It is hard for my hands to express the ideas I have in my head, because my technique is not good enough, and this is very frustrating. When one of my paintings turns out somewhat well, it’s more fortuitous or accidental than controlled.

I read somewhere that cooking is a “controlled creation,” which is an oxymoron. Yet, there is some truth in this, certainly, in the cooking process, where the talent is controlled by years of practice. Painting is a frustrating process for me, although I get great satisfaction from it. Occasionally, something magical happens, and I end up with a picture that is partially satisfying. While I sometimes feel instinctively that I’m not quite “there,” I often don’t know how to proceed forward. This is not the case with cooking, where I can analyze the process better and know whether I need more viscosity, more seasoning, or more balance in a sauce to go further in the recipe. There is a process in starting a painting that is, for me, difficult, even terrifying sometimes, but I do not experience that with cooking, because I know the processes so much better.”

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