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A Message from Jacques: Cooking and Painting (1/3)

From a Speech by Jacques Pepin

Jacques Pepin Working in His Studio by Tom Hopkins

Photograph by Tom Hopkins

“Only after that fastidious process has been acquired can one think in terms of combinations of ingredients, texture, color, harmony, and complementary saveur.”

“I have been cooking for more than 60 years, and I have been painting sporadically for half a century. Both are part of who I am, how I feel, and how I react to a sensual or esthetic experience.

Cooking is fun, but also serious; after all, it is my métier. I am “a famous cook,” which often puts me on the spot, with people asking, “Let’s see what that guy can do!” Everyone has their own taste and their own reactions to food. If you happen to have taste that coincides with mine, I am the greatest cook; if not, you will find my food very ordinary or puzzling. On the other hand, painting is strictly fun for me and I paint only when I am in the mood. I know I am a better cook than a painter because I know cooking much better than I know painting.

I do not equate great painters and great cooks. Great painters, musicians, and writers reach a level of talent, genius, and inspiration that chefs do not attain, in my opinion. I would equate great chefs with great jewelers or great cabinetmakers. The emphasis on manual dexterity is greater in these professions than with writers, musicians, or poets. Cooking is mostly a matter of craftsmanship with talent and some inspiration added, along with a sprinkling of love for the perfect dish; one cannot cook indifferently. Certain trades, like cooking, painting, sculpting, being a surgeon, cabinet maker, mason, or jeweler, require a great deal of skill and manual dexterity.

Jacques Pepin's Hands Photograph by Tom Hopkins

Photograph by Tom Hopkins

“In Proust’s affective memory, look, touch, taste, smell, and hearing are of the utmost importance. He developed his theory of the memory of the senses, as opposed to the memory of the brain, after eating a small cake called a madeleine that he had dipped in his tea.”

Yet, there are cooks in the kitchen who have great technical skill and not much talent. I have known chefs working for 30 years behind the stove who can run a kitchen properly and are technically quite good, but their food is never really great; they have neither the palate nor the talent or imagination to take it further. Moreover, they are often unaware that they have reached the limit of their own taste. It’s difficult for a chef to admit that a food critic with limited cooking knowledge may have a larger, more complex sense of taste than he does and can analyze the chef’s dishes and be aware of his limitations when he doesn’t realize it himself. This is not said pejoratively. Conversely, some people have no technique and some talent, a situation I have found often in students and amateur cooks. They have a sense of taste and a discriminating palate, but not have much technical knowledge and ability. A dish turns out well for them occasionally, perchance, but they cannot control the quality and production of the food that is needed to run a restaurant. Without technical ability, a professional cook is like a writer without knowledge of grammar, an impossible situation.

Likewise, an art student who spends years in school learning the rules of perspective, how to mix yellow and blue to make green, and how to use a brush, a spatula, or his or her fingers, along with other technical aspects of painting, will be able to sit at an easel and create one painting after another. Does that make this person an artist? No, he or she is a craftsman at this point. However, these trained hands now have the means to express talent if talent there is. It is the same with the chef apprentice.

Jacques and Paco on the Beach by Tom Hopkins

Jacques and Paco by Tom Hopkins

“Memories of the taste, smell, look and texture of a dish are very important to the chef and, certainly, to the food critic. Memories of the brain are more sedate, logical, and organized.”

In painting, individuals who have a thorough knowledge of the techniques along with extraordinary talent, like Picasso or Matisse, are geniuses. In the kitchen, a few chefs have certainly risen higher and achieved more to become models, setting the criteria for other professionals. Chefs like Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller are good examples, but, for me, they are still not to be compared to a Matisse or a Picasso.

In Proust’s affective memory, look, touch, taste, smell, and hearing are of the utmost importance. He developed his theory of the memory of the senses, as opposed to the memory of the brain, after eating a small cake called a madeleine that he had dipped in his tea. The taste brought him back to a youthful summer vacation where that cake had always been served with afternoon tea. The memories brought back by the taste of the madeleine were immediate, powerful, unexpected, and very deep, as compared to the memories of the brain. If you ask me to remember the cooking at the Pavillon, where I cooked in 1960, my brain memory will take me back there and I can recall it logically and discuss some of the dishes with you. I can recall the making of the striped bass roasted with shallots, white wine, mushrooms, and champagne, with the sauce finished with butter. Blindfolded I know that taste. However, if that recipe is served to me unexpectedly, the taste of it will assail me in a very acute and profound way. Memories of the taste, smell, look and texture of a dish are very important to the chef and, certainly, to the food critic. James Beard had an amazing food memory and could discuss dishes in detail going back to meals he ate in Paris in the 1950s and ‘60s. Memories of the brain are more sedate, logical, and organized.

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