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A Message from Jacques: Cooking and Painting (2/3)

Brushes and Palette Photograph by Tom Hopkins

Photograph by Tom Hopkins

“The colors have to be at the ready on the palette for the painter, just as a set of ingredients must be in front of a chef as he or she cooks. The process is inherent, automatic, and intuitive.”

“So, first is the learning of techniques. Endless repetition, a kind of mechanical process, is an investment of time that is necessary for a chef. Eventually, the techniques become so much a part of the self that they will never be forgotten. Only after that fastidious process has been acquired can one think in terms of combinations of ingredients, texture, color, harmony, and complementary saveur. As long as one is impaired by the menial tasks of slicing, dicing, boning, and poaching, there is no space for talent to emerge. I am able to cook and talk at the same time to an audience on my TV show because I have transcended the level at which I have to struggle with techniques. They are a part of who I am and my hands are working almost independently of my mind. So, I have time to concentrate on combinations of color, taste, texture, presentation, and the like.

When a chef cooks at the stove, he or she doesn’t follow a recipe but the memory of a taste or a new idea. He acts intuitively, impulsively adding, correcting a nuance in a sauce or a shade in a seasoning with all the ingredients at his disposal while visualizing and aiming for that elusive “goût” or savor. Similarly, if an artist had to intellectually analyze a painting and decide that it needs a touch of blue indigo here and a trace of red vermillion there, or a soupçon of cadmium yellow in this corner, by the time the tubes of paint are open and squeezed onto the palette, the urge and the vision are gone. The colors have to be at the ready on the palette for the painter, just as a set of ingredients must be in front of a chef as he or she cooks. The process is inherent, automatic, and intuitive. The artist places that touch of color there because it feels right, it belongs there, it fits, just as a cook adds a dash of salt, pepper, or wine to a sauce to get the taste exactly right. You cannot suppress the subconscious, certainly in art, especially abstract or surrealistic, like in Dali or André Breton (1924) automatic writing, where the unconscious or subconscious is the source of inspiration.

Jacques Pepin Photograph by Tom Hopkins

Photograph by Tom Hopkins

“When a chef cooks at the stove, he or she doesn’t follow a recipe but the memory of a taste or a new idea.”

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.

Legumes Limited Edition Print by Jacques Pepin

Legumes Print by Jacques

“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.”

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.

Starting in the 1970s, nouvelle cuisine emphasized creativity in the making of a recipe and the presentation of the food on the plate. It also emphasized going to the market daily, not overcooking fish, vegetables, and meat, and being mindful of the health of your customers. Additionally, it advised chefs to simplify recipes and shorten sauces. This was all good advice. Unfortunately, many chefs only remember the part that dealt with the creativity and presentation edicts.

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