Video: Celebrity Chef Jacques Pépin (Hon.’11) Shares His Favorite Poem
Beloved MET instructor reads Rimbaud’s “Le Dormeur du Val” for the Favorite Poem Project
Jacques Pépin has cooked professionally for the past 70 years, so it’s not surprising to learn that the Emmy Award–winning TV chef discovered his love of poetry in a restaurant, during his apprenticeship at the Plaza Athénée in Paris in the 1950s. “At the Plaza Athénée we had a library for the employees,” recalls Pépin (Hon.’11), cofounder with his friend and colleague Julia Child (Hon.’76) of Metropolitan College’s Certificate Program in Culinary Arts and Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy. “That’s where I started borrowing books. In fact, I still have one that I stole at my house. The Divine Comedy from Dante!” The young Pépin found himself particularly attracted to the Symbolist poets of the 19th century, among them Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud.
One of the poems that has stayed important to Pépin since his time as a young man in Paris is Rimbaud’s “Le Dormeur du Val” (“The Sleeper of the Valley”), an elegiac sonnet written in 1870 in tribute to the young soldiers who died during the Franco-Prussian War. Pépin had been a child in France during the German occupation in World War II, and he says he connected to the images and sentiments in Rimbaud’s poem. “It resonated very profoundly in me,” he says, “remembering all those young men who were sacrificed to the mighty god of war.”
In our video, Pépin reads “Le Dormeur du Val”—first in his native French and then in English, for the Favorite Poem Project, which was launched in 1997 by Robert Pinsky, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English, when he was serving the first of three terms as US poet laureate. The project, an effort to document the role of poetry in the lives of ordinary Americans, invites citizens of all ages to share their favorite poem on video and talk about its significance in their lives.
Pépin says one of the reasons he selected “Le Dormeur du Val” is because of its timelessness. “That could be now, the story of a young man coming back from Vietnam, or Afghanistan,” he says. “So for a young person to read that now and understand the context, I think it stays just as current today as it was 100 years ago.”