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Jacques Pépin Will Receive Honorary Degree

Doctor of Humane Letters for famed French chef, BU educator

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When Jacques Pépin was a young chef, he says, the trade was not considered glamorous: “Any good mother wanted her child to marry a lawyer or an architect, not a cook. Now, we are geniuses.” Photo courtesy of Jacques Pépin

An elegant grandfather of the now-crowded field of TV chefs, Jacques Pépin has never strayed from public television in three decades of sharing his love of wholesome, French-inspired cooking. Born in Bourg-en-Bresse, France, in 1935, Pépin, who has had a long association with BU, will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at Boston University’s 138th Commencement, on May 22, 2011.

As a lecturer at the University since 1983, Pépin designed Metropolitan College’s Certificate Program in the Culinary Arts and was codeveloper of the Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy program. For his work, Pépin received Metropolitan College’s Roger Deveau Memorial MET Part-Time Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2005. A one-time TV cooking partner of Julia Child (Hon.’76), Pépin has also cooked for the camera with his daughter Claudine (CAS’90).

Pépin has written for the New York Times and Food & Wine magazine and was personal chef to Charles de Gaulle, the president of France from 1958 to 1969. He worked at New York’s historic Le Pavillon restaurant for several years after he came to the United States. The author of more than two dozen cookbooks and memoirs, Pépin is a recipient of the Legion of Honor, the highest civilian award of his native France.

Pépin spoke with BU Today from his home in Connecticut.

BU Today: You’ve been involved in education at BU since 1983. Do you consider most of your work to be in some respect teaching?
Pépin: Certainly it’s not all teaching, but teaching is a great part of it, whether you’re doing a cooking show or writing a recipe. What I do now is mostly teaching. I don’t miss the restaurant [Le Pavillon]. I just came back from the Buffalo Gap Food and Wine Summit in Texas. I’ll be cooking at the White House for Spoons Across America, a program that teaches kids how to eat properly and where food comes from. If I were in the restaurant, I couldn’t do any of these things. It’s different now. Chefs have 20 or 30 restaurants. It was never like that for me. I don’t know how to do it differently.

How do you feel about TV’s ubiquitous reality cooking shows?
I think reality cooking shows are fun. I don’t think I’ve seen three in my life, but if it brings people into cooking, so much the better. We all do it the way we think it should be done. Maybe what I do is boring for a lot of people. I like PBS, and I don’t want to be on the Food Network, even though they’ve asked me. I had a great deal of fun cooking with Julia Child for years, but there was no jumping and yelling. I have heard that there are 500 cooking shows on television. It’s just amazing. When I was a young chef and when I worked for the president in France, the trade we had was not considered glamorous; it was considered lowly and uninspired. Any good mother wanted her child to marry a lawyer or an architect, not a cook. Now, we are geniuses.

How has the American palate changed since your first published cookbooks and TV show?
Americans are eating way too much these days, no question about it. In the ’50s and ’60s, when I came here, it was a very democratic country in the sense that food was so cheap and everyone could afford it. There were differences between rich and poor, but not that much. Now, it’s a different world. There are different cuisines, a dichotomy. A lot of poor people are very fat; they eat fast food and pizza. It’s bad if you eat this every day with a big soda, all this processed food.

Do you have a new book in the works?
I have a book coming out, Essential Pépin, based on my series on KQED public television. It will have more than 700 recipes and a three-hour DVD of cooking techniques.

How do you feel about the rise of “foodie” culture?
When I came here, there was just Gourmet magazine, and the New York Times didn’t have a food page. I was very lucky with my first book, Jacques Pépin: A French Chef Cooks at Home. At that time I don’t know how many cookbooks came out, maybe 15 or 20. But there were 3,000 last year. It’s totally an embarrassment of riches, and a lot of good ones aren’t looked at. With food now, everyone wants to be very righteous. The slow food people cook very slow, the microwave people cook very fast, and the regular stove is very seldom used. People get crazy. With food trends, it’s like when you see a collection of John Paul Gaultier in France and you see those women with enormous things on the clothes—you laugh and think, who will wear that stuff? But somehow it trickles down to prête-à-porter [ready to wear]. We can use that analogy with food; eventually it comes down to the mainstream.

You teamed up in 1999 with Julia Child for the Emmy Award–winning Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home. What are some of her memorable quirks?
Child didn’t like anyone picking from her plate. And I remember that period when we had everything grilled, she couldn’t understand this and hated grilled vegetables, saying they were raw and burned at the same time. She made no bones about saying what she didn’t want.

Do you do much cooking at home?
Sometimes I’ll put out a big platter. After 45 years of marriage, I don’t remember a time when my wife and I didn’t sit together for a meal and share a bottle of wine. Often two bottles.

You’ve spoken of cooking with your granddaughter. Do you think she’ll go into the family business?
I hope not. But my daughter Claudine who’s 43, cooked with me. She went to BU and did work in political science and philosophy, went back to grad school to do a master’s in international relations, spent a year in Brussels, came back, and started selling wine. She is now married to a chef and sells wine, so you can see what higher education can do for you.

Jacques Pépin is one of six honorary degree recipients at this year’s BU Commencement. Victoria Reggie Kennedy, an advocate on behalf of children and families, will be awarded a Doctor of Laws. Noted painter and sculptor Frank Stella will receive a Doctor of Fine Arts. National Public Radio journalist Nina Totenberg (COM’65) will be presented with a Doctor of Humane Letters. Baccalaureate speaker Ahmed Zewail, a Nobel Prize–winning scientist and a professor at California Institute of Technology, will receive a Doctor of Science. Commencement speaker Katie Couric, the Emmy Award–winning broadcast journalist and the first solo woman anchor of a network news broadcast, will be awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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