Jacques Pépin, In Search of Lost Cars and Kitchen

While the French are famously obsessed with diluting their culture at home, it is not unfair to say that their great nation’s cultural influence appears to have diminished in the wider world as well. To give two examples that touch me where I live, the primacy of French cuisine, once considered the best in the world, is finis. The cozy French bistro is no longer a staple of every American city.

And although little noticed, so can also be seen the declining fortune of the French automobile, a device whose invention traces back to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, who in 1769 departed from the Void-Vacon commune in northeastern France with the first self-propelled vehicle, a steam tricycle built like a wagon.

While still dominant in their home market, French cars only claim a small, if fair, following in the United States. They haven’t been sold here since the early 1990s, despite their significant role in Stellantis, the name given to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and French carmaker PSA after their merger last year.

To explore these two profound cultural shifts, I recently traveled with a friend to Madison, Connecticut to visit and mull over with one of America’s most famous French expats, Jacques Pépin. Arriving in the New World more than 60 years ago, 86-year-old Pépin has become one of the most successful supporters of French gastronomy in the United States: chef, cookbook author, television personality, painter, philanthropist and, most recently, star social media. As the owner of a series of French automobiles, he seemed particularly apt to answer the question: Should these products of French culture once heralded internationally – food and cars – be revived in the 21st century?

Our transport to Connecticut, fittingly, would be a 1965 Peugeot 404, a model that Mr. Pépin once owned and fondly remembers. This, a seven-seat “Familiale” station wagon bought new by a Canadian diplomat on a mission to Paris, ended up for unknown reasons in a barn in Medicine Hat, Alberta, where it remained intact for more than 50 years. Fully roadworthy, with less than 25,000 miles on its kilometer-delimited odometer, it exudes the charm of French automobiles at their distinctive best, with smooth and creamy mechanics, seats as comfortable as any sofa, and legendary Gallic driving comfort that arguably enhances the most part of modern cars, even on the roughest roads.

Our visit begins with a tour of Mr Pépin’s home and outbuildings on its four wooded acres. Situated between a church and a synagogue, the complex houses two extraordinarily equipped kitchens, with stunning array of pots and pans neatly arranged. Two studios help extend Mr Pépin’s brand indefinitely into the future, one with a kitchen used for filming the series and videos, and another for painting the oils, acrylics and mixed media works featured in his books. and embellish his handwritten menu scopes.

Starting with the 404 for lunch, we all arrive in nearby Branford at Le Petit Café, a French bistro. Chef Roy Ip, a Hong Kong native and former Mr. Pépin’s student at the French Culinary Institute in New York, greets our party, specially opening this afternoon on weekdays for the mentor who helped broker the purchase 25 years ago of the 50- seat of the coffee. On a moaning platter of appetizers and loaves of freshly baked bread and butter – “If you have extraordinary bread, extraordinary butter, then there should be bread and butter” at every meal, the guest of honor guarantees, raising a glass of wine – we approach the delicate subject at hand.

Although today you drive a well-used Lexus SUV, the credentials of Mr Pépin’s French car are clearly in order. Tales from his early childhood in France, where his family was deeply involved in the restaurant business, are studded with automotive memories. A seminal one concerns the Citroën Traction Avant, an influential sedan built from 1934 to 1957. The development of the car, revolutionary in its front-wheel drive and unit body construction, bankrupted the company’s founder, André Citroen, leading to its acquisition by Michelin, the tire manufacturer.

The mention of the car reminds Mr Pépin of a day during the Second World War when his family left Lyon in his uncle’s Traction Avant to stay for a while on a farm. “My father disappeared in the Resistance,” he says. “That car I still remember as a child, especially the smell. I have always loved Citroën for this ”.

His parents later owned a Panhard, an idiosyncratic car from a small but respected French manufacturer that would fall into Citroën’s arms in 1965, a decade before Citroën itself was swallowed – and, according to critics, homogenized – by Peugeot. .

Like many Frenchmen after World War II and millions of people elsewhere, Mr Pépin was impressed by the small post-war Citroen car, the Deux Chevaux, which he said was the first car his mother had owned.

“Seventy miles a gallon, or whatever,” he says. “He didn’t go too fast, but we loved it.”

Mr. Pépin’s disgust with excess, despite his early detours to rich, labor-intensive foods, such as when he cooked at Le Pavillon in New York City, once the pinnacle of American haute cuisine – informed not only the simpler kitchen he would later advocate, but many of his vehicle choices when he first hit the American highway. In his memoirs of him, he refers, for example, to the Volkswagen Beetle he used along the Long Island Expressway while visiting one of his friends, New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne, in Long Island’s East End. . A Peugeot 404 was on his way to work at the Howard Johnson test kitchen in Rego Park, Queens, where he worked for 10 years.

Later, a Renault 5 – a small economy car known as LeCar in America – joined Mr Pépin’s family as the daily driver of his wife Gloria.

He also remains a strong supporter of what is perhaps France’s greatest automotive icon, the Citroën DS, which President Charles de Gaulle traveled when 12 right-wing terrorists attempted to assassinate him in 1962, firing 140 bullets at his car as he left the central Paris to Orly airport. The barrage blew the rear window of the DS 19 and all of its tires, but thanks to its unique hydro-pneumatic suspension, the driver from de Gaulle was able to drive the tireless car and its occupants to safety.

“He saved his life”, Monsieur Pépin marvels. “A great car.”

Although Mr. Pépin had been a personal chef at de Gaulle in the 1950s, he didn’t know him well, he says. “The cook in the kitchen has never been interviewed by a magazine or the radio and television barely existed,” he says. “If someone came to the kitchen, it was to complain that something was wrong. The cook was really at the bottom of the social ladder ”.

The situation changed in the early 1960s with the arrival of nouvelle cuisine, says Mr Pépin. But not before he turned down an invitation to cook for the Kennedy White House. (The Kennedys were regular customers at Le Pavillon.) His friend René Verdon took the job, sending Mr. Pépin a photo of himself with President John F. Kennedy.

“Suddenly, we’re geniuses now. But, “she says with a laugh,” you can’t take this too seriously.

Befriended a list of American Hall of Fame gourmets, including Claiborne, Pierre Franey, and Julia Child, Mr. Pépin eventually became a star without the White House association, though his extraordinary innings were nearly interrupted over the years. ’70 when he crashed into a Ford station wagon while trying to avoid a deer on a back road in upstate New York.

If he hadn’t driven such a large car, Mr. Pépin believes: “I would probably have died.” He ended up with a broken back and 12 fractures and still has a “drag foot,” he says, due to a severed sciatic nerve. His injuries forced him to close his Manhattan soup restaurant, La Potagerie, which served 150 gallons of soup a day, flipping its 102 seats every 18 minutes.

While chef Ip presents a simple but delicious Salade Niçoise to the table, followed by a finely crafted apple pie, Mr. Pépin turns his attention to the question of France’s lesser influence in the culinary and automotive world. I am surprised to learn that he is in warm agreement: the ship has sailed.

“Certainly when I came to America, French or ‘continental’ food was what all great restaurants should have been, often with the wrong French menu,” he says. But the continuous waves of immigration and jet travel that have opened up the farthest corners of the world have caused French food to lose “its prime position”.

“People still like French food just like other foods,” he says, adding, “Americans have matured and learned about a wider variety of options.”

Monsieur Pépin, who calls himself an optimist, hastens to add that he does not see him as an evil. He vividly remembers how culinary gloomy America was when he arrived, drawn to a youthful enthusiasm for jazz. At first he marveled at the idea of ​​the supermarket.

“But when I walked in, no leeks, no scallions, no other herbs, a green salad that was iceberg,” he says. “Now look at America. Extraordinary wine, bread, cheese. Totally another world “.

In fact, Mr. Pépin, whose wife was Puerto Rican and Cuban, no longer even considers himself a “French chef”. His over 30 cookbooks of him, he says, “have included recipes for black bean soup with sliced ​​banana and cilantro on top.” He also has a recipe for southern fried chicken. “So, in a way, I consider myself a classic American chef,” he says. “Things change.”

During a pleasant afternoon with Mr. Pépin, it becomes clear that while a changing world doesn’t bother him much, he has regrets, his biggest is the loss of loved ones. His father died young in 1965 and his best friend, Jean-Claude Szurdak, whom he met in a Parisian kitchen in 1956, died in 2020, shortly before his deep sadness, the loss of his wife, Gloria, due to of a cancer.

“The hardest thing is not sharing dinner in the evening. And that bottle of wine. She is silent for a long moment.

In distilling his reflections on cooking and cars, the chef notes what he sees as a deplorable trend: the loss of variety, attributable to the motives of the corporations.

“There is more food in the supermarket today than there ever was before,” says Pépin. “But at the same time there is more standardization. I try to shop where ordinary people shop, to get the best price. And I can no longer go to the supermarket and find chicken back and neck. “

The same is true, he says, of the auto industry, where the growing use of a small pool of multinational suppliers, coupled with stricter regulations and an increased reluctance of companies to take risks, has made cars increasingly similar between brands. .

“The special features that made French cars different no longer exist, not even in France,” he says. “They all follow the same aesthetic. Neither French food nor French cars have the same prestige as they once did. “

Monsieur Pépin remains philosophical. He mourns the loss of typically French cars, but he’s clearly not losing sleep over it. Ditto French food.

As long as “people get together” and cook quality ingredients, he has hope, because “eating together is probably what civilization means”.

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