There are days that even Jacques Pépin walks into a kitchen and questions himself.
“I go all over the world and I don’t think there is any place like the U.S. now,” he said. “There are 24,000 restaurants in New York City. The amount of authenticity, the amount of variety, what’s going on is just amazing. It’s incredible. I go into the kitchen now, as I did last week in New York, and I feel I know nothing about cooking.”
The internationally heralded chef laughed to himself. The irony cannot be lost on him — as the brainchild behind 13 cooking series, the author of nearly 30 cookbooks, and the man on the ground level of the “celebrity chef” movement, whose accolades range from a national Emmy Award to the French Legion of Honor.
This weekend, Pépin — at age 82 — will add honoree at the 14th annual Hayground School’s Chefs Dinner to his cap, a move that participating Bill Telepan, the executive chef of Oceana in Manhattan, said is long overdue.
“I was honored last year, so I was flattered that I was honored before him,” he said. “He should have been honored many years ago. I mean, he’s Jacques Pépin. He’s one of the all-time greats, and we love him. It’s a great thing to have him there.”
On Sunday afternoon, Telepan and nine fellow chefs from the East End and beyond will join forces in Bridgehampton to prepare a benefit dinner for Hayground School, each bringing his or her specific set of skills to the kitchen and dessert bar.
Jessica Craig, the pastry chef at L’Artusi in Manhattan, will contribute her lemon thyme panna cotta, served with blueberry compote, to the mix.
“I was thinking something simple, yet reflects Italian cuisine, because that’s what my specialty relies on, as well as the restaurant I work for now,” she said. “I was looking for something that’s light, summery, refreshing. Panna cotta is a custard that’s set with gelatin, and the lemon and the thyme plays very well with blueberry, which I’m sourcing very locally.”
Using the East End as his source of inspiration, Telepan decided on a fish course featuring porgy, “which is a local fish that people know because they catch it a lot, but you never see at restaurants,” the chef explained.
“I’m filleting it and serving it with sausage and peppers,” he said. “We make a fennel sausage and mix it with roasted red peppers and a little onion and garlic that’s been cooked in a red pepper vinaigrette. I did this dish last year; it’s terrific. It’s an acidic version of getting a sausage and pepper sandwich. The bread is the mild fish.”
It is an appropriate dish to serve at a dinner celebrating Pépin, who was one of the earliest advocates for minimal waste in American kitchens — a philosophy that stems from his childhood in countryside of war-torn France.
“My mother did all kinds of things to feed us. I didn’t realize it at the time; I was too small,” he said. “I remember the syrup she made out of beets to replace sugar. I remember, if we got eggs in the country, that she put them in brine so she could preserve them. I remember banging the bread on the table, which was very hard, to soften the inside before we ate it.
“My father would never have thrown a piece of bread out,” he continued. “If it was molded, he’d taste it before he throw it out — and if he throw it out, he’d throw it to the chickens, anyway.”
The product of an entrepreneurial culinary spirit — the women of his family ran 12 different restaurants in and around Lyon — Pépin said he always knew he would be a chef. He left home at age 13 to begin a formal apprenticeship and, by age 21, he was running private kitchens for three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle.
“I loved it from the beginning. That was my life,” he said. “It’s been almost 70 years in a professional kitchen, so it’s a long time.”
At the end of 1959, he moved to New York. Within three days, he landed at Le Pavillon. Within six months, his closest friends were Craig Claiborne, James Beard and Julia Child, and he had an offer from the new Kennedy White House to work as its first chef.
In an unexpected move, he turned it down, opting instead to improve the food at the roadside restaurant chain Howard Johnson’s, where he learned about American tastes, habits and mastered his understanding of mass production.
After his 10-year tenure there, he would pivot into writing and teaching following a severe car accident that left him with 12 fractured bones, including his back, pelvis, leg, arm and both hips, he said. It removed him from the kitchen and, ultimately, thrust him into the spotlight, where he worked in television and, unwittingly, became one of the first-ever “celebrity chefs” — which still baffles him at times.
“On the social scale, any good mother would have wanted her child to marry a lawyer or a doctor, certainly not a cook. Now, we are genius,” he said with a chuckle. “That is certainly one of the reasons why, in 1960, I was asked to go to the White House for Kennedy, and I turned it down to go to Howard Johnson. One of the reason is I had no idea of the potential of publicity and success because it did not exist at that time. The cook was back in the kitchen.
“I am a beneficiary, I’m not going to complain,” he continued. “But basically, you cannot go into the business for that reason. I’m still teaching, and many students will come and ask me, ‘Oh Chef, I have a great idea for a show, I have a great idea for a book.’ Everyone want to be Bobby Flay or be on television, but this is not the right reason to go into it, because it probably will never happen. You have to go for the right reason — which is that you love to feed people, you love to cook and you love to make people happy, and it satisfies you.”
The 14th annual Hayground School’s Chefs Dinner will be held on Sunday, July 29, starting with cocktails at 4:30 p.m. and dinner — featuring a conversation between honoree Jacques Pépin and chef Eric Ripert — at 6 p.m. in Jeff’s Kitchen, located at 151 Mitchell Lane in Bridgehampton.
Participating chefs include Josh Capon of Lure Fishbar and Bowery Meat Company; Jessica Craig of L’Artusi; Claudia Fleming of North Fork Table & Inn; Christian Mir of Stone Creek Inn; Ayesha Nardjaja of Shuka; Francois Payard of Karvér; Joe Realmuto of Nick & Toni’s; Hillary Sterling of Vic’s; Bill Telepan of Oceana; and Jason Weiner of Almond and L&W Oyster Co.
Tickets start at $1,500. For more information, call (631) 537-7068 or visit haygroundchefsdinner.org.