Chef’s Surprise: Jacques Pepin
April 28, 2019
Text by Maria LaPiana Photography by Tom Hopkins
Food has been Jacques Pépin’s muse for seventy years, since he first apprenticed at the Grand Hotel de L’Europe near Lyon, France, at the age of thirteen. A love of fresh, sustainable food and a mastery of French cooking have defined his distinguished career as a celebrated chef, instructor, author, and one of TV’s first foodie fan favorites. He has hosted fourteen popular public television cooking shows (so far), including Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, with Julia Child back in 2000, and has been in the culinary spotlight for most of his adult life.
Pépin eats, sleeps, and breathes food. But for some fifty years, another thing has also inspired him: art. His interest in it began casually; he started sketching and painting “here and there, only when I was in the mood,” he says. His subjects: mostly food, flowers, abstracts, tablescapes, menus, and chickens.
For an accidental artist, Pépin has been prolific. Now, through his online gallery, The Artistry of Jacques Pépin, he is making some of his favorite works available for sale. A portion of the sales of his signed fine art giclées, original paintings, and lithographs supports efforts in sustainability and culinary education for underserved communities. Two of the organizations that benefit are Wholesome Wave, a Bridgeport-based nonprofit that provides affordable access to locally and regionally grown foods, and the artist’s own Jacques Pépin Foundation, dedicated to advancing culinary training for some of the country’s neediest men and women.
The chef and artist, who lives in Madison with Gloria, his wife of fifty-three years, recently shared his thoughts on his art. Why, after a half-century, is he selling his work now? It’s simple: the eighty-three-year-old has more time to paint. “Also, Tom [Hopkins, his friend and personal photographer] is doing all the hard work of cataloging my paintings, and essentially taking care of the project,” he explains.
Pépin, who doesn’t consider himself a professional artist, compares process in the studio to process in the kitchen. “Creativity in the kitchen doesn’t come out of chaos. It’s based on practice and technique,” he says. “And yet, technique will only take you so far. It’s true that some of our greatest painters rejected technique, the formal training they had, but in order to reject something, you have to acquire it first. Otherwise, there’s nothing to reject.”
What he may lack in technique at the easel, he makes up in intuition and authenticity. He usually paints with acrylics but sometimes dilutes them to a watercolor consistency. He works from still life and from memory. And while it’s not easy to pin down his “style,” the one thing that’s a constant in his paintings is joy.
“I just never know exactly where a painting will go,” he says. “I start with something I like—two potatoes, or a leek—and then I add color here, there. It’s like preparing a dish. You taste and add, taste and add.”
In the end, if it makes him happy, then it’s done.
Menus are among his favorite subjects. That’s because he’s been writing down his own menus, sketching in the borders, and journaling about every important meal he’s shared with family and friends for more than half a century. “I have twelve large books filled with menus,” he says. “My daughter turned fifty last year, and I can tell you what she had for her third birthday. I can see my mother and two brothers again in my books. They tell the story of a life.”
He offers a book, simply called Menus, that is a collection of some of his favorite paintings framing blank pages on which you can commemorate your own meals with loved ones. It’s more than a practical reminder of dishes served; the book over time can become a treasure trove of one’s own memories.
From ripe fruits and vegetables to lovely landscapes and whimsical chickens (an especially popular subject), Pépin’s cheerful kitchen art is a delight. Some limited-edition prints have sold out quickly, a surprise to the artist. “I have to admit,” he says, “I’m a bit astonished that people want them at all.”