By Rollie Wesen
Jacques Pépin is arguably among the first generation of well-known celebrity chefs, as he began cooking for TV shows from the early 1990s (with Julia Child no less). But he was already well established as a chef long before that, having risen rapidly in France to the point of serving as personal chef to Charles de Gaulle in the late 1950s, when Pépin himself was only in his early 20s. He spent the following years in New York and America at large, cooking at leading restaurants, designing corporate menus, teaching, and writing both books and newspaper columns. These days, he exercises his passion for food and teaching with the Jacques Pépin Foundation, which supports broad-based community culinary education.
Most chefs are very good-hearted. You cannot be a great chef unless you love to give. Hospitality is to please people. It is about giving. There has already been an incredible response from chefs who want to help their own people, their staff, and their clients, but also communities—I think of José Andrés and his ability to mobilize support for the community. We want to help, even when it is not easy. Certainly, chefs want to help, even when they themselves are under pressure.
Of course, this is disheartening. People—good chefs—are wondering how they will pay their rent. It is such a terrible feeling to have to let your employees go. In a kitchen, or a restaurant, we are like a family, so it is painful to separate or say goodbye. That said, it is important to be optimistic. This is not going to last forever.
Depending on where you are, perhaps this is a chance to reconnect with the land, with farmers, with the sources of food and cooking. This is a good time to plant a garden. And gardening can be very meditative. Growing food is not just for the food, but this process helps us to reconnect with who we are, why we love food, and why we love cooking. With this time, cook at home. Cook for your neighbor and drop the food off. Please your family and your friends and your own palate with food, for yourself. This is not always easy for a chef with the pressure of running a restaurant. Cooking is therapeutic.
Go back to the earth. Reconnect. Tomorrow I plan to look for dandelion greens. They are starting to come in now. There are places I go to find the tender shoots still hidden beneath the leaves. It’s a way of getting back to nature. I’ll stop by a farm for some fresh eggs and say hello to the lady farmer, and hear the chickens clucking. Then at home I’ll make a spring salad. This is heartening. It can make you feel good, happy. Reconnect to nature, and be good to your family and your friends.
Many people now are beginning to suffer economically. But if you can afford it, order take-out, and buy extra for your neighbors. If you can afford it, leave a very large tip. Think about the servers and dishwashers and cooks that may not be able to pay their rent this month. If you can be more generous than usual, that would be a good idea. We need to do everything we can to keep these restaurants in our communities alive.
I have been listening to Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York. He has been very calm, straightforward, and honest. That is very important. And of course, my good friend José Andrés and everything he is doing through World Central Kitchen is just plain extraordinary. What he has done in Puerto Rico and Washington DC and California—it is inspiring. And through our foundation, the Jacques Pépin Foundation, we are all doing what we can to help those in need.
But this moment is a reassessment and re-adjustment of our lives. Some good things may come of it. We may have the opportunity to get closer to one another, to sit as a family together at the table, not one or two nights a week, but seven! We may not see our friends, but we may talk on the phone more than before. Certainly, with our wives and children we will be creating new bonds. We will all be cooking more, even me. This may be the opportunity to extend your palate, and to get your kids excited about cooking and cooking with you.
I heard an interview on WGBH the other day by another friend, Ming Tsai. It was so moving and heartfelt. This situation is bringing many of us to tears, but at the same time it was so uplifting to see the heart of one of our greats. There are so many generous chefs in our business. Our trade by nature is very positive, and giving, and loving. This is who we are. I wish everyone strength and courage to persevere.