Iconic chef, extraordinary culinary teacher, television and social media personality, prolific author and philanthropist, Jacques Pépin (87 years old next month) continues to astonish with his energy and artistry. The recent publication of his 31st book, Art of the Chicken: A Master Chef’s Paintings, Stories and Recipes of the Humble Bird (published by Harvest Books, an imprint of William Morrow / HarperCollins Publishers), is already a best-seller. The 228-page hardcover — an endearing look at Pépin’s accomplished life — serves up a treasure trove of chicken and egg recipes from around the globe, which are described for readers not in typical list-of-ingredients format, but rather as narratives, as though Pépin is by your side, in your home, suggesting to you, as a friend informally might, how to cook a favorite dish, such as Arroz con Pollo or Southern Fried Chicken or Coq au Vin or The Very Best French Toast. Reading his written words, fans of Pépin likely will also “hear” his soothing French-accented voice, which is keenly knowable from viewing his KQED PBS-TV cooking series, as well as videos on YouTube and Facebook. His essays, seasoned with humorous and poignant anecdotes, illuminate Pépin’s leaps — from a childhood in France, helping his mother at his family’s small village restaurant, then leaving home forever at age 13 to apprentice in rigorous kitchens of esteemed European restaurants; managing heady, eye-opening jobs, such as personal chef to French President Charles de Gaulle; and moving to the United States, furthering his award-winning professional trajectory. Yet the major focus that makes this new book distinctive from all his others is the inclusion, for the first time, of nearly 100 paintings by Pépin, some of which are shown below. To check out an appealing Forbes interview with him, go to Legendary Chef Jacques Pépin, 86, On The Joys Of Thanksgiving, Travel, Helping Others And Not Slowing Down. If you are interested to own a Pépin-signed fine art print or original artwork, go here.
In Art of the Chicken’s introduction, Pépin writes: “I haven’t been painting as long as I have been cooking, yet it is over half a century ago that I picked up a brush instead of a knife and began finding creative fulfillment through another outlet. About fifty years ago, I began a tradition of writing down and saving the menus of the dinner parties we had at home. I illustrated my menus with whimsical depictions of animals, flowers, fruit, vegetables, vines, landscapes. Only after I had acquired a thick stack of these mementos did I realize that an unusually high percentage of my drawings depicted chickens, often in comical, mischievous poses. I reimagined the birds parading as leeks, cabbages, pineapples, artichokes — wherever my paintbrush led me. Time and time again I ended up painting chickens, and they have been a never-ending source of inspiration for me.” His resulting oil and acrylic canvases — expressive, perceptive, vibrant and playful — are certainly feathers in Pépin’s cap.
Art of the Chicken unfolds 12 sprightly chapters. Pépin springs first into the book’s theme: “Proust had his madeleine, I have chickens. As a chef, I stand in awe of the humble bird’s contributions to world cuisine. As an artist, I marvel at the iridescent colors and varied beauty of its plumage. And the little boy that’s still in me never tires of watching chickens’ social interactions and antics whether they are pecking and scratching around American farmyards or on the edges of streets in developing countries. Whether I find myself in France, China, Italy, Spain, Africa, Mexico, Greece, Canada, or here in the United States, a rooster’s crowing at sunrise is a universal language that proclaims the triumph of light over darkness…. [It] registers something peaceful and comforting, like church bells that ring in the mornings in France. I am waking to a friendly world.”
Curl up with stellar stories about his friendship with Julia Child and their popular TV program. Pépin and Child could never agree on the ideal way to roast a chicken, but they did very much concur that “one of the greatest pleasures in life is a perfectly roasted chicken served with deglazing sauce made from the brown bits left in the roasting pan.” Other celeb-rich chestnuts pepper the pages, such as the surprising Best Chicken Salad, devised by famous actor and comedian Danny Kaye.
“I was born and grew up in Bresse, a region about thirty-five miles northeast of Lyon,” says Pépin. “In France, Bresse is as synonymous with [its] luscious chickens…as Bordeaux is with fine wine. In addition to being delicious, the chickens of my home region are beautiful creatures, large with striking blue legs, brilliant white feathers, and bright red combs: bleu, blanc, rouge — the colors of the French flag.”
“Discovering new food helps you understand people, learn more about yourself, and appreciate other cultures,” urges Pépin. “I have traveled the world over, enjoying chicken recipes from America to Russia, from Italy to Africa. During my voyages, I have always been amazed by the power of food to bring people together.”
“These recipes are meant to talk to your imagination, to the poet inside yourself,” muses Pépin. “This book aims to make you dream of succulent food, of happy memories, and of the generosity of sharing your table….”
Tips galore of all sorts are woven amid the text. About eggs (because how could he showcase a book about chickens and not include eggs?), Pépin recommends: “High-quality eggs from hens fed on a good diet and allowed to flap, run, and scratch freely are well worth the premium prices they command. I freely confess that I’m normally something of a miser in the kitchen. My tightfistedness comes both from being a child of the war years and from growing up in a restaurant run by my mother, who was able to make great dishes with scant, meager ingredients. Organic produce is wonderful, but I’ll buy conventional if it’s fresh and just half or one-third the price. In the same way, except for special occasions, I tend to prefer wines that are young and priced less than twenty dollars a bottle over an expensive grand cru. That being said, if at all possible, do not economize when buying eggs. Buy organic eggs of the best possible quality you can afford.”
“To cook for someone is the purest expression of love, and to share food with friends or strangers is a great equalizer,” affirms Pépin, embracing a particularly apt reminder for this Thanksgiving week.