by Claudia Catalano
Student Claudia Catalano recounts her experience cooking with Chef Jacques Pépin, one of the founders of the Gastronomy Program at BU and a celebrated chef in his own right.
It’s 7 pm on a Wednesday night. Eighty ticket-holding foodies sit attentively while gulping down sparkling rosé. I’m standing underneath a kitchen demonstration mirror, my hands trembling as I peel and core apples as fast as I can without losing a finger. The audience is captive, but not because of me. I could be flambéing a roast goose and they wouldn’t notice. Their eyes are fixed on the man by my side—the legendary Jacques Pépin.
I was proud and honored to be assisting the celebrated chef while he visited BU for three days. Pépin co-founded the Gastronomy program and at age 79, and he still comes to work with the culinary students each semester. The time spent with Jacques in the kitchen culminated in 2 evening events that were open to the public. For both nights, he demonstrated recipes from his 2007 book, Chez Jacques, while discussing his philosophy on food and his journey as an artist. Besides being a prolific author and beloved television personality, Jacques is also a painter.
The menu was the same for both dinners and reflected simple traditions from his lifetime of cooking. We started with fromage forte—a savory cheese spread made from odds and ends of leftover cheese (camembert, stilton, chèvre, cheddar, anything!), garlic, white wine, and a generous pinch of black pepper. Packed into little crocks and served with freshly made croutons, it was a quintessential product of his humble upbringing and resourceful approach to cooking.
We also made duck liver pâté with shallots, duck fat, ground bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns, and a few glugs of good cognac. The students hovered around an extra crock and slathered the rich earthy spread on the same crisp croutons.
While he demonstrated the dishes, cracked jokes, and told stories from his early years in New York, the students buzzed around behind the scenes to churn out scores of plated portions for every other course. With the help of Pépin’s longtime friend and equally accomplished chef, Jean-Claude Szurdak, we had been prepping and cooking for the event all day. After the fromage and pâté, we made truffle and pistachio sausage with warm leek and potato salad. Ground pork shoulder was seasoned with pickling salt, white wine and garlic, and then combined with chopped truffles and pistachios. Logs were rolled tightly in plastic wrap, then foil, and left to cure in the refrigerator for four days (these were made ahead). On the afternoon of service, we poached the sausages and cut thick slices to serve atop the potatoes.
For the main course we made chicken thighs with morel sauce and rice pilaf. The sauce was enhanced with the soaking liquid from the dried mushrooms, fruity white wine, the pan drippings, and cream. It was the perfect marriage of elegance and comfort food. To cap off the meal, we baked rustic apple tarts with hazelnut frangipane.
Amidst all the prepping and cooking for the big events, Jacques still found the time to teach us how to bone a whole chicken for galantine—a task I’ve seen him perform on videos and TV. He’s so approachable, it’s easy to forget how accomplished he really is. But when I watched him work I realized I was observing a man with a lifetime of embodied kitchen knowledge – knowledge that flows out of his fingers with ease and grace.
In addition to the perfected techniques and beautifully executed dishes, there’s so much more I took away from my three days with Jacques and Jean-Claude. So much that I had to boil it down to “Jacques’ credo”:
1) A chef is a craftsman before he is an artist. A young chef who is trying to be “creative” is like a writer who doesn’t have a good grasp of grammar—it just doesn’t work.
2) Good food should be simple.
3) Home is the best restaurant.
4) For experienced cooks, a recipe is an expression of one moment in time.
5) Food does more than fill a biological need. It can mean love, home, comfort…
6) The best food is the food you know (Jacques isn’t interested in what he called a “plated unborn vegetable”).
7) You can make a convincing “Champagne” by mixing white wine with Pabst Blue Ribbon (this one I got from Jean-Claude at the after-party!).
8) Great food is even better when shared with friends and the people you love. So if nerves get to you in the heat of the kitchen or you dropped your tart on the floor, just relax and have another glass of wine. As long as you keep good company, everyone will still have a good time.