Pepin the great


On a brutally cold evening in 2003, I lit the fireplace, brewed myself a cup of tea and settled into my favorite chair to begin “The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen” by Jacques Pépin. At the time, chef Anthony Bourdain wrote, “I’ve been waiting for this book my whole life.” So was I.

Pépin’s story is the American dream. Born in 1935 in Bourg-en-Bresse, France — about 30 miles northeast of Lyon — the young Tati, which was his nickname, lived through World War II with his parents and two brothers. His mother, who ran a restaurant, sent him to the countryside during the summer where he worked on a farm.

At age 13, he became a chef’s apprentice. His blue-and-white checkered trousers — part of the chef’s universal uniform — were his first pair of long pants. The cover of the book is a sepia-toned photograph of Pépin when he became an apprentice. It shows a gawky lad with a look of determination on his face. If this does not make you smile, nothing will.

I recently reread Pépin’s delightful, funny and lovingly written autobiography. I don’t want to give anything away should you read it as well, but anyone who appreciates fine food must read “The Apprentice.”

I met Pépin on several occasions. He bought me a glass of champagne during a Book and the Cook dinner at Jake’s in Manayunk. We settled in and enjoyed dinner.

Pépin is a soft-spoken, affable man and fun to be with. I have never taken a cooking class, but I have watched him teach on a few occasions. He is the master when it comes to teaching the art of French cuisine. His books “La Methode” and “La Technique” are used at cooking schools throughout America.

Pépin has written 20-plus cookbooks, presented numerous cooking programs on PBS (my favorites were “Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home” and the series in which he cooked with his grown daughter, Claudine), and is the winner of many honors including numerous James Beard and International Association of Cooking Professionals cookbook awards. Pépin was inducted into the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame in 1996.

As the guest judge on Bravo TV’s top-rated “Top Chef,” Pépin said his last meal would be a simple one: Squab and peas. His mother would prepare this dish on meaningful occasions such as Holy Communions.

Here is the recipe for his mother’s Cheese Soufflé from his delightful “The Apprentice.”

Maman’s Cheese Soufflé


6 tablespoons of unsalted butter, plus more to butter a 6-cup gratin dish

6 tablespoons of all-purpose flour

2 cups of whole milk

1/2 teaspoon of salt

1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper

5 extra-large eggs

2-1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) of grated Swiss cheese, preferably Gruyere

3 tablespoons of fresh chives, minced


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Butter a 6-cup gratin dish and set it aside. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Then add the flour and mix it well with a whisk. Cook for 10 seconds, add the milk in one stroke and mix it in with a whisk. Keep stirring with the whisk until the mixture thickens and comes to a strong boil. This should take about two minutes. It should be thick and smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt and pepper. Allow about 10 minutes for the white sauce to cool.

Break the eggs into a bowl and beat well with a fork. Add the eggs, cheese and chives to the cooled sauce. Mix well to combine. Pour it into the buttered gratin dish and set aside until ready to cook.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the soufflé is puffy and well-browned on top. Although it will stay inflated for quite a while, it is best served immediately.

Serves four.

Note from Phyllis: I would serve this soufflé on a meatless Monday. Just toss a big green salad and add any vegetables you have on hand to the bowl. A loaf of bread and a glass of wine would be perfect. Dessert is up to you, but I would shy away from anything heavy. Cheese soufflé is rich. Sorbet and cookies would be fine with me. SPR 

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