Jacques Pepin, In Search of Lost Cars and Food
While the French are obsessed with easing their culture back home, it is not fair to say that the cultural influence of their great nation seems to have diminished in the larger world as well. To give two examples that touch on where I live, the priority of French cuisine – once considered the best in the world – is the end. The cozy French bistro is no longer a staple in every American city.
Despite a few observations, the decline of the fortune of the French automobile can also be noted, a device whose invention is due to Nicolas-Joseph Cogno, who set out in 1769 from the commune of Void-Vacon in northeastern France with the world’s first device. A self-propelled vehicle, a tricycle that is built like a chariot.
While French cars are still dominant in their home market, they claim only a small, if loyal, following in the United States. It hasn’t been sold here since the early 1990s, despite its important role in Stellantis, the name given to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and PSA after their merger last year.
To explore these maritime dual cultural changes, I recently set out with a friend from Madison, Connecticut, to visit and reunite with one of America’s most famous French expats, Jacques Pepin. Upon arriving in the New World more than 60 years ago, Mr. Pépin, 86, became a proponent of French gastronomy in the United States: chef, cookbook author, television personality, painter, philanthropist, and most recently a social media star. As a serial owner of French cars, he seemed uniquely suited to answer the question: Are these internationally advertised products of French culture – food and automobiles – worthy of a 21st century renaissance?
Our pick-up to Connecticut would, aptly, be a 1965 Peugeot 404, a model that Mr. Pippen owned and fondly remembered. This seven-seater “Familiale” station wagon purchased by a Canadian diplomat on assignment in Paris, for unknown reasons ended up in a hangar in Medicine Hat, Alberta, where it has remained untouched for more than 50 years. Perfectly roadworthy, with less than 25,000 miles on the odometer, it exudes French motoring charm at its best, with creamy soft mechanics, seating as comfortable as any Diwan and legendary, and a Gallic riding comfort improbably better than most modern cars, even on The harshest way.
Our visit begins with a tour of Mr. Pépin’s home and outbuildings on four wooded acres. The complex is nestled between a church and a synagogue, and features two nicely appointed kitchens, with an impressive array of cooking pots and pans. Studios help expand Mr. Pépin’s brand indefinitely into the future, one containing a kitchen used for filming the series and video clips, and another for painting the oils, acrylics, and mixed media works that appear in his books and are sung in his own handwriting. lists.
We set off at 404 for lunch, we all arrived at nearby Branford at Le Petit Café, a French bistro. Chef Roy Ip, a Hong Kong native and former student of Mr. Pepin at the French Culinary Institute in New York, welcomes our party, opening specially this afternoon for the teacher who, 25 years ago, helped broker the purchase of a 50-seat café. Above a groaning platter of amusing cups and loaves of fresh bread and butter–“If you have extraordinary bread, extraordinary butter, there shall be bread and butter” at every meal, the guest of honor raises a glass of wine–we turn to the exact subject at hand.
Even though he drives a well-used Lexus SUV today, Mr. Pépin’s French car credentials are clearly in order. Tales of his early life in France, where his family was deeply involved in the restaurant business, are filled with memories of cars. One of the most important of these relates to the Citroën Traction Avant, an influential sedan built from 1934 to 1957. The development of the car, which was revolutionary in terms of front-wheel drive and unit body architecture, bankrupted the company’s founder, André Citroen, resulting in to its acquisition by Michelin, the tire maker.
The mention of the car reminds Mr. Biban of a day during World War II when his family left Lyon in his uncle’s Traction Avant’s car to stay on a farm for a while. “My father went into the resistance,” he says. “That car I still remember as a kid, especially the smell. I have always liked Citroen cars because of it.”
Then, his parents owned Panhard, a special machine from a small but respected French company that would fall into the arms of Citroen in 1965, a decade before the same anomaly Citroen – and critics argued its homogeneity – was swallowed up by Peugeot.
Like many post-WWII Frenchmen and millions elsewhere, Mr. Pepin was smitten with his post-war Citroen minivan, the Deux Chevaux, which he says was his mother’s first car.
He says: Seventy miles a gallon, or whatever. “It didn’t go very fast, but we loved it.”
Mr. Pépin’s aversion to overindulgence—despite his early transformations into rich, labor-intensive foods, as when he cooked at New York City’s Le Pavillon, the pinnacle of American upscale cuisine. – Not only did he tell you the simpler cooking he would later champion but many of his car choices when he first hit the American highway. In his memoirs, he refers, for example, to a Volkswagen Beetle he used to crush on the Long Island Highway on his way to visit one of his friends, New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne, in the Long Island East End. A Peugeot 404 will appear on his commute to work in the Howard Johnson Test Kitchen in Rego Park, Queens, where he has worked for 10 years.
Later, a Renault 5 – a sub-economy known as LeCar in America – joined Mr. Pepin’s family as a daily driver for his wife Gloria.
He remains, too, a staunch supporter of what may be France’s greatest automobile icon, the Citroen DS, which President Charles de Gaulle was riding when 12 right-wing terrorists tried to assassinate him in 1962, firing 140 bullets into his car as it was leaving central Paris for Orly airport. . The fuse blew off the DS 19’s rear window and all its tires, but thanks to its unique pneumatic hydraulic suspension, de Gaulle’s driver was able to drive the tireless car and its passengers to safety.
“You saved his life,” Mr. Pépin prodigy. “wonderful car.”
Although Mr. Pépin was de Gaulle’s personal chef in the 1950s, he didn’t know him well, he says. “The cook in the kitchen was never interviewed by a magazine or radio, and the television was barely there,” he says. “If someone came into the kitchen, he had to complain that something went wrong. The chef was at the bottom of the social ladder.”
That changed in the early 1960s with the arrival of new cuisines, Mr. Pepin believes. But not before he declines an invitation to cook at the Kennedy White House. (The Kennedys were regular employees of Le Pavillon.) His friend René Verdon took over, sending Mr. Pépin a picture of him with President John F. Kennedy.
“Suddenly, we’re a genius now. But, he says with a laugh, you can’t take it seriously.”
Mr. Pépin befriended the Hall of Fame list of American foodies, including Mr. Ford station wagon while trying to avoid deer on a back road in upstate New York.
Mr. Biban thinks that if he hadn’t driven such a big car, “I would probably be dead.” He ended up with a broken back and 12 and still has “foot traction,” he says, due to a severed sciatic nerve. His injuries forced him to close a Manhattan soup restaurant, La Potagerie, which was serving 150 gallons of soup a day, flipping 102 seats every 18 minutes.
As Chef Ip serves the table with a simple but delicious Salade Niçoise, followed by a delicately crafted apple tart, Mr. Pépin turns his attention to the question of France’s waning influence in the culinary and automotive worlds. I was surprised to learn that in a hot deal – the ship has sailed.
“Certainly when I came to America, French food or ‘continental’ food was what any of the big restaurants were supposed to be like, often with a misspelled French menu, he says. But continuing waves of immigration and plane travel have opened up distant corners. of the world led to the loss of French food “of its essential place”.
“People still love French food just as much as they love other foods,” he says, adding, “Americans have matured and learned about a greater range of options.”
Mr Pépin, who describes himself as an optimist, is quick to add that he does not see this as a bad thing. He vividly remembers how bleak America was when he arrived, drawn in by the youthful enthusiasm for jazz. At first, he stunned the idea of the supermarket.
“But when I went in, no shallots, no shallots, no other herbs, one green salad was an iceberg,” he says. “Now look at America. Exceptional wine, bread, cheese. A whole other world.”
In fact, Mr. Pepin, whose wife was Puerto Rican and Cuban, did not consider himself a “French chef” anymore. He says his 30-plus cookbooks “included recipes for black bean soup with banana slices and cilantro on top.” He also has a recipe for Southern fried chicken. “So, in a sense, I consider myself a classic American chef,” he says. “Things change.”
During a pleasant afternoon with Mr. Pépin, it becomes clear that while the changing world does not bother him much, he regrets, and his greatest is the loss of his loved ones. His father died young in 1965, and his close friend, Jean-Claude Sordac, whom he met in the Paris kitchen in 1956, died in 2020, shortly before his heartbreak, the loss of his wife Gloria, of cancer.
“The hardest thing is not having dinner at night. And that bottle of wine.” Silent for a long moment.
Drawing his thoughts on the kitchen and cars, the chef notes what he sees as an unfortunate trend: a loss of diversity, which he attributes to corporate motivations.
“There is more food today in the supermarket than ever before,” says Mr. Pippen. But at the same time, there is more standardization. I try to shop where regular people shop for the best price. And I can’t go to the supermarket and find chicken backs and necks anymore.”
The same is true, he says, of the auto industry, where increased use of a small group of multinational suppliers, combined with stricter regulations and companies’ increased reluctance to take risks, has made cars more similar across brands.
“The special characteristics that made French cars different don’t really exist anymore, even in France,” he says. “They all follow the same aesthetic. Neither French food nor French cars had the same character they used to have.”
Mr. Pépin is still philosophical. He mourns the loss of iconic French cars, but he clearly does not lose his sleep. Ditto French food.
As long as “people come together” and cook high-quality ingredients, he hopes, because “eating together is probably what civilization is all about.”