Jacques Pépin, in search of missing cars and kitchens

While the French are famous for their obsession with blurring their culture at home, it is not unfair to say that their great nation’s cultural domination seems to have waned in the larger world as well. To give two examples that touch me where I live, the primacy of French cuisine – once considered the best in the world – is finite. A cozy French bistro is no longer the backbone of every American city.

And while little has been mentioned, it is also the decline in the fortune of the French car, a device whose invention comes from Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, who in 1769 left the Void-Vacon commune in northeastern France with the world’s first self-propelled vehicle , a steam powered tricycle built like a wagon.

While still dominating the home market, French cars have only a small, albeit loyal, following in the United States. They have not been sold here since the early 1990s, despite their prominent role in Stellantis, a name given to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and French carmaker PSA after their merger last year.

To explore these twin cultural shifts, I recently set off with a friend from Madison, Connecticut, to visit and chew on one of America’s most famous French immigrants, Jacques Pépin. Arriving in the New World over 60 years ago, 86-year-old Pépin became one of the most successful French gastronomy advocates in the United States: a chef, cookbook author, television personality, painter, philanthropist, and recently a social media star. As the erstwhile serial owner of French cars, he seemed uniquely suited to answer the question: are these once world-announced products of French culture – food and cars – going to be reborn in the 21st century?

Our transport to Connecticut would, rightly, be a 1965 Peugeot 404, a model that Mr Pépin once owned and which he fondly remembers. The seven-seater “Familiale” station wagon, bought new by a Canadian diplomat on commission in Paris, ended up in a barn in Medicine Hat, Alberta, for unknown reasons, where it stood untouched for over 50 years. Fully roadworthy, with less than 25,000 miles per mile, it exudes the charm of French cars in their signature style, with creamy smooth mechanics, seats as comfortable as any couch and legendary Gallic driving comfort that surpasses most modern cars, even on the toughest roads.

Our visit begins with a tour of Mr. Pepin’s home and farm buildings in his four wooded acres. Situated between the church and the synagogue, the complex houses two impressively equipped kitchens, with dazzling arrays of carefully arranged cookware and saucepans. Two studios help extend Mr. Pépin’s brand into infinity into the future, one with a kitchen used for series and video shooting, and the other for painting oils, acrylics and mixed works that appear in his books and adorn his coveted handwritten menu.

Departing 404 for lunch, we all arrive at nearby Branford at the French bistro Le Petit Café. Chef Roy Ip, born in Hong Kong and former student of Mr. Pépin at the French Culinary Institute in New York, welcomes our party, opening a special week afternoon for the mentor who 25 years ago helped broker the purchase of a 50-seat café. Over the groaning plate of rolls and loaves of freshly baked bread with butter – “If you have extraordinary bread, extraordinary butter, there should be bread and butter at every meal”, the guest of honor guarantees by lifting a glass of wine – we approach a delicate topic.

Although he drives a well-used Lexus SUV today, his French credentials are clearly the order of the day. The stories of his early life in France, where his family was deeply involved in the restaurant business, are full of automotive memories. The landmark case concerns the Citroën Traction Avant, an influential sedan produced between 1934 and 1957. The development of a car that was revolutionary for its front-wheel drive and body design bankrupted the company’s founder André Citroen, leading to its acquisition by Michelin, the tire manufacturer.

The mention of the car reminds Mr. Pépin of a day during World War II when his family left Lyon on his uncle’s Traction Avant to stop at a farm for a while. “My father disappeared from the resistance,” he says. “This car that I still remember from my childhood, especially the smell. That’s why I have always loved Citroën. “

Later, his parents owned the Panhard, an idiosyncratic machine from a small but respected French manufacturer that fell into the arms of Citroën in 1965, a decade before the unusual Citroën was swallowed – and, as critics claimed, unified – by Peugeot.

Like many French after WWII and millions elsewhere, Mr. Pépin was charmed by Citroen’s post-war small car, the Deux Chevaux, which he says was his mother’s first car.

“Seventy miles per gallon or whatever,” he says. “It didn’t go too fast, but we liked it.”

Mr. Pépin’s reluctance to excess – despite his early detours towards rich, labor-intensive foods, such as cooking in New York’s Le Pavillon, once the pinnacle of American gourmet cuisine – reported not only the simpler cooking that he later became a master of, but also many of his vehicle choices when he first hit the American highway. In his memoirs, he refers, for example, to the Volkswagen Beetle in which he drove on the Long Island Autobahn on his way to one of his friends, Craig Claiborne, a New York Times culinary writer, in the East End of Long Island. On the way to work in the Howard Johnson’s test kitchen in Rego Park, Queens, where he worked for 10 years, the Peugeot 404 arrived.

Later, Mr. Pépin’s family was joined by the Renault 5 – the economic subcompact known in America as LeCar – as the daily driver of his wife Gloria.

He also remains a staunch supporter of arguably France’s greatest automotive icon, the Citroën DS that President Charles de Gaulle drove when 12 right-wing terrorists tried to murder him in 1962 by firing 140 bullets at his car. left the center of Paris for Orly airport. A shootout blew up the rear window of the DS 19 and all its tires, but thanks to the unique hydropneumatic suspension, de Gaulle’s driver was able to safely drive the tireless car and its passengers.

“It saved his life,” marvels Mr Pépin. “Great car.”

Although Mr. Pépin was de Gaulle’s personal chef in the 1950s, he did not know him well, he says. “The cook in the kitchen never gave an interview to a magazine or radio, and television was almost non-existent,” he says. “If someone came to the kitchen, they complained that something went wrong. The cook was really at the bottom of the social scale. “

That changed in the early 1960s with the advent of nouvelle cuisine, Mr Pépin believes. But only after he turned down the invitation to cook for the Kennedy White House. (Kennedy were regulars at Le Pavillon.) His friend René Verdon took over the job by sending Mr. Pépin a photo of himself with President John F. Kennedy.

“We’re suddenly geniuses. But, she says, laughing, you can’t take it too seriously.

Being friends with the Hall of Fame list of American gourmets including Claiborne, Pierre Franey and Julia Child, Pépin eventually became a star with no connection to the White House, although his unusual plots were almost cut short in the 1970s when the Ford station wagon crashed. while trying to avoid a deer on a side road in upstate New York.

If he wasn’t driving such a big car, Mr. Pepin thinks: “I would probably be dead.” He ended up with a broken spine and 12 fractures, and he still has “foot piled up,” he says, due to a severed sciatic nerve. His injuries forced him to close his Manhattan soup restaurant, La Potagerie, which served 150 gallons of soup a day, turning 102 places every 18 minutes.

While Chef Ip serves a simple but delicious Salade Niçoise to the table followed by a finely baked apple tart, Mr. Pépin highlights the issue of France’s diminished influence in the culinary and automotive world. I am surprised to find out that he is in agreement – the ship has gone.

“Of course, when I came to America, French or ‘continental’ food was what all great restaurants were supposed to be, often with a misspelled French menu,” he says. However, the continual waves of immigration and air travel that have opened up far corners of the world have led to French food losing “its basic place”.

“People still like French food as much as any other food,” he says, adding, “Americans have matured and learned about a greater variety of options.”

Mr Pépin, who calls himself an optimist, hastily adds that he does not consider it a bad thing. He remembers perfectly how culinary dismal America was when he arrived, attracted by a youthful enthusiasm for jazz. Initially, he was delighted with the idea of ​​a supermarket.

“But when I walked in, there was no time, shallots, no other herbs, one green lettuce that was an iceberg,” she says. “Now look at America. Unusual wine, bread, cheese. A completely different world. “

Indeed, Mr Pépin, whose wife was Puerto Rican and Cuban, no longer even considers himself a “French chef”. His over 30 cookbooks, he says, “contain recipes for black bean soup with sliced ​​banana and coriander on top.” He also has a recipe for Southern Fried Chicken. “In a way, I consider myself a classic American chef,” he says. “Things change.”

During a quiet afternoon with Mr. Pépin, it becomes clear that although the changing world does not scare him too much, he is sorry, and his greatest concern is the loss of loved ones. His father died young in 1965, and his defining sadness, the loss of his wife Gloria in December 2020 to cancer, is hard for him.

“The hardest part is not sharing dinner overnight. And that bottle of wine. He is silent for a long moment.

By focusing on his thoughts on kitchens and cars, the chef highlights what he considers a regrettable trend: the loss of diversity attributed to corporate motives.

“There is more food in the supermarket today than ever before,” says Pépin. “But at the same time, there is more standardization. I try to shop where common people shop to get the best price. And I can’t go to the supermarket anymore and find chickens and necks.

The same applies, he says, to the auto industry, where the growing use of a small pool of international suppliers, along with tightened regulations and growing corporate aversion to taking risks, has made cars of different brands increasingly similar.

“The special features that distinguished French cars don’t really exist anymore, not even in France,” he says. “They all follow the same aesthetics. Neither French food nor French cars are of the same value as they used to be.

Mr. Pépin remains a philosopher. He mourns the loss of his distinctive French cars, but apparently does not lose sleep because of it. Same French food.

As long as “people come together” and cook high-quality ingredients, he hopes that “eating together is probably what civilization means.”

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