Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Jacques Pépin & Carmella Catena, one you know, one I wish you could have...

L'Ecole w/ Jacques Pepin
Great and iconic people inspire us. Some are famous some are not. Yet, the impact they leave on our lives is indelible and forever. Such is the case with Chef Jacques Pépin. You see, me and many of the chefs you now know as household names, all have our culinary careers due to the inspiration received from chefs like Julia Child, Alaine Ducasse, Paul Bocuse and of course, current king and culinary emperor, Chef Jacques Pépin.

I had a quiet lunch with him at L'Ecole recently but before we sat down, we toured the ICC in New York City, where Pépin is a dean. I watched with amusement as we walked the halls, stopping in various classes being taught. This was a rare treat for me, a lay person in this world of mis en place and strict French culinary tradition, to watch the students, instructors and fellow deans react to just his presence in the room. He stopped to check the bread, seeming the most content I'd remember seeing him as he took a loaf, turned it over and tapped it, listening to the sound to check its doneness. Then, we popped in on a cake decorating class, wishing some well, catching up with others. This was his element.

Each time we would enter a classroom, the students, and yes even the chef/instructors, would light up as the Master Chef entered, explaining to him in this brief moment in time, how they had seen this or that he had done, or that the reason they were attending was because of the inspiration they received as their mom, or dad, or in my case, my Grandma, introduced them to the culinary world through him and his endeavors. A moment, they explained, that was shared with one of his 'many' moments, where the two worlds collided and theirs was changed forever. The awakening in them of this culinary dream, the setting of their course or impact it had their future, leading them to this adventure.

Such is the case with me. In meeting Chef Pépin, I realized that my current path had been set long ago by he and someone very dear and personal in my life. My grandmother, Carmella Catena. After a recent meeting and subsequent lunch with this legendary chef, I recently realized why I am now doing what I'm doing. Seems I grew up a foodie. My childhood years were centered around the table, a meal. The kitchen. Now, I had no idea I was a foodie until the word actually hit the lexicon of our everyday lives, but when it did, it described me perfectly.

As a child, my mom worked and I came home from school each day to my grandmother. We had a very special relationship. She was faithfully there each day, from the time I was six, until I was 14-15. Each day when I walked through that door it was her face I saw. Some of the most formative years of my life. It is only now I understand that when my grandmother watched me after school every day, I had actually been her sous chef. "Okay now add the egg, Louis, slowly," as she mixed the dough when we were making her 'knots.'

She was famous for those cookies....Grandma's Knots... I remember, I always begged her to let me lick the bowl of homemade icing after she would dip all the cookies. She always seemed to have just enough to satisfy my sweet tooth. Such a simple recipe too. Food coloring, confectioners sugars, orange juice and love. You can't forget the love or it just doesn't taste the same.

Each week, my family had a traditional meal together one night a week. Thursday. Macaroni night. My mom, my grams and my Aunt would take turns hosting the meal at there respective houses. Two weeks, then it would move to the next house. When it was at gram's or my mom's, gram would do the cooking of the sauce, or gravy as it's referred to in my house. In my family there was gravy. Three kinds: Marinara and Meat for the reds, and Brown. When we said 'gravy' most times we were referring to what you all call spaghetti sauce. That's just the way it was. It was here also that I was sous chef before I knew what a sous chef was.

She would add the ingredients to the bowl for meatballs, and tell me, "Get in there and mix it with your hands, they are the best tool in the kitchen" or, "Turn the meatballs gently," followed by, "and stop eating them before we get them into the gravy!" She would always laughingly scold me as we would sear the meatballs to par cook them before dropping them into the sauce. Now, folks, I love fried meatballs! She would let me turn them in the pan and I would sneak eat all the little ones and she would scold me, but not really mad. I later found out as an adult that she would make extra, counting on the fact that I was going to eat some while we were cooking. I also,  as an adult, realized I was taught the difference between searing and sauteing, how to braise, to make stock, to bake. I just didn't realize what was happening then. But she did and she had so much love. She taught me love was as important ingredient as than anything else you were putting into your dish. Maybe more so.

She was a quiet, affable woman, who was quick with a smile and never seemed to have a bad word to say about anyone. Just a gentle soul whom everyone loved. She was a hard working mother of 4 who worked most of her life in a sewing factory, with long hours and sacrifice. I also remember she had a helluva right arm. No, not throwing. Whacking me on the arm with a wooden spoon. I was, let's say.....feisty. At seven, I backed the car into the side of the house while moving it so I could play basketball with my friends. It's safe to say, she had her hands full and I deserved every whack I got. She broke a lot of wooden spoons on me.

Now that said, we spent a lot of time together and had an excellent and special relationship. I remember, as if yesterday, sitting in the living room after school each day, watching Jacques and Julia and the The Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr with her. Well, at least on the days I did not have baseball, or football practice. I was 7-8 yrs old. When I think about it now, it was my grandmother who truly turned me into a foodie. She was the one who introduced me to all those cooking shows.

I grew and as a young adult, I was into music, sales, finances, travel. I liked eating, but one would not have called me a gourmet by any stretch. When life's curves and unexpected twists sidelined my previous career choice, a great friend, Elaine, awoke in me the 'foodie' gene and I seemed to fall into this culinary lifestyle as if putting on an old comfortable sweater. I never gave it much thought, but after years of watching my mom and grandmother in the kitchen, I guess the culinary world and a love for the kitchen is ingrained in me.

I recently chatted with Chef Pépin at an event in Cleveland and during that conversation, it hit me. The reason the foodie sweater fit so well is because it had been crocheted by my grandmother years ago. We made plans to have lunch that day at the famed French Culinary Institute (now called The International Culinary Center). I was thrilled. You know folks, there is a reason he is now, as he put it, 'a rock star.' It is through him and, the influences and inspiration of Julia, Kerr and those early acclaimed chefs, that many of the chefs and food personalities you now know today, pursued their culinary careers.

He smiled at me and explained, "Years ago we were just cooks, trying to simply make good food, but today, I have to laugh. With the popularity of the foodnetwork, with all the great chefs, like Bobby and Mario and Michael, I am now 'touring.'" He smiled, "Back when I started the show, we didn't even know if anyone was watching," he continued, "now, with the food shows, we chefs are all the rage. I travel all over sometimes alone, sometimes with Claudine and I am having fun. And I have been put in the archives in Boston University, it's nice if a bit strange."

He had mentioned this twice now in our conversations, pointing out that many people were not aware that he has taught at Boston University for almost 31 years. I asked him what he meant by 'if a bit strange' and he expounded, "I was alone in my house, you know and they had asked me to put together these things, mementos, writings, tapes, things to go into a box to bring to the school and it was weird, I, thought, 'You know, I'm not dead yet,' and he laughed, adding, 'who knows I may need these things. To put your life in a box..."

The Jacques Pépin Collection spans an entire career in kitchens around the world, from his earliest Certificats d'Emploi as an apprentice in post World War II France, to teaching career at Boston University. The collection includes extensive manuscript drafts of Pépin articles, essays and books, including The Apprentice, and The Art of Cooking. Correspondence and photographs, both personal and professional, are plentiful and feature the likes of Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, Laura Bush, The collection also includes vast holdings of Pépin's recipe books, printed materials featuring Pépin, interviews, datebooks, menus and artwork by Pépin, awards, and memorabilia.

Also included is a large number of personal and professional videos featuring Jacques Pépin's Kitchen: Cooking with Claudine, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, Today's Gourmet with Jacques Pépin, and Jacques Pépin: More Fast Food My Way. He winked at me, "But of course, it is a great honour, I am in with such people as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Alistair Cooke, Dan Rather, many others and me, just a cook."

I found during my recent conversations with him, in Cleveland and New York, he is always humble, a bit self deprecating and even a bit mischievous in his thoughts and remarks about himself. For instance, when talking with me about he and his fellow deans at the ICC, famed in their own right, Chefs Alain Sailhac and André Soltner, he referred to himself and the two of them as "the dinosaurs, and 'the three stooges of culinary." Quite a description of three master chefs who are among the greatest French chefs alive on the planet today, with a combined total of two hundred years culinary expertise.

We talked about his thoughts on cookery today and the sudden explosion in the popularity of cooking shows. He explained "Well on one hand, it has really made the chefs the star with all the shows and competitions. Back then, when we started out, Julia and I, it was about just showing people how too cook. I'll tell you a secret not many people know," he smiled, "we had no script or recipes...we would just wing it! Sometimes those were the best shows. At the same time, the public's awareness of culinary and the influx of new students and chefs is a good thing, so overall I believe we are headed in the right direction."

I asked if he thought about slowing down, and he answered immediately, "Well, who knows how long this will last, you know. I love the live shows, the interaction. It is nice to know that there were people out there buying the books and watching the shows," he winked, "and it's an honour to greet them one on one." I have seen that effect; folks looking up on stage with a big grin, re-living some memory or moment when Chef Jacques made them cook better, or feel better, or hungry. I was there myself when asked to lunch with him.

For me folks, this was true foodie dream come true. As a child watching Chef Pépin with my Grams, and through all the years of watching his shows as an adult, following his career, to now, being 'in' the food entertainment business, the thought that one day I would be sitting with him sharing an intimate one on one lunch was childish fantasy, a dream to not even dare dream. But here I was. We talked pure food, sharing thoughts on life, his wife and daughter, life as a chef, teaching, Julia, my life, etc.. When this moment finally came, I chose to be in it, as opposed to attend it for the sake of publication. And, I was rewarded with a great moment in my life, bringing together the real reasons I do what I do; the pure passion for the food, and most importantly, the simple acts of cooking together and sharing a meal that can help create the human bonds that shape us. Food in the right hands and with the right motive and presentation can be a unifier. For me, I now know that not only my Grams, but through her, Chef Pépin, were very influential in the career path I have finally chosen, the passion I have for all things culinary and the person that I have become, both personally and professionally.

I thought about giving you an elaborate piece here, possible video, long interview, but then as the afternoon wore on and Jacques and I talked about things it dawned on me that while I should share the moment and it's impact on me with you, this one I would keep close to the vest. A little treasure that I could take out once in a while and feel all those good feelings and re-live all those great memories of cooking in the kitchen with Carmella. The love, the laughs, yes even the scolds and broken wooden spoons.

Thanks Grams, I miss you. And thanks Chef, for taking the time to remind me what's important. Told ya, iconic people will do that. They will make you lift your game, make you think and hopefully impact your life for the better. I really am a pretty lucky guy.

Bon Appetit