Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen (Pepin)

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen
Jacques Pepin, 2003
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780618444113

In this captivating memoir, the man whom Julia Child has called "the best chef in America" tells the story of his rise from a frightened apprentice in an exacting Old World kitchen to an Emmy Award-winning superstar who taught millions of Americans how to cook and shaped the nation's tastes in the bargain.

We see young Jacques as a homesick six-year-old boy in war-ravaged France, working on a farm in exchange for food, dodging bombs, and bearing witness as German soldiers capture his father, a fighter in the Resistance. Soon Jacques is caught up in the hurly-burly action of his mother's café, where he proves a natural. He endures a literal trial by fire and works his way up the ladder in the feudal system of France's most famous restaurant, finally becoming Charles de Gaulle's personal chef, watching the world being refashioned from the other side of the kitchen door.

When he comes to America, Jacques immediately falls in with a small group of as-yet-unknown food lovers, including Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and Julia Child, whose adventures redefine American food. Through it all, Jacques proves himself to be a master of the American art of reinvention: earning a graduate degree from Columbia University, turning down a job as John F. Kennedy's chef to work at Howard Johnson's, and, after a near-fatal car accident, switching careers once again to become a charismatic leader in the revolution that changed the way Americans approached food. Included as well are approximately forty all-time favorite recipes created during the course of a career spanning nearly half a century, from his mother's utterly simple cheese soufflé to his wife's pork ribs and redbeans.

The Apprentice is the poignant and sometimes funny tale of a boy's coming of age. Beyond that, it is the story of America's culinary awakening and the transformation of food from an afterthought to a national preoccupation. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—December 18, 1935
Where—Bourg-en Bresse, France (near Lyon)
Education—B.A. (1970), M.A. (1972), Columbia University
Awards—Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des lettres;
   Chevalier de L'Ordre du Merite Agricole; Legion d'honneur;
   Emmy Award
Currently—lives in Madison, Connecticut, USA

Jacques Pepin is the author of twenty-one cookbooks, including the best-selling The Apprentice and the award-winning Jacques Pepin Celebrates and Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home (with Julia Child).

He has appeared regularly on PBS programs for more than a decade, hosting over three hundred cooking shows. A contributing editor for Food & Wine, he is the dean of special programs at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Before coming to the United States, he served as personal chef to three French heads of state. (From the publisher.)

Pepin was born in Bourg-en-Bresse near Lyon, and began cooking in his parents' restaurant, Le Pelican, at the age of 12. He went on to work in Paris, training under Lucien Diat at the Plaza Athénée. He eventually served as a personal chef for Charles de Gaulle and two other French premiers. Upon immigration to the United States in 1959, Pepin turned down a job offer at the Kennedy White House, and instead accepted a position as the director of research and new development for the Howard Johnson's chain of hotels. He stayed at Howard Johnson's for ten years.

Demonstrating interests beyond cooking, Pepin earned a bachelor's degree from the Columbia University School of General Studies in 1970, followed by a Master of Arts in 18th Century French poetry from Columbia in 1972.

Pepin has been featured in several highly acclaimed television shows and written eighteen books.

His celebrated La Technique is used to this day as a textbook for teaching the fundamentals of French cuisine. The success of La Technique prompted him to launch a televised version of the book, resulting in an acclaimed 1997 PBS series, The Complete  Pepin. Recently relaunched on PBS ten years after its initial run, the series included a new introduction by Pepin where he stressed that now more than ever the secret to being a successful chef and not a mere line cook lies in knowing and using the proper technique.

Pepin also co-starred in award-winning 1999 PBS series Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home with Julia Child. Their work together was honored with a Daytime Emmy in 2001.

A third series had Pepin cooking with his daughter, Claudine, wife of chef Rolland Wesen.

His show Jacques Pepin: Fast Food My Way (based on his 2004 book of the same name) ran on PBS, as did a follow-up show, Jacques Pepin: More Fast Food My Way. All of his programs have been produced by KQED-TV in San Francisco.

A time line of his life, based on his 2003 autobiography The Apprentice, is available on the KQED website.

Pepin was a guest judge on the Bravo television show Top Chef on season five, airing in 2008. He stated that his ideal "final meal" would be roast squab and fresh peas.

Pepin serves as Dean of Special Programs at the French Culinary Institute, part of the new International Culinary Center, in New York City. He is also an active contributor to the Gastronomy department at Boston University, where he teaches an online class on the cuisine and culture of France along with professor Kyri Claflin of Boston University's history department. Pepin also writes a quarterly column for Food & Wine and offers an amateur class each semester based on varied culinary topics.

Pepin currently resides with his wife, Gloria, in Madison, Connecticut. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
Pepin made his way late to the written word, having been a chef before he was a scholar, and a teacher and a restaurateur before he published. But first—the good luck is ours—he was a hungry child, in a country in which food was religion, and in which history imprinted itself culinarily.
Stacy Shiff - New York Times

Lest any reader think this is another saga of sex and drugs in the kitchen, it definitely is not. Instead, it's the story of just what it takes to turn a talented young Frenchman into one of the most admired figures in the culinary world. And anyone who thinks that all you need to do to be called "chef" is to survive a few months—or even a few years—in culinary school would do well to read it.
Judith Weinraub - Washington Post

In this beguiling memoir, the celebrated French chef and cooking-show host recounts his start as a scrappy thirteen-year-old country boy who arrived at his first restaurant apprenticeship still wearing short pants. An incorrigible prankster (he once coated a colleague's eyeglasses in aspic), Pépin never fully submitted to the strict regimen of the French kitchen, and, after a stint as a cook for Charles de Gaulle, he headed for New York, where he ended up working for the chain-restaurant entrepreneur Howard Johnson. Making clam chowder by the gallon was a quirky turn for a classically trained chef, but it enabled Pépin to revolutionize mass-produced food. With appealing modesty, he sees himself as essentially a blue-collar worker, whose "vantage point to history-in-the-making was the crack between two swinging kitchen doors."
The New Yorker

In this fast-moving and often touching memoir, Pepin recounts his journey from the kitchen of his mother's humble restaurant in rural France after World War II to his current position as author of 21 cookbooks, star of 13 PBS cooking shows and dean of special programs at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Along the way he describes everything from the tough French apprenticeship system that saw him dropping out of school at 13 to work in Lyon to the beginnings of the Howard Johnson's chain. Pepin accepted a job in the Howard Johnson's test kitchen over a stint at the White House cooking for John F. Kennedy, but shows no signs of regret. In fact, if there's a flaw here, it's that Pepin's eternally upbeat attitude is sometimes a little hard to buy—although he does seem to have been born under a lucky star. Pepin came to the U.S. just when a culinary culture was building and fell into friendships with Craig Claiborne, then food editor of the New York Times, and Julia Child. Even a bad car accident when he was 39 turned out to be a godsend, as it got him out of the restaurant kitchen and into the teaching profession. Pepin mines a lot of humor from the differences between French and American attitudes toward food, as when he recounts how he and a French friend once stopped by a farm somewhere in the U.S. with a sign reading "Ducks for Sale" and wrung the neck of the duck they'd just bought in front of the horrified proprietress. Each chapter concludes with one or two recipes, many of them surprisingly earthy, such as Oatmeal Breakfast Soup with leeks and bacon.... This charming memoir will not disappoint.
Publishers Weekly

How does one become a chef? Aside from having a love for food, modern cooks are born from—diverse experiences, talents, and training. Pepin, who has given us numerous cookbooks and memorable television programs, now shares his story. Throughout his early years in the kitchens of family restaurants and highly structured apprenticeships throughout France to his move to the United States, years as a product development chef for Howard Johnson, and friendships with such famous foodies as Craig Claiborne, Pepin relates how his interest in food and culinary techniques developed into passions for cooking and teaching. He does this deftly, neatly capturing personalities and events with clear, concise writing. As a tantalizing bonus, each chapter concludes with a favorite recipe. Pepin's book is an essential counterpoint to Anthony Bourdain's cynical Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.
Library Journal

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, The Apprentice is an earthy, honest, well-written autobiography by one of the century's best-known chefs. During WW II, Jacques' mother worked as a waitress to feed her three young sons. In 1947 Jacques' mother opened a restaurant, Chez Pepin, in a working class neighborhood in Lyon. Bigger restaurants followed and Jacques quit school at 13, determined to become a chef. In 1949 he began a three-year apprenticeship, learning to cook on a temperamental wood stove. Afterward he worked in a succession of hotels and then served in the navy during the Algerian War. He even served as chef to France's prime minister, a job that ended when the government collapsed in 1958. Soon, however, he was cooking for Charles de Gaulle. In 1959 Pepin came to the US and landed a job at the prestigious Le Pavillon in New York City. Eight months later this job ended and Pepin went to work for Howard Deering Johnson, improving the food served by his restaurant chain. Pepin also received a tempting offer—to become the White House chef, should John Kennedy be elected. But he had found a second father in Mr. Johnson, with whom he remained during the 1960s. He married, bought a house in the Catskills, fathered Claudine, and opened a soup restaurant in 1970. La Potagerie was a great success, but tragedy struck when Pepin was seriously injured in an auto accident in 1974. After this he became a teacher and TV personality. Pepin's charming memoir is enlivened with anecdotes, photos and 24 easy-to-follow recipes.
Janet Julian - KLIATT

From chef, author, and cooking-show veteran Pepin, an easygoing but proud memoir of his journey through the stations of the kitchen and the food world. Pépin doesn't gloss over the difficulties involved in scaling the French culinary ladder, but there is never any question that it was exactly what he wanted to be doing. His mother ran a series of comfortable, small-scale, well-received restaurants outside Lyon, and young Jacques took to "the hurly-burly noise of the kitchen. The heat. The sweat. The bumping of bodies. The raised voices. The constant rush of adrenaline." His apprenticeship, feudal in duration and circumstances, wasn't easy, but he reveled in the learning process of observation and imitation, a "visual osmosis" that he conveys in warm, willowy prose. Cooking in a restaurant, we realize, is a calling, not a job. Gradually introduced to a variety of French regional foods, Pépin learned thoroughly and from the ground up the responsibilities and techniques of each kitchen position. He landed a succession of jobs at great restaurants in Paris and as a private chef before moving to New York and immersing himself in the revolution overtaking American cooking. Hungry for work, he was also gratifyingly unpretentious; he took a job at Howard Johnson’s rather than the Kennedy White House because he liked his life in New York. At Ho Jo’s, he worked with chefs (many of them blacks from the American South) who lacked formal training but had "natural grace and gut-felt understanding." After a horrific car accident shattered too many bones to count and forced him to leave the kitchen, he turned to writing, teaching, and fostering the growing American awareness of good food. Pépin offers a worm's-eye view of culinary personalities and approaches, and there’s no doubt he has earned every ounce of bounty he has received from the kitchen. Prose as joyful and rich as the author’s food 
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also, consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Apprentice:

1. What personal and professional qualities does it take to become a top chef? How difficult is the road to earn the title "chef"? What would you say has made Jacques Pepin so successful?

2. Why does Pepin turn down a job as White House chef to stay with Howard Johnson? What does it say about the kind of person Pepin is? And what does the experience working at HoJo's gain him—what does he learn?

3. Why does Pepin turn to teaching and writing? What does he hope to achieve in the classroom or through books?

4. What has The Apprentice taught you about the different approaches to cooking? Have you learned any new culinary techniques that could be useful in your own kitchen?

5. Pepin shares part of the insider's world of cooking personalities. Talk about some of those culinary figures and some of the anecdotes.

6. For book clubs, have members cook and serve some of the recipes found in the book. Talk about which ones you like best.

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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