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Jacques Pepin

The legendary chef answers our questions about his guest judging experience. The whole theme of this episode revolved around "the last meal." You chose squab and peas. What does that dish mean to you?
I had a hard time there because I would, of course, want my last meal to be very, very, very long with all the food that I like. When I was a kid the squab was one of the special treats that we would get occasionally throughout the year. The fresh peas, for me, is really a celebration of spring and is very appealing to me. Carla did that very, very well. I remember the peas more than the squab actually. They were really fantastic. You had made a comment that peas would be out of season by the time the show was taped. Do you think that would be a problem for her?
No, there's always a way of finding things. Actually, you can do those peas with tiny frozen peas which are picked out of the pod, specifically if you are picking the very smalls ones, which are higher in sugar and closer to the top. That works very well with it, but of course it's not to be compared with fresh peas. I remember the butter reduction she did with it — it was very good. The chefs seemed a little unsure as to whether they should cook the dishes traditionally or put their own spin on it. What was the concensus at the table?
Well, both. I suppose that if you want to please someone you learn a little about that someone and try to cook to please them. If you live with a husband or a wife you are trying to please your mate and you cook what they like to eat. However, you cannot escape yourself. To cook well you have to cook with your gut. It has to be your food. Tom and Carla agreed that the squab was slightly overcooked. You said that you didn't mind. Tom then went into something about how old school and new school differ on the way they like it cooked. Do you agree with that?
I don't know if it's only older chefs or old school chefs. It's a question of personal preference or taste. It's a question of the fad or the fashion at that time. We used to roast a duck, which I still love. A roast duck you put in the oven for an hour at 400 degree and the skin is crispy and well done. You can do that at home. Many years ago this was the only way that duck was cooked. Now the only way you can have duck is with the breast rare and the leg is confit or whatever and it is kind of ridiculous because one is just after the other. All of a sudden you have the old style coming back new again and you have those types of things. It's more of a question of passion than anything else. It's a question of personal preferences. Sure, I could have had the squab slightly less cooked than it was, but it was quite well seared and satisfying and What do you remember of the other dishes that were presented? Did any of them stand out to you?
I remember one. I remember the poached egg with hollandaise sauce. The hollandaise sauce was a disaster because of the yolk. I didn't discuss it because it wasn't my dish. The beginning of the yolk was not cooked enough. When you add the liquid it just collapsed and the whole thing was covered in liquid. I think that a pretty bad disaster. Do you watch Top Chef?
Occasionally. I've seen a couple of them. I never know exactly when it's on. I tend to stay with the news or stuff like that. It's very rare that I look at things like that. Have you noticed, without even watching, that things like Food Network or Top Chef have changed the way chef are perceived?
Certainly. Yes. For me, at the French Culinary Institute in New York or at Boston University where I taught for 24 years, I see that 1 out of 2 chefs who graduate want to either write a book or do a TV show or do one of those things. To a certain extent it's for the better — the more people who are into food the better it is for us. Tell us about your experiencse with restaurants.
I opened a restaurant in New York and I opened two restaurants in Connecticut. I had a bunch. After that, I realized that if I open a restaurant I can do nothing else. This is where I work. I'm extremely involved in it. I am now also Executive Culinary Director of Oceania Cruise line. I work on the menu and the dishes with them. Do you have new show coming on PBS?
I have a show that started couple of months ago. I did a series called Fast Food My Way, and this is More Fast Food My Way. We do 26 shows in one shot and I do a book with it and that's for a couple of years. Doing a show is relatively easy, doing a book is much harder and time consuming. If I do it every couple of years it's fine which is what I've been doing for the last 20 or so years on PBS. I've had eleven series on Overall, how was the experience for you judging Top Chef?
It was great. I love Tom Colicchio — he is a great guy. I saw my friend Lidia Bastiniach. It was a great day and I really enjoyed it. Anything else you have to add?

Certainly the style of cooking has changed, especially for the chefs now. I was a young chef when I worked at the Plaza Athenee in Paris or Le Pavillon in New York and there was a striped bass done in the style of the Le Pavillon in New York. So the goal of any chef working there was to duplicate that dish exactly the way it was. So even now serving that dish, I say "that is the striped bass from Le Pavillon." So we all strive to duplicate that dish and that exact taste whether it was in Paris or in New York. So it was kind of a teamwork, certainly different from what it is now. Now, mostly for chefs, it's a question of expressing yourself. It has become much more of an egocentric type of thing. You want to extract your own taste, you want to sign your dish, you want people to know that's it's "my" dish when, in fact, the point was exactly the opposite, it was to try to confine to the style of the house and duplicate that dish exactly the way it had been done. There's certainly less pressure in some ways now to perform exactly all the time. Do you think that's something chefs should learn now? Do you think one way is better?
It's just a progression. Also, when you are young you don't cook as well as when you get older. There's all kind of reasons why you change, but certainly cooking evolves as you get older and as you change and you know more about cooking. When you're younger you tend to add and add and add, and when you get older you tend to retreat and retreat. You give more to the taste of the dish itself with maybe less emphasis on the garnish and decoration and presentation and so forth.

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