The specific ingredients of Jacques Pépin’s Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech at this year’s Daytime Emmys are unknown, but count on a dash or two of modesty.
The world-famous chef says he was deeply touched when he was told the honor — the first to go to someone in the cooking genre — was being bestowed upon him.
“It’s amazing because the food world has not been recognized much at this level,” Pépin says. “When I spoke to David Michaels [the senior vice president of daytime at the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences], I told him I’d like to thank whoever nominated me. I was flabbergasted.”
Born in Bourg-en-Bresse, France, in 1935, Pépin developed a passion and respect for cooking after his mother, Jeannette, opened a restaurant, Le Pélican. As a young man, he worked at Le Plaza Athénée in Paris where a chef pal regaled Pépin with stories of life in Washington, D.C.
In 1959, his dream of visiting America came true. “I thought I’d come here, learn the language, and go back, but from the first moment I landed in New York, I loved it,” he says.
In the Big Apple, Pépin met Helen McCully, food editor at McCall’s, and that led to friendships with chefs Julia Child and James Beard, as well as New York Times critic Craig Claiborne, whom Pépin calls “the trinity of the food world.” After quitting his job at the now-defunct Le Pavillon over a labor dispute, two opportunities appeared: working for newly elected President Kennedy and a position at Howard Johnson’s in New York. He chose HoJo’s orange roof over the White House, not fully considering the prestige of cooking in Camelot. However, he says that his decade at HoJo’s was invaluable.
In 1974, Pépin, now a family man, opened his own restaurant, La Potagerie, and earned two degrees at Columbia. Trying not to hit a deer on the road one night, Pépin was in a horrific car accident but defied doctors with his recovery. Upon re-evaluating his life, he became a cooking instructor at Boston University and a New York Times food columnist. He also authored 25 books on different topics, including preparing food on a budget and making heart-healthy recipes.
Appearances on television series such as “What’s My Line?” and “The Mike Douglas Show” opened another door: In 1988, Marjorie Poore, then executive producer at the San Francisco station KQED-TV, approached Pépin about doing his own program. While he has had a few, his most notable was “Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home” with Child, earning a Daytime Emmy in 2001.
“Cooking shows are [now] more about being competitive and fighting,” he says. “Yes, you have to be disciplined and strict, but you don’t have to yell.”
Pépin says food shows should always be part of the television landscape, but not just for their informative value. In 2017, he penned “A Grandfather’s Lessons: In the Kitchen With Shorey,” featuring his granddaughter.
“When she was 3 years old, she’d stand on a box next to me in the kitchen and was my assistant. I’d say to her, ‘This is parsley.’ We’d go to the market and I’d show her how to tell if a pear is ripe or not. She’s 15 now and one of the ways we communicate is through iPhones. The food gives us something in common.”