He who can pay every day for a dinner fit for a hundred persons, is often satisfied after having eaten the thigh of a chicken.
–Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste
If you are a bird, odds are that you are a chicken. Since the sixteenth century the global bird population has steadily decreased, in both the number of species and the number of individuals, and each year more of them are chickens. Today there are some 33 billion chickens in the world, although this number can fluctuate substantially according to slaughtering trends.
If you are an American, odds are that you eat meat. In this country roughly 4 percent of the population identifies as vegetarian. Americans who do eat meat most frequently choose chicken, the consumption of which overtook beef sometime in the late 1990s. Pork has maintained a steady position in third place for decades. Pigs become pork when they are processed and eaten; cattle become veal or beef. But chicken is chicken everywhere, and chicken is everywhere.
If you are a home cook preparing a whole carcass for dinner, you are almost certainly roasting a chicken. Only the very adventurous or committed will roast an entire pig or goat, and usually only as part of a special celebration. The home cook can still with relative ease purchase a whole chicken (albeit usually with the feet and head already removed) almost anywhere meat is sold. She can address the carcass herself: whether to split the breast or separate the drumstick from the thigh; to section the wing into flat, drumette, and tip or leave it intact; to toss the neck and innards or keep them for stock.
It is through the chicken that most American cooks acquaint themselves with the techniques of butchery, if they butcher at all, and often it is through the work of Jacques Pépin that the introduction is made. Few can say, as Pépin does in his most recent book, Art of the Chicken, “I was about seven years old the first time I actively took part in cooking a chicken without adult supervision.”
Meat was particularly scarce when Pépin was growing up in wartime Burgundy, and any livestock that strayed from a neighbor’s yard was considered fair game. Upon spotting a wayward hen in an open field, young Pépin and his fellow amateur hunters would slowly enclose it in a loose semicircle before driving it toward a nearby hedge. “At the last second, the fastest boy lunged forward” to capture and kill it, after which the rest of the boys gathered clay from the banks of a nearby river to coat the unplucked carcass, built a fire, and buried the chicken-brick under the coals for the rest of the afternoon. Then, Pépin writes,
we retrieved the hardened block of clay from the embers of the dying fire and smashed it open with stones. The feathers and skin stayed glued to the clay, leaving behind the meat for us to enjoy. It might not have been a triumph of haute cuisine, but we enjoyed the results immensely and were very proud of ourselves.
While it’s true that almost everyone likes to emphasize the relative freedom of his or her childhood, it is the rare famous television chef who grew up when living food could be plucked from the landscape and killed for supper. Aside from a few chance encounters with wild blackberry bushes, my own relationship to food has been wholly commodified. Part of what makes a book like Art of the Chicken so valuable is the remarkable breadth of Pépin’s culinary experience, from the rough-and-ready roasting techniques of an underfed childhood to his brigade de cuisine apprenticeships, from Charles de Gaulle’s kitchen to Howard Johnson’s.
For the reader who is unlikely to join a band of child poachers in the French countryside but still keen to practice cooking with clay, Pépin follows this scene with a précis of Edward Giobbi’s significantly more manageable method from Italian Family Cooking (1971), then his own adaptation, “Whole Chicken Baked in Bread Dough.” This is almost, but not quite, a recipe: “First, I completely bone out a whole chicken as if I were going to make a galantine” pleasingly invites more questions than answers for any reader without culinary training. He goes on:
I lay the boned bird flat and stuff it with blanched spinach, sautéed mushrooms, and grated Swiss and mozzarella cheese. I reassemble the chicken in its original shape, truss it with kitchen twine, and sear it in a hot skillet until it’s nicely browned.
Some of these near-recipes are mentioned merely in passing for the sake of historical interest, in which case they are usually italicized and include precious few instructions; some of them appear in block text with an off-white background but withhold crucial details (how much grated Swiss and mozzarella cheese? For how long should the spinach be blanched? “Reassemble the chicken”?) and are related in the first person, as if to remind the reader that Pépin might do this, but you likely won’t.
This is not meant to be dispiriting, I think—there are few books as painstakingly or generously detailed as Pépin’s La Technique (1976) or La Methode (1979)—but Art of the Chicken has something rangier and more colloquial in mind than outlining best practices or compiling recipes (although there are still plenty of recipes to be had here, and many of them quite easy to follow). Not every dish he discusses merits recreation today, such as Eugénie Brazier’s once-famous poulet en vessie, chicken cooked inside a pig’s bladder: “Although it seems exotic, at heart it is a straightforward, flavorful preparation. I hasten to add that it retains none of the taste of what the bladder contained during the pig’s life.”
Pépin writes generously about the past, too, and more generously the older he gets (he’s now eighty-seven), without either anxiety or apology for the changing times, as when he fondly remembers his tante Hélène’s famous chicken with false morels:
Today, experts consider Gyromitra poisonous and potentially fatal. Avoid them! But the fungus’s toxic effects are experienced differently by different people. Many are not bothered at all…. Today I would never suggest eating false morels, and I would never serve them to guests.
It is difficult to become an excellent chef. Once you are an excellent chef, it gets easier to become a beloved chef, since people already love food. Pépin has the Chrysler Building of culinary reputations, prestigious but not daunting, popular but not inane, an amalgamation of influences and opportunities only possible in the midcentury United States. He has unimpeachable old-world credentials, having left home for his first kitchen apprenticeship at thirteen, only earning the right to turn on the stove after a year of scrubbing pans, hauling coal, and plucking chickens. He has served as official chef to two French prime ministers. In 1961 he turned down an invitation to cook for the Kennedy White House in order to become the head of research and development at the central commissary for the Howard Johnson hotel and restaurant chain.
Writing came as a relatively late-in-life reinvention for Pépin, who was unable to continue working restaurant hours after a 1974 car accident. At the time he had written only one book, The Other Half of the Egg, with two co-authors, the McCall’s editor Helen McCully and William North Jayme. Since then, he has written over thirty. He has been cooking on American television since 1982, usually on PBS and its San Francisco affiliate, KQED, and often appeared with his friend and collaborator Julia Child during her lifetime. There is a loose biographical framing to Art of the Chicken, but Pépin gave a fuller account of his career in The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen (2003). In the newest book, his life story is only drawn out insofar as it informs his relationship to chicken.1
“Most chefs,” he writes in a daunting aside in Art of the Chicken, “will eventually lose their sense of heat at the tips of their fingers.” Pépin lost his during a summer season cooking at an alpine hotel in Aix-les-Bains, where he was only allowed to turn chickens on the grill with his hands, since forks would have pierced the skin and drained the birds of their juice. Elsewhere he compares the roasting of chicken feet via the buclé method to roasting bell peppers over an open flame in order to remove the skin more easily, a comparison as apt as it is unlikely. Overlooking nothing, ensuring that everything is turned to account, without ever reducing cooking to a joyless, utilitarian exercise: this is the main preoccupation of Art of the Chicken.
The book is also strewn with sketches and drawings of chickens, many of them with a Louis Wain feel.2 Pépin started illustrating his home dinner party menus fifty years ago, finding it a less evanescent form of self-expression than cooking the dinner itself, and eventually he realized that chickens appeared the most often. Sometimes the chickens in the book are Arcimboldo-like compositions of whimsically placed vegetables—little leeks and cabbages—and sometimes they are straightforward representations. Almost all of them are drawn floating in space, still living, yet stripped of all elements necessary for a chicken’s life. A few of them perch on top of delicate meadows; one or two wield a knife and fork and wear a chef’s hat, like a droller version of those barbecue signs in which a pig in a toque happily grills and eats its own flesh. The drawings are competent, cute rather than memorable, and tend to run together after a while.
There’s something slightly unusual about French interpretations of Americanness, especially American cooking, and particularly when that interpretation is affectionate and sincere. The reverse is far more common. Possibly there are some Americans who move to France without receiving book deals. But there is a timeworn cottage industry, with an honorable and ancient pedigree, of Anglophones taking a tiny flat in the Marais or a crumbling villa in Aix shortly before releasing a charming book called something like A Californian in Provence, My Year in Toulouse, or Eat!: An American’s Hunger in Paris.
Perhaps it should be more surprising that this highly trained chef took so immediately and so warmly not just to America but to twentieth-century American industrial cooking, and that he did so without disappearing entirely. For every La Technique and Complete Pépin, there has also been a Short-Cut Cook or a Fast Food My Way.
This broadminded approach to mixing highbrow and lowbrow methods of cooking is part of what made Pépin such a natural companion to Child for so many years. Long-term cooking duos on television are rare (where is the successor to Two Fat Ladies?) and perhaps particularly rare is a man and a woman making a meal together without marriage or romantic attachment between them. Child was the most Frenchified American at the time, Pépin the most enthusiastically Americanized Frenchman. “We argued on stage, stealing each other’s mise en place,” he wrote in 2012 in The New York Times.
We…had a good rapport, a good time, and we respected each other. Our affectionate disagreements resulted in heated, opinionated discussions; we had conviction, enthusiasm and passion for our métier.
If it sounds pat to suggest that people enjoyed watching how easily French and American cooking traditions could come together when Jacques and Julia did it, we must remember that in the 1980s and 1990s, cooking shows were still in the business of generating ease. There remains excellent cooking on-screen today, but it is almost never permitted to be exhibited calmly. Pépin is one of the few remaining on-camera chefs who seems to have relaxed for longer than five minutes at a time. His quietly competent air, his teeth-sucking ease, and his gentle, affirming style all played beautifully with Child’s patrician heartiness (her maternal grandfather was lieutenant governor of Massachusetts). She was outdoorsy, unselfconscious, cheerful, unaffected, practical, uninterested in euphemism but given to nicknaming; she naturally complemented Pépin’s tidy, dynamic, unpretentious Gallic enthusiasm.
How unpretentious? Here Pépin recalls with equal parts alarm and delight the transition from Henri Soulé’s restaurant Le Pavillon on Park Avenue and 57th Street to the short-order grills at Howard Johnson’s:
Quitting one of the very finest kitchens in the country, I found myself standing over a grill flipping burgers and hot dogs at a Howard Johnson’s in the nether reaches of Queens…. Nothing in my career…had taught me the finer points of preparing food on a flat-topped griddle. I scrambled eggs, cooked them sunny-side up, and flipped them over hard. Piles of hash browns sizzled beside the eggs, along with hot dogs, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and pancakes.
This was cooking at a superhuman scale. The job of a chef in most restaurants, no matter how exclusive, is usually to make dinner for customers who order it, but at Howard Johnson’s Pépin was tasked with the general improvement of the menus for “more than a thousand outlets.” He describes being introduced for the first time to pressure cookers and the food-safety protocols necessary to cooking for an entire chain. More than almost any other public culinary figure, in his career Pépin has followed the trajectory of twentieth-century scientific development, as if he had been planned ahead of time as a shorthand for modernism. He went from learning to slaughter chickens efficiently and humanely as a child in his mother’s backyard, holding the head down carefully over a bowl after severing the jugular vein to ensure the bird bled out quickly, to mastering oeufs à la neige at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée as part of a forty-eight-chef brigade (a loose method is provided in Art of the Chicken), to poaching a thousand chickens simultaneously in an enormous commissary kitchen.
From Howard Johnson’s he went on to found La Potagerie in Manhattan in 1970; from there, television, Julia Child, and the world. Each reference to a new career highlight comes without either arrogance or false modesty and is almost always framed as a gentle request: “I was asked” to consult for the Russian Tea Room’s remodeling of its menu in the mid-1980s or to start teaching at Boston University—a casual, unanxious relationship to excellence.
The recipes on offer throughout Art of the Chicken are both flexible and virtuosic, and effortlessly woven into each part of his career. There is lunch for one, dinner for dozens, blackened chicken à la Susie, salade bressane (the first nose-to-tail salad I’ve come across, starting with frisée, dijon-and-schmaltz vinaigrette, boiled potatoes, chicken liver, sliced gizzards, and sautéed kidneys, then topped with grillons, or chicken cracklings), and everything anyone, even a very imaginative pervert, could possibly think of doing to an egg.3 It is no small feat, especially after thirty books, to describe the importance of repetition—to confine one’s autobiographical scope to a single animal, particularly an animal famous for a flexible, adaptive flavor profile such that “tastes like chicken” became a cliché decades ago—without ever becoming repetitive oneself. Like his jaunty chicken sketches, Pépin has all the freshness and novelty of youth, even at eighty-seven.4
“The technique and speed with which I debone a chicken,” Pépin mentions by way of explaining Child’s habit of ambushing him during live shoots and demanding he do so in less than a minute, “has brought me a measure of fame…. Publicly deboning a bird in a few deft strokes has a serious point, illustrating the importance that practice and repetition play in mastering technique.”
“You don’t have to try to be different,” Pépin reassures readers, whether new professionals or anxious home cooks, because the great gift of excellence, of following through with an apprenticeship and becoming deeply familiar with rules, habits, and best practices, is that individuality will invariably shine through. The chicken, he claims, is to the Frenchman what the bald eagle is to the American; Pépin is younger and wiser than our forefathers, who forgot to choose a national bird we could eat. It is very lucky for us that Jacques Pépin lives and eats here, where we can more conveniently watch him. Tomorrow I’m going to look for gizzards.