Jacques Pépin, the chefs' chef

Jacques Pépin, the chefs' chef

The chef walking through the Stop & Shop was asked, "Is this fresh enough?"

Eating a leaf, the man said, "Yes. Good."

Jacques Pépin ought to know.  He's been at it for 70 years. 

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Chef Jacques Pépin, shopping for produce with "Sunday Morning" host Jane Pauley. CBS News

"Thirty, forty years ago, to get olives, you know, was a whole deal. I mean, look at that now. I mean, there is 15 different types of olive."

"When I grew up, I thought olives just came in jars, with red pits in 'em," laughed Jane Pauley. "What a revelation!"

With four decades on television and two dozen cookbooks, chef Pépin has been influencing American tastes and techniques for generations. 

Pauley asked, "If you have a passion, is it food, or is it teaching?"

"I think teaching about food. I like to explain, break it down," he replied.

His own culinary education began in Lyon, France, when he became a chef's apprentice at 13.  "From 8:00 in the morning, usually 10:00 at night, with a break in the afternoon of two, three hours. We slept upstairs, we were not paid."

You weren't paid?  "No, there was no pay."

"Why didn't that teach you that I do not want to be a chef?" Pauley laughed. "It's very hard work."

"Well, I was very happy," he said.

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Chef Jacques Pépin, at age 16, prepares a Fireman's Ball banquet at a hotel in Bellegarde, France. KQED

And ambitious: "When I moved to Paris, I was 17 years old at the time. I told my mother I had a job. I didn't. I took the train, went to Paris and started working."

And there, he learned it wasn't creativity, but conformity that mattered.

"At the Plaza Athénée in Paris, for example, the lobster soufflé was very famous. Where we were 48 chef, I think any one of us could have done that lobster soufflé. No one would have known who had done it."

"If you're one of 48 chefs at one of the finest restaurants in Paris, how was it discovered that of all those chefs who make the soufflé, this one's special?" asked Pauley.

"I suppose the executive chef, maybe he saw something," Pépin said.

At 20 he was drafted. The French navy put him to work – cooking, of course – and before long he was personal chef to Charles de Gaulle. If it sounds glamourous, he says it wasn't. 

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Chef Jacques Pépin.  CBS News

Forget being called for kudos in the dining room: "If anyone came to the kitchen it was [because] something was wrong. You were going to be yelled at!"

And then he came to see America – a visit that has lasted some 60 years. He landed a job at Le Pavillon, then the best French Restaurant in New York City, a favorite of Jackie Kennedy's, who was in need of a chef for the White House. 

Jacques Pépin turned her down.

Pauley asked, "Wouldn't most people be kind of intrigued by the White House invitation?"

"I think that I experienced something similar in France with the president," Pépin said. "There was nothing very glorious about it."  Been there, done that!

But there was another Pavillon regular by the name of Howard Johnson – yes, the owner of what was then one of the largest restaurant chains in America. Pépin became its director of research for a decade, and he loved it. 

"Howard Johnson was something entirely new – mass production, marketing, chemistry of food, which I didn't know anything about. I learned about the American eating habit, American taste …"

"Do Americans have taste?"

"Oh, yes. I mean, we had beautiful beef, prime!"

It wasn't taste Americans lacked, he said, but technique.  And he had idea – a lavishly-illustrated cookbook and how-to guide, everything from deboning a chicken to basic knife skills.  

"I used to give classes a bit all over the country, and I would never have put in a book how to peel a carrot," he said. "Except that I would peel a carrot and a class will say, 'Oh, that's how you peel a carrot?' I say, 'Yes.' I said, 'Maybe I'll put that in the book, too!'"

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The original edition of "La Technique," which became a textbook for the fundamentals of cooking. Times Books

The book, called "La Technique," was a sensation, and Pépin took to the road, giving demonstrations.  

He was a pioneer in the demo kitchen, with more than a dozen TV series. Most notable perhaps was his partnership with his old friend Julia Child.

Pauley said, "Julia Child is the most unlikely television personality, but boy, was she successful. And the two of you had such chemistry. Was that instantaneous?"

"We had a great time together. She was a formidable eater!"

Their eating, cooking, and even gentle disagreements (such as whether and how to wash a chicken) earned them an Emmy. 

At 83, Jacques Pépin still loves giving cooking demonstrations, as he did earlier this month at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. 

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Jacques Pépin, an institution himself, leads a cooking demonstration at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. CBS News

His emphasis on the basics as the foundation good, great or masterful cooking inspired Pauley to ask, is it ever too late to learn?    

First: how to properly use a knife, guiding it with your hand. "I start moving very, very slowly, and then I move faster, then faster," Pépin said.

It was Pauley's turn. "Do you have any Band-Aids here?" he asked.

She graduated to a zucchini.

"Not moving the vegetable at all," she acknowledged proudly.

"That's it. You want a job?"

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Jacques Pépin teaching Jane Pauley how to slice a zucchini. CBS News

For Jacques Pépin, cooking is more than a job: "It is an act of love in many ways, you know, to cook for someone."

"Is it an act of love if the only thing that you can reliably do in the kitchen to help is clean up?" asked Pauley.

"Yes!" he laughed.

     
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Story produced by Reid Orvedahl.