Columbia Alumnus and World-Renowned Chef Jacques Pépin Is a Man of Many Talents

In a recent virtual event hosted by Columbia University School of General Studies, the award-winning chef, TV host, artist, and author reflected on everything from his years studying at Columbia to what he considers his favorite tools in the kitchen.

Aviva Zablocki
December 20, 2021

Last week, renowned chef Jacques Pépin (GS‘70, GSAS‘72) spoke to more than 250 students and alumni from across Columbia at a virtual event hosted by the School of General Studies (GS).

In An Evening with Jacques Pépin, Columbia GS Dean Lisa Rosen-Metsch (GS'90) led a lively conversation that included highlights from Pépin’s favorite memories as a Columbia student, as well as what his favorite kitchen tools are, and advice he gives to aspiring chefs.

Pépin is a man of many talents beyond his skills in the kitchen—artist, author, TV host, culinary educator—and by trying so many different things throughout his long, diverse career, he never got bored. “I wrote a column once a week for 10 years for The New York Times. If I had to do it every day I probably would have gone crazy,” he said.

Some of the Happiest Years of His Life

Pépin spoke highly of his experiences at Columbia and how his education in America had an impact on his career. Though he admitted he had never heard of Columbia before arriving in New York, he soon learned that it was one of the greatest universities in the world. “In France, I left school when I was 13 years old—I never went to high school,” he said. “I had a good job in Paris, but I came for a year, and I came to study English.”

During his time studying English at Columbia GS, Pépin and his classmates—of all ages and from all backgrounds—would meet for coffee after each class and enjoy stimulating conversation. He remembers those years as some of the happiest in his life, and that positive experience was one of the reasons he decided to stay in America.

"My years at Columbia University changed me completely. I would have done OK, I’m sure, but I never would have done what I did without Columbia. It was the reason I stayed in America,” he said. 

Pépin is the recipient of honorary doctorate degrees from five American universities, was awarded France’s highest civilian honor, La Légion d’Honneur, and has received 16 James Beard Foundation Awards, among his long list of accolades. As for his favorite award of all of them? “My PhD from Columbia University.”

When asked about celebrity chefs today, Pépin described how his life had never been glamorous. “The cook was really at the bottom of the social scale. Any good mother would have wanted their child to marry a lawyer or a doctor, certainly not a cook.”

In 1960 when Pépin declined a role cooking at the Kennedy White House to go work for Howard Johnson, it was hard for people to understand why. “At that point, I had no idea of the potential for publicity because the cook was really at the bottom of the social scale,” he said. “The position of the cook has changed so much. It’s very interesting now. It just wasn’t the case at that time.”

Often asked to give advice to young cooks, Pépin’s response is simple: “Get a job in the kitchen of a restaurant or in the dining room. If you survive a summer, make sure you still love it. You have to give a lot of yourself to cooking. You don’t make much money, it’s very hard work, you work Saturday and Sunday. It will be very hard work—unless you love it,” he said.

A Chef's Most Important Tool: His Fingers

An eager member in the audience asked Pépin which tools he considers the most important in his kitchen. He immediately responded: “My fingers!”

Continuing, he elaborated, “Also, a knife, a board, a good pan. Very basic type of stuff. The more you cook, the better you get at it. The more you enjoy it.”

Several guests wanted to know what advice Pépin would give someone trying to break into a career as a chef. “School is very expensive. It’s good to go to a culinary institute, but if you know a chef at a restaurant who will take you in as an apprentice, that is just as good training. In my time, there was no school, it was just professional training.”

In reflecting on what cooking has meant to him, he spoke without hesitation. “There is no place for me as comforting as the kitchen. As a child when you come home from school and hear the voice of your mother, your father, hear the sounds of the instruments, whether you come from Norway or West Africa, there are dishes of your youth. Those dishes stay with you forever,” he said. “To cook for someone—you want to please someone. You really don’t want to gratify yourself. And it’s the same thing when you cook for your kids, or your parents. That’s the beauty of it, especially in our time of polarization. There really is no political implication in what we do. Everyone looks the same in the eye of the stove. Sitting around the table is the great equalizer.”

Aviva Zablocki is director of Alumni Relations at Columbia University School of General Studies.