- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Claudine Pepin likes to tell a cute story about her relationship with her father, famed chef and author Jacques Pepin. It must be a family favorite — you know the kind — because he relates the same tale in his sweet new memoir, “The Apprentice” (Houghton Mifflin).

“Claudine was at Boston University, where she was doing graduate work, and she had a small apartment there,” Mr. Pepin writes. “She decided to make dinner for me one evening. She knew what I liked and wisely kept the food simple: roast chicken, sauteed potatoes, a green salad and fruit for dessert. Unfortunately, she started cooking too early, and I came late — not a good combination. She anxiously looked at my face and, reacting to my muteness asked, ‘So, how is it?’ I answered, ‘As a father … or as a chef?’ ”

Some children would be daunted by such a retort. But apparently in the Pepin household, honesty is highly prized and egos — while taken seriously — are generally accepted as strong enough not to be bruised by criticism. According to Miss Pepin, among the riches she has reaped through a lifetime with her father is “how to accept criticism and not to take it personally.”

So as Father’s Day approaches, Ms. Pepin, 35, sat down to talk via telephone from Portland, Ore., where she lives, about the joys of living with her famous father and the things he has taught her that are serving her best, both as an adult and as a food professional.

“He taught me there will always be somebody who’s better than you and that if you can accept criticism, it will make you better. Growing up, I always knew that if I didn’t want the real answer, then I just didn’t ask the question.”

The chicken dinner incident also paid off in another way. Following that dinner, Mr. Pepin mused that it might be fun to do a father-daughter series in which he taught his only child to cook. In so doing, he could offer lessons that would speak to viewers who weren’t necessarily chefs, foodies or particularly kitchen adept.

They named the series “Cooking With Claudine,” and it was so popular that PBS produced 26 shows, which were followed by 26 shows of “Encore With Claudine,” which were followed by 26 of “Jacques Pepin Celebrates,” again co-starring his daughter. Three books — “Cooking With Claudine,” “Encore With Claudine” and “Jacques Pepin Celebrates” (Knopf) — accompanied the series. So the cooking authority’s daughter who wasn’t interested in food as a career found herself a cooking celebrity of sorts.

And the Boston University grad with a degree in international relations and plans for a job at NATO was off on a career in food and wine, no longer a reluctant food person. Her latest ventures are with a tiny Portland bakery and bistro, Ken’s Artisan Bakery & Cafe, and also as a wife, having this spring married Rolland Wesen, a New York chef whose credentials include the well-respected Gramercy Tavern and the Rainbow Room. (The New York Times not only ran a feature story on their wedding, it also included Mr. Pepin’s wedding punch recipe for 90.) Mr. Wesen is executive chef at Rivers American Grill in Portland.

If it seems at all odd that two up-and-comers in the New York City food scene would abandon big-city glitz for life in a small city on the other end of the country, a chat with Ms. Pepin dispels confusion. For someone who grew up with all the glamour of famed restaurants and chefs, she seems rather down-to-earth. Maybe that’s because she has spent all of her life with it and long ago lost the ability to be impressed. She said she is more interested in learning new things and enjoying life, her new marriage in particular. This is an attitude she said she took from her father.

“My dad taught me to be adventurous, to try new things,” she said. “To see if you’re capable. To push yourself to the limit. He does.”

Far from being daunted by this or feeling competitive, she said, “I think it’s really inspirational. He’s an amazing scholar. He went to Columbia University without ever having gone to high school.” She also said, laughing, that when people ask her if she got royalties from the books published by her father on the TV shows they starred in together and, when told the answer, follow-up by asking if she resented, she always responds, “Why should I? He did all the work.”

She doesn’t remember when she was not around restaurants and food. She recalls eating great food, always, and flashes from her childhood, like the time she wandered around one of her father’s New York restaurants, La Potagerie, gathering up all the tips from the tables, thinking people certainly must have forgotten the money.

Nor did she grow up, notebook in hand, jotting down her father’s recipes and philosophies. He is, after all, her father, and even with a healthy relationship and an interest in the subject matter, that’s just not the kind of thing a normal child does. Instead, she learned about food by osmosis.

“When I was growing up, the place where everybody always sat was in the kitchen. It was the central area of the house. And it was, ‘Go pick these herbs. Go to the cooler and get this. Get some wine from the cellar.’ The involvement in food was ever present. It wasn’t until I was on my own, in my own apartment, that I learned how to cook. But I had already learned how to taste.”

While winters were lived in or near New York City, where her father was becoming more recognized by the year, summers were spent in France with her paternal grandmother and cousins. This European influence has given her a worldview that comes with speaking other languages and having friends who do the same. It also has influenced the way she approaches food.

At Ken’s Artisan Bakery & Cafe, where she is a front-of-the-house manager (she does not cook), the menu is simple bistro fare that is hearty, sophisticated and moderately priced.

The plat du jour might be sausage and lentils or coq au vin, or there could be a charcuterie plate. The bill will be $12 to $14 or so, excluding wine but including bread. (“It’s a beautiful bakery with far and away the best baguette I’ve tasted outside France,” she boasts of the restaurant.)

“Frugality in the kitchen is a huge lesson I learned from my father,” Ms. Pepin said. “We used everything. There was nothing wasted in our house. My father’s adamant about that.” In the European tradition, leftovers are not really leftovers but the beginning of a new meal in which, for example, roast lamb becomes lamb curry, which may itself become something else.

“And definitely he taught me quality over quantity.” This applies to food as well as to such things as shoes. Given a choice between one pair of Cole Haan shoes or five of a lesser quality, she’ll always go for the best.

While Mr. Pepin does not necessarily boast of being frugal, the lesson learned was, “Don’t buy it if you can’t afford it. My parents are never in debt. They pay cash for everything.” They made a strong effort to impart that to their only child. When she was growing up, in fact, her parents insisted that she turn in to them half of what she earned from jobs like baby-sitting. “All of this went into a savings account, and when I went to college, I had maybe $3,000. I was really proud of that,” she said.

Another thing Ms. Pepin learned from her father was what being a working chef involved. So she decided early on that that would not be her calling. “It didn’t put me off. It was more that it wasn’t something new. It was ‘What else is there?’ ” she said. But she also understood the long, backbreaking hours that are part of a restaurant chef’s environment. “It’s not the life that I wanted for myself.”

Growing up with the kitchen as the center of the household did not mean simply good food. It meant that the family gathered together to share that good food. “There was no missing dinner at our house. Or there had to be a really good reason for it. The family was seated and you take a moment and you talk with your family.”

The family is obviously close. “I speak with my parents often. Sometimes three days will go by, but that’s a long time for us, unless they’re traveling. Even across the country, we still have a day-to-day relationship.”

Sure, she prizes everything she learned from her father that has benefited her career, but that’s not what comes to mind when she thinks about the most important thing her father taught her. “Family is important above everything else — their happiness and well-being. And that comes from my father and from my mother, too. I feel that I’m the luckiest person I know. I just hope I can impart that to my kids,” said Ms. Pepin.

By the way, where the failed chicken dinner is concerned, Mr. Pepin told his novice cook daughter that as a father, he found it “exceptionally good.”

Summer cornets Susie

This recipe from “Jacques Pepin Celebrates” looks daunting, but it’s actually easy. Once the little horn-shaped cookies are made, it’s simply a matter of filling them with fresh berries and whipped cream. It’s a perfect summer dessert. To make it even easier, the cookie horns can be made several days in advance and sealed in an airtight container so they stay crisp.

3 ounces (3/4 stick) unsalted butter

6 tablespoons sugar

teaspoon vanilla

1 egg white from large egg

3 tablespoons flour

Cornet filling (recipe follows)

About 1 cup mixed fruit per cornet: pitted cherries, red currants, blackberries, raspberries, loganberries, strawberries and blueberries

Mint leaves for garnish

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting, optional

Line a cookie sheet with a reusable nonstick cooking mat (see note). Melt the butter in a saucepan and while it is still warm, add the sugar and whisk it into the butter for a few seconds. Add the vanilla and egg white and whisk for another few seconds and then add the flour and whisk until smooth. The mixture will still be a bit liquid.

Spoon heaping tablespoons of the dough onto the prepared cookie sheet, making only four cookies at a time.

Using the bowl of a teaspoon, spread the cookies in a circular motion (like spreading tomato sauce on pizza dough) until each cookie is about 5 inches in diameter. Bake in 375-degree oven for about 10 minutes, or until nicely browned. Remove from oven and let settle and rest for about 1 minutes before molding. (If molding is done too soon, the cookies will break apart.)

To mold, roll each large warm cookie around a cone-shaped metal cornet, removing the cookies when cool, or simply roll the cookies free-form into a cornet shape without the metal insert.

As soon as a free-form cornet is rolled, place a small cornet shaped ball of crushed aluminum foil inside the cone to prevent it from collapsing while it dries. (To make single-portion cuplike receptacles to accommodate ice cream, whipped cream or fruit, press the hot cookies, top side out, around inverted cup molds, pushing gently all around so the cookies conform to the shape of the molds.) Allow cookies to cool and harden for 10 minutes before removing. Makes about 8 cornets.

Note: If a reusable nonstick cooking mat is not available, use parchment or grease the cookie sheet with butter.

CORNET FILLING:

1 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons sugar

Whip cream with sugar until stiff. Transfer to a pastry bag fitted with a star tip (see Note) and partially fill cornets with cream.

Note: If a pastry bag is not available, cream can be spooned into a resealable plastic bag and one corner cut so that cream can be piped through it into cornets.

Fines-herbs omelet

“Eggs were big at our house. Eggs are something we ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Ms. Pepin said. Serve this fine-herbs omelet from “Jacques Pepin Celebrates” with a salad and a fruit dessert, Pepin style.

3 large eggs

Dash salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons herbs (1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley and 1 tablespoon finely chopped mixture of chervil, tarragon and chives)

1 teaspoons unsalted butter

Mix the eggs, salt, pepper and herbs together in a bowl. Melt the butter in an omelet pan.

When the butter is hot and the foaming has subsided, pour the egg-herb mixture into the center of the pan and cook it over medium heat for 10 to 15 seconds, allowing the eggs to set and curl at the edges. Then with the tines of a fork, stir the eggs, so the runny part flows into the areas between the set curds. Repeat this process a few times.

When most of the eggs are set but they are still slightly liquid in the center, the omelet is ready.

Using a fork or a thin spatula, fold the omelet in half in the pan. The underside will have a nice brown color. Invert the omelet onto a plate and serve it immediately. Makes 1 serving.

Maman’s cheese souffle

“With my grandmother’s souffle you don’t have to separate the eggs,” Ms. Pepin said. This recipe is from “The Apprentice” by Mr. Pepin.

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, plus more to butter a 6-cup gratin dish

6 tablespoons flour

2 cups cold whole milk

teaspoon salt

teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

5 extra-large eggs

2 cups (about 6 ounces) grated Swiss cheese, preferably Gruyere

3 tablespoons minced fresh chives

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 6-cup gratin dish and set aside. Melt butter in a saucepan, then add flour and mix it in well with a whisk.

Cook for 10 seconds, add the milk in one stroke and mix it in with a whisk. Keep stirring with the whisk until the mixture thickens and comes to a strong boil, about 2 minutes. It should be thick and smooth.

Remove from heat and stir in salt and pepper. Allow about 10 minutes for the white sauce to cool.

Meanwhile, break the eggs into a bowl and beat well with a fork. Add the eggs, the cheese and the chives to the cooled sauce and mix well to combine.

Pour into the buttered gratin dish and cook immediately or set aside until ready to cook. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the souffle is puffy and well browned on top. Although it will stay inflated for quite a while, it is best served immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES INTERNATIONAL

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