Jacques Pépin, in search of the lost cars and the kitchen

While the French obsess over the dilution of their culture at home, it is not unfair to say that the cultural influence of their great nation seems to have diminished in the rest of the world as well. To give two examples that move me where I live, the primacy of French cuisine, once considered the best in the world, is end. The cozy French bistro is no longer a staple of every American city.

And while little is discussed, one can also see the declining fortunes of the French automobile, a device whose invention dates back to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, who in 1769 left the commune of Void-Vacon in northeastern France with the world’s first automobile. world. self-propelled vehicle, a steam tricycle built like a wagon.

While they still dominate their home market, French cars have only a small, albeit loyal, following in the United States. They haven’t been sold here since the early 1990s, despite their significant role in Stellantis, the name given to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and French automaker PSA after their merger last year.

To explore these twin cultural shifts, I recently set off with a friend to Madison, Conn., to visit and reflect with one of America’s best-known French expats, Jacques Pépin. Arriving in the New World more than 60 years ago, Mr. Pépin, 86, has become one of the most successful advocates of French cuisine in the United States: chef, cookbook author, personality of the television, painter, philanthropist and, more recently, social media star. . As a former serial owner of French cars, he seemed uniquely suited to answering the question: Are these once-internationally heralded products of French culture (food and cars) ripe for a 21st-century renaissance?

Our transportation to Connecticut, appropriately enough, would be a 1965 Peugeot 404, a model that Mr. Pépin once owned and fondly remembers. This one, a seven-seat “Familiale” station wagon bought new by a Canadian diplomat on assignment in Paris, ended up for unknown reasons in a barn in Medicine Hat, Alberta, where it sat untouched for more than 50 years. Fully roadworthy, with less than 25,000 miles on its kilometer-delineated odometer, it oozes French automobile charm at its distinctive best, with creamy-smooth mechanics, seats as comfortable as any divan, and legendary driving comfort. Gaul that incredibly outperforms most modern cars. , even on the roughest roads.

Our visit begins with a tour of Mr. Pépin’s house and quarters on its four wooded acres. Situated between a church and a synagogue, the complex is home to two impressively equipped kitchens, with dazzling cookware sets and neatly arranged pans. Two studios help extend Mr. Pépin’s brand indefinitely into the future, one with a kitchen used to film the series and videos, and another for painting the oils, acrylics, and mixed-media works that appear in his books and adorn his home. coveted manuscript. menus

Leaving on the 404 for lunch, we all arrived in nearby Branford at Le Petit Café, a French bistro. Chef Roy Ip, a native of Hong Kong and a former student of Mr. Pépin’s at the French Culinary Institute in New York, greets our party after opening specially on this weekday afternoon for the mentor who 25 years ago helped negotiate the purchase of the 50- seat coffee. Over a crisp plate of amuse-bouches and freshly baked loaves of bread and butter: “If you have extraordinary bread, extraordinary butter, then there should be bread and butter” at every meal, the guest of honor deigns, raising a glass of wine: we sneak up on the sensitive issue at hand.

Although today he drives a well-used Lexus SUV, Mr. Pépin’s French car credentials are clearly in order. Accounts of his early life in France, where his family was deeply involved in the restaurant business, are peppered with automotive memorabilia. One of the most important concerns the Citroën Traction Avant, an influential sedan built between 1934 and 1957. The development of the car, which was revolutionary for its front-wheel drive and single-body construction, bankrupted the company’s founder. , André Citroen, which led to its acquisition by Michelin, the tire manufacturer.

The mention of the car reminds Mr. Pépin of a day during World War II when his family left Lyon in his uncle’s Traction Avant to spend time on a farm. “My father had gone to the Resistance,” he says. “I still remember that car when he was a kid, especially the smell. I always loved Citroëns for that.”

His parents subsequently owned a Panhard, an idiosyncratic machine from a small but well-respected French manufacturer that would fall into the arms of Citroën in 1965, a decade before the offbeat Citroën was taken over and, according to critics, homogenized, by Peugeot.

Like many post-World War II Frenchmen and millions elsewhere, Mr. Pépin fell in love with Citroen’s small post-war car, the Deux Chevaux, which he says was the first car his mother owned.

“Seventy miles to the gallon, or whatever,” he says. “It wasn’t too fast, but we loved it.”

Mr. Pépin’s aversion to excess, despite his early detours into rich and laborious meals, such as when he cooked at New York City’s Le Pavillon, once the pinnacle of American haute cuisine. — informed not only the simpler kitchen that he would later champion, but also many of his vehicle choices when he first hit the American road. In his memoir, he refers, for example, to the Volkswagen Beetle he used to bring down the Long Island Expressway when he was on his way to visit one of his friends, New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne. in the East End of Long Island. A Peugeot 404 would feature on his commute at Howard Johnson’s test kitchen in Rego Park, Queens, where he worked for 10 years.

Later, a Renault 5, a budget subcompact known as a LeCar in America, joined Mr. Pépin’s family as his wife Gloria’s daily driver.

He also remains a staunch supporter of what is perhaps France’s greatest automotive icon, the Citroën DS, in which President Charles de Gaulle was riding when 12 right-wing terrorists tried to assassinate him in 1962, firing 140 bullets into his car as he walked out. from central Paris to Orly airport. The volley blew out the rear window of the DS 19 and all of its tires, but, due to its unique hydro-pneumatic suspension, de Gaulle’s driver was able to steer the tireless car and its occupants to safety.

“He saved his life,” marvels Mr. Pépin. “A great car.”

Although Pépin had been de Gaulle’s personal chef in the 1950s, he did not know him well, he says. “The cook in the kitchen was never interviewed by a magazine or radio, and television barely existed,” he says. “If someone came to the kitchen it was to complain that something was wrong. The cook was really at the bottom of the social ladder.”

That changed in the early 1960s with the advent of the new kitchen, Pépin acknowledges. But not before turning down an invitation to cook for the Kennedy White House. (The Kennedys were regulars at Le Pavillon.) His friend René Verdon accepted the job and sent Mr. Pépin a photo of himself with President John F. Kennedy.

“Suddenly, now we are geniuses. But,” she says with a laugh, “you can’t take it too seriously.”

Befriending a roster of Hall of Fame American foodies, including Mr. Claiborne, Pierre Franey, and Julia Child, Mr. Pépin eventually became a star without White House association, though his Extraordinary entries almost came to a halt in the 1970s when he crashed into a Ford Pickup while trying to avoid a deer on a back road in upstate New York.

Pépin believes that if he hadn’t been driving such a large car, he “would probably be dead”. He ended up with a broken back and 12 fractures and still has a “trailing foot,” he says, due to an amputated sciatic nerve. His injuries forced him to close his Manhattan soup restaurant, La Potagerie, which served 150 gallons of soup a day, replenishing its 102 seats every 18 minutes.

As Chef Ip lays the table with a simple but delicious Salade Niçoise, followed by a finely crafted apple pie, Mr. Pépin turns his attention to the question of France’s diminished influence in the culinary and automotive worlds. He is, I am surprised to learn, in heated agreement: the ship has sailed.

“Certainly when I came to America, French food or ‘continental’ food was what any big restaurant was supposed to be, often with a misspelled French menu,” he says. But the continuing waves of immigration and air travel that opened up the farthest corners of the world led to French food losing “its leading position.”

“People still like French food just like they like other foods,” he says, adding, “Americans have matured and learned about a greater variety of options.”

Mr. Pépin, who calls himself an optimist, is quick to add that he doesn’t see this as a bad thing. He vividly remembers how culinary bleak America was when he arrived, drawn by a youthful enthusiasm for jazz. At first, he marveled at the supermarket idea.

“But when I walked in, there was no leek, no shallot, no other herbs, a green salad that was iceberg,” he says. “Now look at the United States. Extraordinary wine, bread, cheese. Totally another world.”

In fact, Mr. Pépin, whose wife was Puerto Rican and Cuban, no longer even sees himself as a “French chef.” His 30-plus cookbooks, he says, “have included recipes for black bean soup with sliced ​​plantains and cilantro on top.” He also has a recipe for southern style fried chicken. “So, in a sense, I consider myself a classic American chef,” he says. “Things change.”

During a quiet afternoon with Mr. Pépin, it becomes clear that while a changing world doesn’t faze him much, he does have regrets, the biggest being the loss of loved ones. His father died young in 1965, and his defining sadness, the loss of his wife, Gloria, in December 2020 to cancer weighs heavily.

“The hardest thing is not sharing dinner at night. And that bottle of wine. She is silent for a long moment.

Distilling his thoughts on cooking and cars, the chef notes what he sees as an unfortunate trend: the loss of variety, attributable to corporate motives.

“Today there is more food in the supermarket than ever before,” says Mr. Pépin. “But at the same time, there is more standardization. I try to shop where ordinary people shop, to get the best price. And I can no longer go to the supermarket and find chicken backs and necks.”

The same is true, he says, of the auto industry, where the increasing use of a small group of multinational suppliers, coupled with tighter regulations and a greater reluctance by corporations to take risks, has made cars increasingly more similar between brands.

“The special features that set French cars apart don’t exist anymore, not even in France,” he says. “Everyone follows the same aesthetic. Neither French food nor French cars have the same prestige they used to have.”

Mr. Pépin remains philosophical. He’s mourning the loss of distinctively French cars, but he’s clearly not losing sleep over it. Ditto French food.

As long as “people get together” and cook quality ingredients, he has hope, because “eating together is probably what civilization means.”

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