Jacques Pepin in search of lost cars and dishes

While the French are famous about the dilution of their culture at home, it is not unreasonable to say that the cultural influence of their great nation has diminished in the larger world as well. To give two examples that touch me where I live, the preponderance of French cuisine – once considered the world’s best – is iti, The cozy French bistro is no longer a staple of every American city.

And although little commented, therefore, can also be seen the declining fortunes of the French automobile, a device whose invention traces back to Nicolas-Joseph Cuganot, who in 1769 from the zero-vacon commune in northeastern France, became the world’s first self-container. – powered vehicle, a steam-powered tricycle built like a wagon.

Despite still being dominant in their home market, French cars in the United States boast only a small, if loyal, following. They have not been sold here since the early 1990s, despite their key role in the Stelantis, the name given to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and French carmaker PSA after the merger last year.

To explore these twin cultural sea changes, I recently departed from Madison, Conn., with a friend to visit and hang out with one of America’s most famous French immigrants, Jacques Pepin. Arriving in the New World more than 60 years ago, Mr. Pepin, 86, has become one of the most successful proponents of French gastronomy in the United States: chef, cookbook author, TV personality, illustrator, philanthropist and, most recently , social media star. As a lifelong serial owner of French automobiles, he seemed uniquely apt to answer the question: would this once-a-21st-century renaissance cause French culture – the internationally heralded product of food and cars. Are?

Our transport to Connecticut will, aptly, be a 1965 Peugeot 404, a model that Mr. Pepin once owned and fondly remembers. This one, a seven-seat “Family” station wagon, purchased new by a Canadian diplomat on assignment in Paris, was injured for unknown reasons in a barn in Medicine Hat, Alberta, where it remained untouched for more than 50 years. Fully roadworthy, with less than 25,000 miles on its kilometer-delineated odometer, it captures the allure of French automobiles at their distinctive best, with creamy-smooth mechanicals, comfortable seats like any divan, and legendary, Gallic ride. Improves most modern cars with comfort. , even on the toughest roads.

Our journey begins with a tour of Mr. Pepin’s house and his four wooded acres of buildings. Nestled between a church and a synagogue, the complex houses two impressively designed kitchenettes, with neatly arranged cookware and dazzling arrays of saucepans. The two studios help expand Mr. Pepin’s brand indefinitely into the future, one with a kitchen used for filming series and videos, and the other for painting oils, acrylics and mixed-media works. are featured in his books and grace his iconic, handwritten menu

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Leaving at 404 for lunch, we all arrive at Le Petit Café, a French bistro, in nearby Branford. Chef Roy Ip, a Hong Kong native and Mr Pepin’s alumnus at the French Culinary Institute in New York, greets our party, which opened exclusively on this weekday afternoon to mentor, who helped broker 25 years ago 50- had helped in the purchase. Seat Cafe. Over bouquets of entertainment and a groaning plate of freshly baked bread and butter loaves – “If you have extraordinary bread, extraordinary butter, every meal must have bread and butter”, Guest of Honor Vouchsafe, raising a glass of wine – We take a delicate matter at hand.

Although he drives a well-used Lexus SUV today, Mr. Pepin’s French car credentials are clearly in order. Tales from his early life in France, where his family was deeply involved in the restaurant business, are full of automotive memories. The Citron Traction, an influential sedan produced from 1934 to 1957, bears a fundamental connection to the Avant. The development of the car, which was revolutionary for its front-wheel drive and unit-body construction, bankrupted the company’s founder, André Citron, which led to its acquisition. Michelin, tire manufacturer.

The mention of the car reminds Mr Pepin of a day in World War II when his family left Lyon to live on a farm in his uncle’s Traction Avant for a while. “My father had gone to the Resistance,” he says. “That car I still remember as a kid, especially the smell. I always loved Citrons because of this.”

Later, his parents had a Panhard, a silly machine from a small but respected French manufacturer that would fall into Citron’s arms in 1965, a decade before the offbeat Citron would be swallowed up by itself – and, critics, Argued, identical – by Peugeot.

After World War II and like millions of other Frenchmen, Mr Pepin was hit by Citron’s small post-war small car, the Deux Chevaux, which he says was the first car his mother owned.

“Seventy miles to a gallon, or whatever,” he says. “It didn’t go very fast, but we loved it.”

Mr Pepin’s distaste for excess – even though he made his early forays into rich, labor-intensive foods, such as when he cooked at New York City’s Le Pavillon, which was once the pinnacle of American haute cuisine —not only explained the simple cooking that he later championed, but he had many vehicle options when he first hit the American highway. For example, he refers, in his memoir, to the Volkswagen Beetle that he used to crush the Long Island Expressway on Long Island’s East End to meet a friend of his, New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne. A Peugeot 404 will join his commute to work at the Howard Johnson Test Kitchen in Rego Park, Queens, where he worked for 10 years.

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Later, a Renault 5 – an economy subcompact known as LeCar in the US – joined Mr Pepin’s family as his wife Gloria’s daily driver.

He also remains a solid supporter of France’s biggest automotive icon, the Citron DS, which President Charles de Gaulle rode when 12 right-wing terrorists tried to assassinate him in 1962, firing 140 bullets at his car. Left central Paris for Orly airport. The Fusilade blew out the DS 19’s rear window and all of its tyres, yet, thanks to its unique hydro-pneumatic suspension, de Gaulle’s driver was able to tirelessly steer the car and its occupants to safety.

“It saved his life,” Mr Pepin marveled. “A great car.”

Although Mr Pepin was 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 the radio, and television was barely present,” he says. “If someone used to come into the kitchen, it was to complain that something went wrong. The cook was actually at the bottom of the social scale. ,

This changed in the early 1960s with the advent of Novel cuisine, Mr. Pepin believes. But before that he had turned down an invitation to cook for the Kennedy White House. (The Kennedy was a regular at Le Pavillon.) His friend René Verdon took over the task by sending Mr. Pepin a picture of himself with President John F. Kennedy.

“All of a sudden, now we’re geniuses. But,” he says with a laugh, “you can’t take it too seriously.”

Befriending a Hall of Fame roster of American foodies including Claiborne, Pierre Franny and Julia Child, Pepin eventually became a star without the White House Association, though his extraordinary innings was nearly cut short in the 1970s when he had crashed. Ford station wagon trying to avoid a deer on a back road in upstate New York.

If he hadn’t been driving such a big car, Mr. Pepin admits, “I probably would have died.” He ended up with a broken back and 12 fractures and still has a “drag foot,” he says, due to a severed sciatic nerve. His injuries forced him to close his Manhattan soup restaurant, La Potegerie, which served 150 gallons of soup a day, turning its 102 seats every 18 minutes.

While Chef Ip presents the table with a simple but delicious salad Nicoise, followed by a finely crafted apple tart, Mr Pepin turns his attention to the question of France’s lesser influence in the culinary and automotive worlds. That is, I was surprised to learn, in warm agreement – the ship sailed.

“People still like French food as they like other foods,” he says, “as Americans matured and learned about the variety of options.”

Mr Pepin, who calls himself an optimist, hastily says he doesn’t see this as a bad thing. He vividly remembers how serious America was when he arrived, attracted by a youthful enthusiasm for jazz. At first, he marveled at the idea of ​​the supermarket.

“But when I went in, no leeks, no shallot, no other herbs, a salad green that was an iceberg,” he says. “Look at America now. Extraordinary wine, bread, cheese. Another world entirely. ,

Indeed, Mr Pepin, whose wife was Puerto Rican and Cuban, no longer even sees himself as a “French chef”. His more than 30 cookbooks, he says, “have included recipes for black bean soup with sliced ​​banana and cilantro on top.” They also have a recipe for Southern Fried Chicken. “So, in a sense, I consider myself a classic American chef,” he says. “things change.”

During a leisurely afternoon with Mr Pepin, it becomes clear that a changing world doesn’t bother him much, he regrets, the loss of loved ones being the greatest. His father died of puberty in 1965, and his defining sadness, his wife Gloria, died of cancer in December 2020.

“The hardest thing is not to share dinner at night. And that bottle of wine.” He remains silent for a long time.

In kicking off his reflections on dishes and cars, the chef notes what he sees as a woeful trend: the loss of diversity due to the motives of corporations.

“There is more food in the supermarket today than ever before,” says Mr. Pepin. “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’t go to the supermarket and find the back and neck of a chicken.”

The same is true of the automobile industry, he says, where the growing use of a small pool of multinational suppliers, as well as tighter regulations and corporations’ reluctance to take the chances, have made cars increasingly similar across brands. .

“The special features that make French cars different don’t really even exist in France anymore,” he says. “They all follow the same aesthetic. Neither French food nor French cars have the same cachet they used to have.”

Mr Pepin remains a philosopher. He mourns the loss of typical French cars, but is clearly not losing sleep over it. Ditto French food.

As long as “people are getting together” and cooking quality ingredients, he hopes, “to eat together probably means civility.”