George's Reviews > The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen

The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin
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Oct 16, 10

Read in January, 2010

With all the literary giants cramming my bookshelf, it's surprising how much pleasure can be had from reading a book such as this one. This was a wonderful (and wonderfully written) book about a humble yet extremely accomplished man. Jacques is my new hero. He is highly skilled, hard working, charming, and possesses that simple, ageless kind of wisdom that Americans almost never seem to acquire. In addition to being a great cook and skilled technician, he is a kind of Zelig of the culinary world, rubbing shoulders with Charles de Gaulle, Pierre Franney, Howard Johnson, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne (long time NYT food critic and media celebrity) and the Kennedys, as well as more contemporary cooking giants like Michel Keller. His resume reads like a Michelin guide to Parisian and New York French restaurants in the 1950s and 1960s, and his accomplishments in media are even more impressive - literally dozen of books and hundreds of hours of PBS shows, etc etc. His childhood begins in rural France during World War II, during which he lived a simple life, close to the land, with few comforts other than his mother, an impressive and resourceful woman who kept her family afloat despite her husband's war-time absence, and his two brothers. Jaques' love and respect for his family shines through every page, and despite years of physical separation after his emigration to the United States in the late 1950s, he is still very close with him. His father passes away years ago, and tragically both his younger brothers have recently died of lung cancer. However I believe his mother is still alive. By all accounts she is a remarkable woman and a true survivor.

As an example, while working as a waitress during wartime, she had three boys to feed but little money. In addition, butter and sugar and such things were rationed and extremely difficult to find. So Jannette had to get creative, and in the process became a cook:

"Somehow we managed, and we ate every day, but necessity exposed my taste buds to some unconventional recipes. In lieu of sugar, which wasn't available, Maman made a wartime sweetener by cooking beets in water on her wood stove for hours, straining the mixture, and then reducing the syrup to a thick brownish liquid. It filled the entire apartment with an earthy, slightly caramelized sweet scent -- an aroma every bit as appealing to me as the inside of a pastry shop."

The most startling, even shocking (at least to an American) element to French "country cuisine" as you might euphemistically call it, is offal -- that is, the entrails and internal organs of a butchered animal. Rural people in France have a long tradition of eating such delicacies, largely out of necessity. Here is another "wartime recipe" from Jacques mother:

"Another unlikely favorite of mine was mou au vin rouge: cubes of beef or veal lungs cooked with onion and the sediment left in the bottom of a red wine barrel. Before cutting them into cubes, Maman inflated the lungs by blowing into the trachea. ...Even though the spongy texture of the lungs and the acidity of the sauce would not thrill a gourmet, I loved mou au vin rouge. In a perverse way, I still do."

Years later, as a young man new to the U.S., Jacques would discover that offal provided another surprise:

"The early 1960s seemed a gentle time in New York. ...I thought nothing of strolling in the dark through Riverside Park, emerging onto bustling 125th Street, the throbbing heart of the Harlem music scene... On one of these late-night shambles, I passed the display window of a small grocery store and stopped in my tracks. There, in a refrigerated case, was a cornucopia of the sort of wonderful offal that I had never been able to find in my Upper East Side A&P. Tripe, pig's feet, kidneys of both veal and lamb,, chicken feet, liver, sweetbreads, brains, you name it.
"A soon as I got off work the next day, I hurried back to the store. That fabulous offal counter was overseen by an enormous African American wearing a bloodstained white apron. I took my place in the scrum that was gathered in front of the display -- men, women, kids and me, the only white face in the store. When my turn came, I realized to my horror that I hadn't a clue about the English names for my favorite pieces of offal. It wasn't the sort of place that had little plastic signs informing customers what each tray contained, so I was reduced to pointing and smiling. The guy manning the display picked up a half-dozen lamb kidneys with his hand, plopped them onto a sheet of butcher paper, folded it over, and handed my package to me with a nod toward the woman who sat near the floor behind a cash register. It seemed that the culinary African American culture had common roots with French country cuisine. Both traditions originated among poor rural people who had nothing. Everything had to be used, and over time, the resulting dishes became part of the culinary tradition. I may not have been able to converse with these people, but I felt an immediate affinity for their way of looking at food."

Like all lives to a greater or lesser degree, Jacques' has been both charmed and tragic (premature deaths of his brothers, close friend Craig Claiborne's dissolution and sad death, Jacques himself suffered through a terrible car accident) -- but fortunately, mostly charmed. That fate has chosen to smile upon such a good and decent man makes this small story about a cook uplifting and even triumphant.
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