Famed chef Jacques Pepin cooks scallop dishes at his Madison home for The Day
Jacques Pépin is bustling around the kitchen of his charming Madison, Connecticut, house, gathering ingredients as he gears up to shoot videos of cooking a trio of scallop dishes.
The kitchen reflects the fact that its owner is one of the world’s great chefs. Lined up in the center of the island are an array of bottles, from balsamic vinaigrette to olive oil to Tabasco. Next to them is a wide selection of knives, at the ready for any of the chopping that Pépin does with such speed and dexterity. One wall looks like an art installation by an enthusiastic cook: It’s covered with pans and a few pots, their bottoms facing away from the wall.
With the ingredients in front of him, Pépin gets to work, as his videographer Tom Hopkins captures it all, using a camera on a tripod and a cellphone.
No second takes are needed here. Pépin, 85, is a natural in front of the camera, but he’s also a lifelong chef who has a wealth of knowledge about anything culinary-related.
In this case, he’s making the videos to coincide with The Day’s "Fish Tales" series about fishing. He whips up three scallop recipes:
- Scallop Ceviche
- Scallops Grenobloise. “This is it — just like I used to do in Paris in the ‘50s,” he says, presenting the finished product to the camera.
- Scallops in cream on spinach — which he said is just like you’d have “at a classic French restaurant.”
In the videos, he not only cooks but also offers an array of tips. Such as:
- Some folks recommend against washing mushrooms, but Pépin says it’s fine, as long as you then use the mushroom right away. Not using it for too long after washing can make it slimy.
- He uses heavy cream for one of the scallop recipes. People might fear that heavy cream brings too many calories with it, but he notes that the amount he used is probably 250 calories, which is about the same calorie count as two tablespoons of oil.
- While making the Scallop Ceviche, Pépin says that cooks can change the seasonings he uses in these recipes based on what they have in their refrigerator or what they like.
He also talks about how important the freshness of fish is. Living on the Connecticut shoreline, he adds, means he has access to a fair amount of fresh fish and shellfish.
In a phone interview the day after the video shoot, he expands on the idea:
“Right away, when you take a piece of fish and smell it, you know it’s not fresh, because a fish should not really smell … That’s why very often I tell people that, contrary to maybe some other opinions, if you’re not in an area where you have access to really fresh fish from the fishmonger and so forth, you’re better off buying frozen fish in the supermarket,” he says.
Of the trio of scallop dishes he cooked, Pépin says he doesn’t have a favorite. Rather, they each might lend itself to a different occasion or type of day.
“I think that’s how I look at recipes, not that one is really better than the other. It fits (better) whether it’s summer, winter, cold, hot, that type of thing. And your mood, of course,” he says.
“It’s all a question of cooking and of your own taste,” he says, noting that his late wife, Gloria, liked her fish very rare inside. His mother loved her steak raw and cold at the center, while his father liked it well done.
During the pandemic, Pépin began filming short cooking videos for his Facebook page. He has done over 200 videos now (on the Thursday that he filmed the trio of videos for The Day, he went on to do more for his Facebook page). When he does those, he has some general notes in front of him, but not a full recipe; he writes the recipe afterward.
Powered by those videos, he now has nearly 1.5 million Facebook followers.
The videos are another way for Pépin to teach — something he’s been doing for years. He did it through his shows on PBS and through his teaching at the French Culinary Institute in New York City and at Boston University (where he has taught for “37 years or something like,” he says, noting he’ll be back this fall).
“My life has been teaching, and the books are helping with that,” he says.
His book “La Technique,” for instance, was published in 1975 and is still a popular reference for cooks.
“I don’t cook the same way that I did 50 years ago, but the book is still in print, because the techniques do not change, the way you sharpen a knife, or poach an egg. You don’t do the same thing with it — the recipes are different now — but the techniques remain the same,” he says.
In “The Art of Cooking,” which he wrote in the 1980s and which, he notes, many consider his best book, “That was the type of food that I may do occasionally, but we did in very expensive restaurants — so much more complex, much more complicated than what I do now. One is not really better than the other, just different. And certainly there is a function of your age. When I was a young chef, maybe like many young chefs, you work and you tend to add and to add to the plate and more garnish ... As you get older and your metabolism changes, I kind of take away, take away, to stay … without any embellishment and presentation.”
It’s not that he doesn’t care how something looks but rather than he doesn’t fuss too much with presentation. He focuses on the essentials.
If you have a perfect tomato right out of the garden, for example, adding a bit of salt and olive oil will do — no embellishment needed.
“My goal usually is to make whatever I do as simple as possible and fresh,” he says.
Moving to Madison
The Pépins moved to Madison in 1976. Before that, in addition to an apartment in New York City, they had a house in the Catskills, where he was a ski instructor. (He met Gloria while he was teaching skiing there; they wed in 1966.)
But in 1974, Pépin had a terrible car accident (his vehicle and a deer collided) that left him with 12 fractures, a broken back, damage to his hips and pelvis.
“So at that point, I couldn’t ski or do anything anymore, so we decided to move. I said I wanted to move on the coastline because I think the winters are less difficult than inland,” he says.
They had friends who lived in southeastern Connecticut, and the Pépins looked around Madison and liked it. Pépin had started teaching at Boston University, and he was also teaching in New York City, so a location between those two cities was ideal.
“It was easy to take the train from New Haven to go to New York, and that’s what I still do — I take the shoreline train and the train to New York and I get to Grand Central,” he says.
Asked if he goes out to eat in restaurants around Madison, he responds, “Oh, yes, I love to go to restaurants. We have a very good Chinese restaurant in Clinton, Taste of China, and Bar Bouchee in town and Cafe Allegre. Of course I enjoy eating in restaurants.”
‘Everyone is the same’
Pépin says he loves “the beauty of” cooking.
“One of my sayings for the foundation is that there is no color of skin or anything in the eye of the stove. Everyone is the same in the eye of the stove,” he says, mentioning his Jacques Pépin Foundation, which supports free culinary and life skills training, through community-based organizations, that helps individuals detached from the workforce gain confidence, skills, and employment in food service.
“The point is there is no political implication or religious implication or any type of implication in cooking.
“And it’s one of the greatest ways of getting together. Eating together is one of the most civilized things that we do, forever,” he says.
He reminisces about cooking with his daughter when she was young and then with his granddaughter. They would get into discussions about food and eating, but it would often lead to discussions of a variety of subjects.
“Food has always been the central part of who I am and what I do and the family structure,” he says.
Jacques Pepin’s extraordinary career includes:
He has written more than 30 cookbooks, many bestsellers.
He co-hosted a show in 1999 with his longtime friend Julia Child called “Julia and Jacques Cooking At Home.” It won an Emmy and James Beard Foundation Award.
He has earned two dozen James Beard Foundation Awards in all; the awards recognize culinary professionals.
JACQUES PEPIN SCALLOP RECIPES
If you use bay scallops you can leave them whole. In our recipe, we have large scallops and cut them into about ¾" pieces. Incorporate the scallops with the seasonings and garnishes, which you can change according to your taste and what you have on hand. Let it marinate for a bit in the refrigerator and serve cool, but not ice cold. Served on top of a garnish of long cucumber strips made with a vegetable peeler. This makes a light and beautiful first course.
½ pound scallops
3 tablespoons mild chopped onion, rinsed
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon mayo
1 teaspoon diced jalapeno (or more to taste)
2 tablespoons sliced green onions
2 tablespoons diced black olives
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Sriracha hot sauce
1 tablespoon chopped chives
In a medium bowl, combine the scallops, onion, oil, lemon juice, mayo, jalapeno, scallions, and olives in a bowl. Season with salt and sriracha. Mix well. Use a vegetable peeler to make long strips of cucumber. Arrange cucumbers on a plate and place a mound of ceviche in the center. Drizzle the cucumbers with olive oil and garnish the entire plate with chives.
Meaning in the style of Grenoble in France, this is another traditional preparation of delicious shellfish. The scallops are seared in a very hot pan to give them a very nice crust on the outside. For large scallops I allow about a minute on each side to keep them slightly rare in the center. Croutons, capers, and lemon flesh are the traditional garnishes for this classic dish — I have added some mushrooms and parsley, which complement the other flavors nicely.
¾ pound scallops (about 8 large)
1 tablespoon peanut oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
½ cup croutons
1 tablespoon capers
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped mushrooms
1 tablespoon lemon flesh (1/4-inch dice)
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Heat oil in a stainless-steel skillet. When hot, add scallops and season with salt and pepper. Sear over high heat for one minute on each side. Remove scallops to a plate and top with the croutons, lemon flesh, and capers. Heat the butter in the same skillet and add mushrooms. Cook until the butter has browned, add the vinegar, then pour the sauce over the scallops. Scatter with parsley and serve.
Scallops in Cream on Spinach
This is a very classic recipe. Notice that the spinach is first sauteed just wet in the skillet, until wilted and most of the water has evaporated. Add a dash of salt and oil to the spinach and then they are arranged on a plate as a base for the scallops. The rest of the ingredients are added to the pan with the scallops coming last. I prefer my scallops to be barely cooked, but feel free to adjust to your liking.
¾ pound scallops (about 8 large)
¼ cup ½-inch diced mushrooms
1 tablespoon diced shallots
¼ cup white wine
½ cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon potato starch mixed with 1 tablespoon of water
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
5 cups spinach (about 4 ounces)
Rinse spinach and do not dry, then add to a sauté pan and season with salt and pepper. Cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Spread the spinach on a platter. Add mushrooms, shallots, and wine to the skillet and boil for one minute, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add cream, bring to a boil again, then add scallops and boil for 30 seconds. Add the slurry of potato starch and bring to a boil again to thicken the sauce. Arrange on top of the spinach and sprinkle with chives as a garnish.