If you care about Jacques Pépin, as we do, on Eat, Chez Jacques is a book worth owning. It’s huge and beautiful like a coffee table book, but it’s also highly readable, and it’s easy to get carried away reading Jacques’ essays on topics as varied as food criticism and cooking with water.
The book contains just 100 recipes, and almost as many pictures of Jacques in the little paradise he’s created for himself in Connecticut, where he fishes, smokes meat, makes his own vinegar, hunts mushrooms, and wears fanny packs, among other pursuits. Looking through this book makes you want to Jacques’ best friend, and to share a picnic with him on a dinghy while your bottles of wine bob in the water, tied to a rope.
Chez Jacques is also partly a love letter to his wife, Gloria, with whom he appears to be completely infatuated. If you believe the book, and I do, Jacques and Gloria spend hours every day enjoying delicious food and wine and conversation. It truly looks like heaven on earth.
The parts of the book that I’ve read, and I still have a ways to go, suggest that this will be one of his last books. It’s so personal, and it has a conclusive tone, as in “Here is what I’ve learned in my life; this is the way to do this.” The recipes are simple and gorgeous, but this is not a cookbook. I’ll try some of the dishes, but these are his dishes. It’s more about him showing the reader what he has come to love over the years, and encouraging us to find our own simple dishes that make us feel at home.
One of the essays that I’ve already found useful is the one I mentioned above, on cooking with water, something I’ve avoided doing in the past, using stock or wine instead whenever possible. Jacques points out that people feel more sophisticated using other liquids, but that water has its own merits. If your sauce has simmered down too far and needs liquid, as a tomato sauce did here the other night, add water to it; it will rehydrate it without adding or taking away any flavor. In class, the teacher is constantly telling us to add a bit of water to our glazing vegetables, even if we’re about to serve them with chicken and we have a giant bowl of stock next to the burners. French cooking seems to be all about each element of a dish tasting as much like itself as possible.