Shortcuts with Jacques Pépin

What makes a good dish? Not necessarily the use of homemade ingredients.

Chef Jacques Pépin has made multiple visits to Minnesota. In 1983, he had a successful trip hunting for morel mushrooms.
Chef Jacques Pépin has made multiple visits to Minnesota. In 1983, he had a successful trip hunting for morel mushrooms.

When Jacques Pépin, the French chef and prolific cookbook author, dropped by the Taste office in November 1990 to promote his latest effort, “The Short-Cut Cook,” he may have been the most debonair visitor to pass through the lobby doors of the Star Tribune. (Bonjour!) Who would not swoon at his delightful French accent and bemused, intense gaze?

Thousands of viewers — and this reporter — would agree, as they settled into armchairs to watch his many PBS cooking series and repartee with Julia Child on “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.”

Pépin, then 55, was in town to promote his seventh book, one of many that would focus on the home cook. Though born to a family of restaurateurs near Lyon, France, and with 42 years in the kitchen as a chef, teacher and consultant, most in the U.S., Pépin had long broken away from the traditional French mold of elaborate dining.

By the ’90s, the American culinary scene was in transition as some home cooks shifted from a blanket acceptance of all-things-processed, while others embraced Lunchables. The narrative for the former followed that a really great meal depended on every element being made from scratch. Convenience foods? Strictly for slackers.

Pépin shook his head in dismay that day.

“In Europe, cooks don’t make everything at home. In France, people do not bake their own bread or make pâté because the professionals make it much better,” he said, as he paged through his volume, highlighting a cheese tart made with a packaged frozen pie shell. (Quelle horreur!)

Such shortcuts were the focus of his cookbook, intended to offer “a cuisine that is rewarding without being demanding,” he said. In case the recipes in the book didn’t spell it out, the subtitle of the volume made his point of view clear: “How to make simply wonderful meals with surprisingly little effort.” (Très bien!)

Be practical, he suggested, as he approved making use of good-quality supermarket convenience foods. When Jacques says it’s OK, we listen (well, at least this cook does, n’est-ce pas?).

But don’t get carried away. (Non, non, non!) Pépin would be the first to say there were limits to acceptable timesavers. Good quality was key. Remember that commercially made baguette with its crisp crust. (Mais oui!)

As for making your own ketchup or puréed pumpkin? He shrugged in his charming French way.

“They’re not necessary,” Pépin said, adding that there was nothing wrong with home preparation, as long as its flavor was noteworthy.

“Much is made of the notion that homemade quality is superior,” he said.

“But under the name of homemade, I have had some horrendous meals.”

C’est la vie.