A Special Interview with Jacques Pépin

Last week, I got a chance to sit down and call celebrated chef, television personality, author and Connecticut shoreline resident Jacques Pépin, to learn more about his upcoming television show and accompanying cookbook, Essential Pépin, debuting in 2011, and get a greater sense of his involvement in the Food Network 2011 Wine and Food Festival.

Jess: Jacques, thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. I have a few questions about the Food Network NYC Wine and Food Festival. The festival’s proceeds are divided entirely between the NY Food Bank and the Save Our Strength program. How did you choose to lend your support to this benefit and its charities?

Jacques: Well, I think chefs in general do give a lot of their time to charities. It seems that everything is kind of filtered through food, you know? Whether it’s battered women or cancer, you name it, it makes it easier when you do a dinner. People give more money. I think about 50% of the events I do are for one charity or another.

Jess: So you’ve participated in this in past years?

Jacques: Yes, for the Food Network, I have done the one in Aspen probably 27 or 28 times. I have done the one in Pebble Beach as well. The last show was probably the 5th or 6th time for me. But the one in New York will be my first.

Jess: That’s exciting! And you’re participating in this tribute dinner for you and Prince Robert on October 1st as well!

Jacques: Yes, I’m there with the Prince of Luxembourg…I can’t even believe it!

Jess: So do you know how the team of chefs was chosen for this dinner? Quite a few big names, like Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boloud…

Jacques: Yes, Daniel Bouloud, Alain Ducasse, Laurent Gras. They’re participating for the dinner to help generate money for the charities. It’s in conjunction with Les Dames D’Escoffier, which my wife used to be a vice president of, and that organization does a lot of fundraising and things like that to raise money for scholarships to send female culinary students abroad to learn cooking. So that’s a good thing.

Jess: Yes, that’s fantastic. So, you’d ideally like to see attendees at this dinner take a greater sense of awareness and contribution for the charities involved, yes?

Jacques: Yes. I’m also doing a demonstration the day before the event at Chelsea Pier, Pier 60, and I will go to whatever is going on, book signings and things like this, to promote this.

Jess: So, since this is both for you and Prince Robert, have you been enjoying a lot of Haut-Brion with your cuisine?

Jacques: Of course, I’ll drink the Haut-Brion but I’d never insult a great wine like that by cooking with it or putting it in any dish!

Jess: Oh, god, no! Phenomenal wine, though. So, speaking of wonderful wines, how do you like to incorporate wine into a dinner or a meal to enhance the cuisine?

Jacques: It’s a big part of our [French] cuisine and of course, I do enjoy wine when I am cooking, so I do use a fair bit of wine in my cuisine, but with fish, a white wine is always welcome. It works well with it, and so that’s a fairly common ingredient that we use.

Jess: So, I see that you’re starting a new show and releasing a new cookbook this fall, congratulations!

Jacques: Thank you. In this new show, I focus on about 150 recipes out of that book, which contains about 750 recipes, and we did 26 episodes which will come on the air about the same time that the book is published, around mid-October, November. And what we have in the book that is very exciting for me is a DVD inside the front cover, which has about three hours of technique, from peeling an asparagus to boning a chicken to making an omelet or whatever. So those are especially for young people. I think that nowadays people like to look at videos rather than just pictures in a book, so that’s why we went with the DVD.

Jess: That sounds like it’s going to be a really good stepping stone for budding chefs starting out into culinary basics.

Jacques: That’s right, because the DVD is not necessary for that book, it can be used with any type of dish that you want to make. It teaches the skills and the techniques, sharpening a knife, doing a puff pastry, and so forth. So that can be used in any cookbook that you use. I did about 250 drawings for the book to illustrate and keep the price down. I think it’s a good price, about $40 for the book and the DVD.

Jess: That should be an excellent staple in home kitchens. So, are there any new or especially different recipes we can look forward to?

Jacques: Well, it’s more of my life through food, a young adult to an adult to an old man! If I published all of the recipes I’ve made since I started cooking there would would probably be about 2,000 recipes. So I have about 750 recipes which kind of exemplify “ma vie” or my life since I started. So it was an interesting thing for me to do and ended up being more work than doing an actual book because at some point, I said, “Do I leave the recipes the way they are, or more in the style now that people can use them?” and I went for the second option. So I have a lot of revision to do, readjusting the time of cooking, the type of fat we use and the amount of it and so forth.

Jess: So do you think that a lot of people are really getting more into classic, traditional food preparations despite the trends in the restaurant industry?

Jacques: It’s possible, but you know, classic is a different thing for different people. The dishes you have as a child, the dishes that are a part of your family, those are classic in the sense that they will always be in your kitchen. I do have some of the recipes we use to do at Le Pavillon in New York and so forth, the old classic French recipes. But sometimes I will do those with a black bean soup with banana in it. I do that because I like black bean soup and banana because my wife was born in New York from a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father. There is a lot of influence from all my life and from different people, so there is a little bit of everything in those recipes.

Jess: Excellent stuff. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me and answer some questions!

Jacques: Well, thank you for calling. Good luck in your pursuits!

Special thanks to KQED’s Scott Walton for facilitating this interview, and, of course, a grateful merci to Monsieur Pépin himself! Tickets for the tribute dinner, as well as many other fantastic and special events at the Food Network NYC Wine and Food Festival can be purchased at www.nycwineandfoodfestival.com.

Hotel Chocolat Summer Dessert Collection

You would think I wouldn’t be able to review these, assuming that summer has come to a close and that I’ve retired to my wood-accented dormitory to don my smoking jacket and smoke lugubriously until spring pokes her flowery bosom into my face, but YOU’D BE SO WRONG. God damn it. It’s officially what I consider to be mid-September. There is no reason for it to be 86 degrees and sunny. While other kids are frolicking with their shirts off, I’m sweating my loafers off and wiping sweat off my textbooks. In this vein, there is a steaming ray of hope, however, for I deem now to be the perfect time to show you the latest and greatest selection from Hotel Chocolat, courtesy of Cinabar once more…the Summer Dessert Collection.
Hotel Chocolat has been on my bucket list of chocolatiers to try ever since reading about Jim’s amazing experiences with things like slabs and sleeksters, all sorts of goodies we don’t have here. There is a US branch of Hotel Chocolat, but it has roughly three things, all over $50. It’s like going to a Toys ‘R’ Us as a kid after hearing that the one in the next state over has, I dunno, My First Dinosaur Gun playsets and going to yours for your birthday with the anticipation of shooting up a lot of velociraptors and finding that they only have three goddamned Boobah dolls and they’re all $200 apiece. It’s like paying for the privilege of being made fun of by your fellow peers. So, needless to say, I was incredibly excited to receive these. With all of the fanciful products Hotel Chocolat makes, this is on par with getting a small piece of magic in the mail, like Willy Wonka’s severed pinky toe courtesy of the sugar mafia.
The Hotel Chocolat box is incredibly crisp and summery, with Tiffany blue and Nat Sherman gold accents and a neat little integration of the flavors on the sides of the box. Upon opening, the truffles are very fragrant and have a fruity, intensely perfumed nose. There are four flavors represented in the box. One is a coconut bombe, a spiky confection typically made with ice cream, one is a chocolate mousse, one is a Neapolitan, and the last is a summer pudding. I like that Hotel Chocolat utilized summery dessert ingredients, like berry and ice cream, in their truffles, but would have liked to see a mojito or summer drink flavor, or even one of their Eton Mess truffles to round out the mix in lieu of the quintessential chocolate mousse. I should have expected that omission, though, as the front of the box explicitly states that there is no alcohol in these. Thusly, I’ll be bringing them to the Betty Ford clinic next week.
At around $8 for a box of four, it’s not a frivolous expenditure on par with Martin Kessman’s lawsuit, and is a delicate and unique gift to give as a present topper or along with other treats. And for the quality of its contents, it is worth every penny. These truffles are easily as good as, if not better, than some of the more expensive commercial brands across the pond. For starters, it’s worth noting that I take back my errant comment about the chocolate mousse truffle. This truffle was perfectly sweet and creamy, with a not-quite-ganache inside. That contrasted the creaminess of the shell with a perfectly smooth, glossy texture and a dark, rich flavor. Easily the tastiest plain chocolate truffle I’ve had in a while. The coconut bombe also had a creamy chocolate base, with a soft, grainy texture from being left out at room temperature. Its filling was similar to the mousse, but definitely had some coconut oil. Not enough to make it taste like a spoonful of Coppertone, but a pleasant touch.
Yet another gustatory pleasure was found in the Neapolitan truffle, which was adorably colored like its namesake ice cream and filled with a bright, fruity center. No one flavor dominated the others. The only truffle I wasn’t too thrilled with was the summer pudding. It lacked the moist breadiness of its larger counterpart and had an overly tart, medicinal finish. The inclusion of white chocolate was probably the best for blending purposes, but was just too sweet for my palate.

Terry’s Chocolate Orange Popping Candy Segsations

Ah, British candy. You’d think it would be similar to ours, but no, it’s a Bizarro-world level of awesome. Their cuisine may look staid on the outside, but on the inside, in their Sainsbury’s and Mark and Spencer’s, they get a little bit freaky. Goat cheese potato chip freaky. You like it. Hell, I like it. I’d sacrifice every Double Down in the country for a fair fighting chance at getting my paws on a few pints of Newcastle Brown Ale ice cream. That’s why I embarked on an epic transcontinental treat trade with Cinabar of Foodstuff Finds, who sent me a massive package of treats from across the sea, including these “segsational” Terry’s Chocolate Orange Popping Candy Segsations.
Before I start waxing nostalgic, I need to get the word “segsational” and all of its permutations out of my system. It holds the title of both being the most irritating word to type and the word that is also most likely to make me think of a Stegosaurus when I say it out loud. Please bear with me as I type this word no less than twelve times. It is so unnatural to type. My left hand’s going all over the home row and I swear that I just heard Mavis Beacon shoot herself in the face. Segsational segsational segsational segsational segsational segsational segsational segsational segsational segsational segsational segsational segsational don’t you know there’s fire in the hole and nothing left to burn. Phew! Done.
These candies are fucking adorable, which is even better than reguar type, like stock photos of tabby kittens. They are individually wrapped in a maroon/purple wrapper that I think would look really excellent with my complexion, were it in shirt form. There were 14 candies in the bag, which, though a little roomy for its contents, was detailed and colorful. I’d have purchased these if I’d seen them on the shelf. Terry’s describes these as milk chocolate with real orange and popping candy. No word as to whether the popping candy is real yet.
Each segment is individually wrapped and looks like a slightly less detailed piece of Terry’s regular sized Chocolate Orange, with little orange skin dots on the outer edge. They are visually appealing and clean, with small bumps designating where the popping candies lie. They are flat-bottomed, and that part does lack any design, but does make it easier for them to lay flat. This also a clever way to facilitate both the selling point and creepiest feature of the product. Taking a note from classic Valentine’s Day conversation hearts, these, too, employ phrases to catch your eye as you eat. Unfortunately, these sound like they were taken from the transcripts of a made-for-TV serial killer. I think the most upsetting was “Let’s play!” emblazoned across my pock-marked candy before I ate it, followed by “Outrageous!” and “Chatterbox!” Also, please take note that if I’m ever convicted for a pyramid scheme a la Gordon Gekko, I want my prison nickname to be “Big Kiss.” Nobody will fuck with me. These use more exclamation points than I do when I write these reviews after a few drinks.
In any case, they taste excellent, despite my anxious worries as to whether or not I’m accidentally ingesting small bits of one of Jack the Ripper’s ladyvictims. The chocolate flavor is smooth and not too sugary. 40% milk chocolate is a good balance between substantial and sweet. This particular blend has a caramely, milky base similar to most UK Cadbury bars and carries that quintessential orange oil flavor- slightly bitter, very citrusy and cuts through the sweetness of the chocolate quite well.
The texture is soft and grainy, made grainier by the inclusion of the popping candies. At first, these manifest themselves similar to Rice Krispies in a Crunch bar, simply an irregular texture and a bit of a crunch. As the chocolate melts, the candies aerate and pop more, melting against the tongue and popping quite a bit. They aren’t any particular flavor, so it doesn’t detract from the overall chocolate orange experience. I like these. I’m curious to see what other phrases I get. They’re a clever snack in a unique combination.

Starbucks Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino

I could never be single. Or for that matter, social in a setting free of appointments and rules. Sitting in a Starbucks, thumbing through a used copy of Carr’s “What Is History?” I am reminded of this fact again and again while watching students mill in and yak to each other over Macbooks and organic breakfast salads. But I haven’t come here to people-watch or ogle. The last Starbucks I frequented had a successful suit against me for that. (Starbucks vs. Foodette, “Please let me touch your macchiato! I want mine super creamed!” Undisclosed out-of-court settlement.) So, at this location I remain, and am sipping the dregs of a drink best forgotten.

The new Starbucks Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino takes a greasy, translucent page from the mystical tomes of Taco Bell, as it combines ingredients and concepts Starbucks has already introduced in a last-ditch attempt to catch on to the quicksilver salted caramel trend before it secedes to a greater force (Mocha. Frappuccino. Salted Caramel. Pretension.) and combines them into one drink. However much I love salted caramel, I really couldn’t get behind this flavor. It was the expensive equivalent of having a few odds and ends leftover in the fridge and mixing them together for a full, yet unpotable concoction.
If you’re not familiar with the grainy, wet texture of the Frap, which somehow manages to feel loose and semi-solid in the mouth all at once, nothing I can say will intrigue you enough to purchase it. It’s a Dairy Queen frozen hot chocolate in nicer packaging and an amicably flavored February slush storm, only more bitter and possibly colder. This particular flavor had 2/5ths of its namesake sitting dumbly on top of the drink, swirled on the surface and chilling into a semi-viscous caramel that tasted fairly average, lacking depth. Standard caramel topping with no burnt or buttery nuances. The kind you put on ice cream. The salt penetrated the deep waters of the drink, giving the bitter mocha an even more bitter, tangy flavor and losing all sweetness in the process.
The last tenth of the drink was different, albeit different in a hellish fashion. The caramel had finally seeped through and mixed in with the rest of the drink, the heavier, sauce-laden section separating the lighter, blended part into layers. All of a sudden, what was unpleasantly neutered in flavor was quickly radiating with sugar. The resulting texture was now slimy and gritty, and lacked any of the smoothness in flavor that I typically expect in a Frappuccino. And while I agree that any drink can be improved with a gut-busting squirt of whipped cream, any additional sugar would have made this virtually inedible. Seeing as I loved the coconut mocha, Frap, which tasted like a liquified Almond Joy, I was surprised that this flavor passed the test market. I’m not sure which candy bar this tastes like. Maybe partially masticated Bit-O-Honey marinated in a jar of lye. This flavor is awkward incarnate, in any case.

The 2011 Food Network New York City Wine and Food Festival

New Yorkers have a lot to look forward at the end of the month. For the fourth year in a row, the Food Network is going to be hosting a bash in the Meatpacking District full of celebrities, chefs, and food to benefit the New York Food Bank and Share Our Strength programs with the four day, exclusive Wine and Food Festival.

100% of the proceeds go toward the two charities, with tickets on sale for over 75 events including seminars, dinners at New York’s best restaurants, wine and spirit tastings, and cooking classes. Included on the roster of chefs and personalities are familiar faces like Martha Stewart, Jacques Pepin, His Royal Highness Prince Robert of Luxemburg, Mark Oldman, Guy Fieri, Paula Deen, and more!

The festivities begin on Thursday, September 29th, and continue until Sunday, October 2nd. Whether you’re looking to learn a new skill or simply be in the company of wonderful people and wonderful food, there’s a place for everyone at the festival. I hope to see you there! Tickets are on sale now and range from $20 to $500 per event and can be purchased online at www.nycwineandfoodfestival.com.

Baby Berk Sneak Preview

Every school has something it can be proud of. The University of Nebraska Lincoln has its Cornhuskers. Yale has the highest number of ascots per capita. Rutgers has broken the world record for most obese undergraduates, courtesy of the Fat Darrell. But now, UMass Amherst has risen up in the world, shunning its reputation for being the best party school and having the crappiest graduates. I’m talking to you, Jack Canfield! We are now joining the elite rankings of schools like George Washington, MIT, and Columbia, all with one thing in common…a food truck!
That’s right! Ivy League be damned, we have Baby Berk, a new, gigantic meals on wheels assembly boasting a gas oven and griddle, two fryers, a steam table, cold table, and refrigerator and freezer. I got a chance to check out their menu, which looks delicious, and will probably be reviewing the burgers soon.
From what I saw, it looks incredibly affordable, with a premium, all natural grass fed burger with a buttload of toppings clocking in at around $5.75. And the toppings are unbelievable. I’m especially looking forward to sinking my teeth into the Worcester Burger, which boasts a terikayi glaze and a pile of homemade kimchee on top.
Students will also have the ability to create their own burgers with premium toppings like bacon, mushrooms, and avocado. Baby Berk takes cash, UCard and debit, but does not take YCMP.
Other items include standard sides like fries and onion rings, fresh clam chowder, and veggie burgers. A plain hamburger sets you back a mere $3.50, and prices aren’t expected to go above the $5.75 that the premium burgers cost. Baby Berk looks like it’s going to be a huge hit on campus for late-night snacks and quick bites between class.

Honest Tea Mocha, Mint, and Cherry CocoaNova

The lull in posts has been, in part due to the fact that I’m now moved in and back to school, but also as I’ve been busy fending off stalkers and restarching my madras shorts. So sorry. With the back to school sales in full throttle and the opening day barbecues as fiery as ever, I’ve decided to unpack my bags and get back to the daily grind of bloggery.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but chocolate milk is an incredibly nostalgic beverage for me. It seemed like the social hierarchy of kids was divided into chocolate milk preparation and preferences like cocktails are today– did your mom make Nesquik? Buy you bottles of Yoo Hoo? Jugs of Guida? Were you one of those sniffly kids with a lactic intolerance and an eco-bottle of soy milk? The general consensus was that nobody liked the unsweetened Hershey’s powder in a can, and for good reason. While at the Fancy Food Show earlier on this year, I picked up a few bottles of Honest Tea’s answer to the brilliant beverage, CocoaNova, a new drink made mainly from cocoa beans and herbs.
CocoaNova, which I might add, is vegan for her pleasure, is made with cocoa beans in a similar fashion to herbal tea. They’re steeped in water and the cocoa flavor is infused without any of the added fats and sugars typically used in chocolate milk. For lactic die-hards, this may come as a bit of a culture shock. It’s not so much chocolate milk as much as a member of the tea family. Each flavor has a very earthy, slightly bitter base with a chicory and chocolate flavor. For the amount of sediment on the bottom, it blends well into the drink with a very smooth texture broken up by a slight solidity on the tongue. It’s a very well-made drink, one that I suspect wouldn’t be out of place in an organic, pricey coffeehouse in the middle of the East Village. The kind that boasts about booking Melissa Etheridge before she went famous. Namaste, ho!
There are three flavors of CocoaNova- cherry, mint, and mocha. Each is not too sweet or too rich, with a very rustic flavor. They’re all the same brackish, unsafe Jersey water brown color, but are fortunately potable. The base is smoothly interchangeable for each flavor, and I genuinely enjoyed them all, but my favorite flavor was probably the mint. This was a revelatory conclusion drawn on my part as I generally reserve mint to necessities like breath mints, toothpaste, and little else. This was best integrated with the chocolate base and imparted a fresh, herbal shade on the drink. It was incredibly refreshing and would probably taste delicious hot as well. The cherry was next on my list, another flavor combination that I generally tend to shy away from, and had a luxurious, bold fruitiness and natural tang similar to that in some wines. It’s a very sophisticated and deep taste. I was surprised that I enjoyed it so much.

The only one that didn’t quite strike the right chord was the mocha flavor, and that’s mainly because I’m spoiled with freshly brewed coffee and Kahlua milkshakes from my honey. It was tasty, but the strength of the chocolate and the coffee duked it out just a bit too much and rendered it more bitter than its predecessors. Tasty, but not my favorite, which confused me as it seemed like the flavor that would work best. Still, these drinks are delicious! A fantastic alternative to chocolate milk with ingredients that won’t weigh you down. Even if you do look like that hippie freak from next door, the one whose mom grew Dahlias and packed seaweed snacks and 8-grain flaxwiches in his Envirosack. A small price to pay.

Godiva Gems Caramel Apple Truffles

Ah, the clearance section. A cheap gourmand’s paradise, where one can freely browse the shelves, chucking dented cans and oozing bottles in a basket until it’s full and still not go over $10. My senses are finetuned to the point where I can see that beautiful orange sticker 100 yards away. Usually, it contains seasonal items painfully past their prime, like chocolate Santas with their heads cracked in and melting bags of candy corn, but today, at my local Walgreens’, I came across a strange surprise, Godiva’s poorly named G Gems in Milk Chocolate Caramel Apple, a distinctly autumnal flavor evocative of Halloween and the people who only give away fruit or nickels at their houses. Bastards.

For a mere $4.49 I received a bright green and gold bag full of 10 Godiva truffles. Godiva strikes me as the Molly Ringwald of the chocolate world. They’re prettily wrapped, they try too hard compared to the je ne sais quoi Ally Sheedys of artisanal bars, and they give away diamond earrings like they’re nothing. Doing the math, I can pretty much figure that I’ve spent about 40 cents per truffle, allocating a generous 49 cents to the cost of providing such a luxurious and aesthetically appealing bag. (/sarcasm) So even before I get my grubby paws down Ms. Standish’s pink Laura Ashley top, I’ve already paid for dinner, drinks, and a movie. So how do they taste?

I’ll give Godiva some credit. It DOES taste like a caramel apple, in that I take one bite and throw the rest away so that the ants can colonize it. The milk chocolate molding breaks crisply to reveal the filling inside, a potently smelling, grainy substance that tastes like the inebriated byproduct of a Brach’s caramel after a night of too many Appletinis. The fruit flavor is fake and sour with a sweet fermented flavor and strongly contrasts with the milk chocolate, which is far too sugary to be paired with motor oil, much less caramel. The end result tastes like raisins, for some reason, or maybe that’s just my taste buds telling me to abort the mission prematurely.

I don’t like these but I’m anxiously awaiting the new LTO flavors inspired by this, such as “Suspect Unwrapped Candy Corn Ganache from the Neighbor Who Belongs to the State Sex Offender’s Registry,” “Day After Halloween Vomit,” or as I like to call it, the “second taste,” and “Overly Bloomed KitKat from 1996.” Enjoy, folks. And happy end of summer for those imprisoned in school!