Jacques Pépin, in Search of Lost Cars and Cuisine

While the French famously obsess in regards to the dilution of their tradition at residence, it’s not unfair to say that their nice nation’s cultural sway seems to have dwindled in the bigger world as properly. To give two examples that contact me the place I dwell, the primacy of French delicacies — as soon as considered the world’s greatest — is finis. No longer is the comfy French bistro a staple of each American metropolis.

And although little remarked upon, so, too, may be seen the declining fortune of the French car, a tool whose invention traces to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, who in 1769 went forth from the Void-Vacon commune in northeastern France with the world’s first self-propelled automobile, a steam-powered tricycle constructed like a wagon.

While nonetheless dominant in their residence market, French automobiles declare solely a small, if loyal, following in the United States. They haven’t been offered right here because the early Nineteen Nineties, regardless of their important position in Stellantis, the title given to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and the French carmaker PSA after their merger final yr.

To discover these twin cultural sea adjustments, I lately set off with a pal for Madison, Conn., to go to and ruminate with one of America’s best-known French expatriates, Jacques Pépin. Arriving in the New World greater than 60 years in the past, Mr. Pépin, 86, has change into one of French gastronomy’s most profitable proponents in the United States: chef, cookbook creator, TV character, painter, philanthropist and, extra lately, social media star. As a onetime serial proprietor of French vehicles, he appeared uniquely suited to reply the query: Are these as soon as internationally heralded merchandise of French tradition — meals and automobiles — due for a Twenty first-century renaissance?

Our transport to Connecticut, fittingly, can be a 1965 Peugeot 404, a mannequin that Mr. Pépin as soon as owned and remembers fondly. This one, a seven-seat “Familiale” station wagon purchased new by a Canadian diplomat on project in Paris, wound up for causes unknown in a barn in Medicine Hat, Alberta, the place it sat untouched for greater than 50 years. Fully roadworthy, with lower than 25,000 miles on its kilometer-delineated odometer, it oozes the allure of French vehicles at their distinctive greatest, with creamy clean mechanicals, seats as snug as any divan and legendary, Gallic experience consolation that improbably betters most trendy automobiles, even on the roughest roads.

Our go to begins with a tour of Mr. Pépin’s residence and outbuildings on his 4 wooded acres. Situated between a church and a synagogue, the compound homes two impressively outfitted kitchens, with dazzling arrays of neatly organized cookware and saucepans. Two studios assist prolong Mr. Pépin’s model indefinitely into the long run, one with a kitchen used for filming the collection and movies, and one other for portray the oils, acrylics and mixed-media works which can be featured in his books and grace his coveted, handwritten menus.

Setting off in the 404 for lunch, all of us arrive in close by Branford at Le Petit Café, a French bistro. Chef Roy Ip, a Hong Kong native and former scholar of Mr. Pépin’s on the French Culinary Institute in New York, greets our celebration, having opened specifically on this weekday afternoon for the mentor who 25 years in the past helped dealer the acquisition of the 50-seat cafe. Over a groaning plate of amuse-bouches and loaves of freshly baked bread and butter — “If you have extraordinary bread, extraordinary butter, then there ought to be bread and butter” at each meal, the visitor of honor vouchsafes, elevating a glass of wine — we sidle as much as the fragile matter at hand.

Though he drives a well-used Lexus S.U.V. immediately, Mr. Pépin’s French automotive credentials are clearly in order. Tales of his youth in France, the place his household was deeply concerned in the restaurant enterprise, are peppered with recollections automotive. A seminal one considerations the Citroën Traction Avant, an influential sedan constructed from 1934 to 1957. Developing the automotive, which was revolutionary for its front-wheel drive and unit-body development, bankrupted the corporate’s founder, André Citroen, resulting in its takeover by Michelin, the tire maker.

The automotive’s point out remembers for Mr. Pépin a day through the Second World War when his household left Lyon in his uncle’s Traction Avant to remain at a farm for some time. “My father was gone in the Resistance,” he says. “That car I still remember as a kid, especially the smell. I always loved the Citroëns because of that.”

Afterward, his dad and mom owned a Panhard, an idiosyncratic machine from a small however revered French producer that might fall into the arms of Citroën in 1965, a decade earlier than offbeat Citroën itself can be swallowed — and, critics argued, homogenized — by Peugeot.

Like many Frenchmen after the Second World War and thousands and thousands elsewhere, Mr. Pépin was captivated with Citroen’s postwar small automotive, the Deux Chevaux, which he says was the primary automotive his mom had owned.

“Seventy miles to the gallon, or whatever,” he says. “It didn’t go too fast, but we loved it.”

Mr. Pépin’s distaste for extra — however his early detours into wealthy, labor-intensive meals, akin to when he cooked at New York City’s Le Pavillon, a onetime pinnacle of American haute delicacies — knowledgeable not simply the easier cooking he’d later champion however many of his automobile decisions when he first hit the American freeway. In his memoir, he refers, as an illustration, to the Volkswagen Beetle that he used to thrash down the Long Island Expressway on his approach to go to one of his mates, the New York Times meals author Craig Claiborne, on Long Island’s East End. A Peugeot 404 would determine in his commute to work on the Howard Johnson check kitchen in Rego Park, Queens, the place he labored for 10 years.

Later, a Renault 5 — an economic system subcompact often known as LeAutomotive in America — joined Mr. Pépin’s household as his spouse Gloria’s every day driver.

He stays, too, a strong supporter of what is probably France’s best automotive icon, the Citroën DS, which President Charles de Gaulle was using in when 12 right-wing terrorists tried to assassinate him in 1962, firing 140 bullets at his automotive because it left central Paris for Orly Airport. The fusillade blew out the DS 19’s rear window and all its tires, but, owing to its distinctive hydro-pneumatic suspension, de Gaulle’s driver was capable of drive the tireless automotive and its occupants to security.

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Aug. 5, 2022, 9:27 a.m. ET

“It saved his life,” Mr. Pépin marvels. “A great car.”

Though Mr. Pépin had been a private chef to de Gaulle in the Fifties, he didn’t know him properly, he says. “The cook in the kitchen was never interviewed by a magazine or radio, and television barely existed,” he says. “If someone came to the kitchen, it was to complain that something went wrong. The cook was really at the bottom of the social scale.”

That modified in the early Sixties with the arrival of nouvelle delicacies, Mr. Pépin reckons. But not earlier than he had turned down an invite to prepare dinner for the Kennedy White House. (The Kennedys have been regulars at Le Pavillon.) His pal René Verdon took the job, sending Mr. Pépin a photograph of himself with President John F. Kennedy.

“All of a sudden, now we are genius. But,” he says with fun, “you can’t take it too seriously.”

Befriended by a Hall of Fame roster of American foodies, together with Mr. Claiborne, Pierre Franey and Julia Child, Mr. Pépin finally turned a star with out the White House affiliation, although his extraordinary innings have been virtually reduce quick in the Seventies when he crashed a Ford station wagon whereas attempting to keep away from a deer on a again street in upstate New York.

If he hadn’t been driving such a giant automotive, Mr. Pépin believes, “I’d probably be dead.” He ended up with a damaged again and 12 fractures and nonetheless has a “drag foot,” he says, as a result of of a severed sciatic nerve. His accidents compelled him to shut his Manhattan soup restaurant, La Potagerie, which served 150 gallons of soup a day, turning over its 102 seats each 18 minutes.

While Chef Ip presents the desk with a easy however scrumptious Salade Niçoise, adopted by a finely wrought apple tart, Mr. Pépin turns his consideration to the query of France’s diminished affect in the culinary and automotive worlds. He is, I’m stunned to be taught, in heated settlement — the ship has sailed.

“Certainly when I came to America, French food or ‘continental’ food was what any of the great restaurants were supposed to be, often with a misspelled French menu,” he says. But continued waves of immigration and jet journey that opened up the far corners of the world led to French meals’s shedding “its primary position.”

“People still like French food just like they like other foods,” he says, including, “Americans matured and learned about a larger variety of options.”

Mr. Pépin, who calls himself an optimist, hastens so as to add that he doesn’t see this as a nasty factor. He remembers vividly how culinarily grim America was when he arrived, drawn by a youthful enthusiasm for jazz. At first, he marveled on the concept of the grocery store.

“But when I went in, no leek, no shallot, no other herbs, one salad green that was iceberg,” he says. “Now look at America. Extraordinary wine, bread, cheese. Totally another world.”

Indeed, Mr. Pépin, whose spouse was Puerto Rican and Cuban, doesn’t even see himself as a “French chef” anymore. His greater than 30 cookbooks, he says, “have included recipes for black bean soup with sliced banana and cilantro on top.” He additionally has a recipe for Southern fried rooster. “So, in a sense, I consider myself a classic American chef,” he says. “Things change.”

During a leisurely afternoon with Mr. Pépin, it turns into clear that whereas a altering world doesn’t faze him a lot, he has regrets, his best being the loss of family members. His father died younger in 1965, and his defining disappointment, the loss of his spouse, Gloria, in December 2020 to most cancers weighs closely.

“The hardest thing is not sharing dinner at night. And that bottle of wine.” He goes quiet for an extended second.

In distilling his reflections on delicacies and automobiles, the chef notes what he sees as a lamentable pattern: the loss of selection, attributable to the motives of companies.

“There is more food today in the supermarket than there has ever been before,” Mr. Pépin says. “But at the same time, there is more standardization. I try to shop where ordinary people shop, to get the best price. And I cannot go to the supermarket and find chicken backs and necks anymore.”

The identical is true, he says, of the auto business, the place the rising use of a small pool of multinational suppliers, together with stricter rules and companies’ elevated reluctance to take possibilities, has rendered automobiles ever extra comparable throughout manufacturers.

“The special characteristics which made French cars different don’t really exist anymore, even in France,” he says. “They all follow the same aesthetic. Neither French food nor French cars have the same cachet they used to have.”

Mr. Pépin stays philosophical. He mourns the loss of distinctively French automobiles, however clearly isn’t shedding sleep over it. Ditto French meals.

As lengthy as “people are getting together” and cooking high quality components, he has hope, for “eating together is probably what civilization means.”

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