Inside Jacques Pépin’s Friendship With Julia Child

Jacques Pépin and Julia Child come from two very distinctly different worlds.

The doyenne of French cooking for an American audience and a Frenchman who uses traditional French techniques to craft some of the most mouthwatering dishes ever seen on television seem like an unlikely pair. Even more unlikely was their friendship, which began most unusually, bonding over her manuscript for the legendary cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Jacques learned about Julia from a mutual friend, Helen McCully, the food editor of House Beautiful magazine. At the time, Jacques was only in America for a few months, a French export who came to America in 1959 and encountered an unfamiliar food culture.

So how did Jacques and Julia become the best of friends? Their story is one brought together by a love of food and preserving French culinary culture, as well as a camaraderie that transcended language and ability.

How did Julia and Jacques meet?

Jacques Pépin was only in America for several months, having arrived in 1959 when he met with Helen McCully, who reviewed Julia’s book manuscript for publication.

He was dismayed at the types of food being served in America, having learned about food origins and how to use the freshest ingredients from his mother as a young boy growing up in France (via WTTW).

He admitted he had never read a cookbook, tasted iceberg lettuce, and was woefully unprepared for the lack of what he claimed were fresh vegetables at American supermarkets. Canned convenience foods were all the rage during that period. Jacques was just 23 years old when he began work at the legendary New York City French restaurant Le Pavillion. During his time at Le Pavillion he was introduced to many celebrities and regular folk who wanted to taste authentic French cooking. It was his through his connection to the restaurant that he met Helen who, in turn, introduced him to Julia. 

"A very tall woman with a really terrible voice"

Helen spoke of Julia’s work on the manuscript and suggested that she and Jacques cook for the Massachusetts native, whom Helen said to Jacques was “a very tall woman with a really terrible voice (via The New York Times).

He said to The New York Times that he forgot what he cooked that day for his new soon-to-be friend, except for a big apple galette for dessert. He noted that he and Julia mainly spoke French to one another, and her French was better than his English at that time.

The two realized that they were kindred spirits. Both began their food journeys at the same time. Julia had moved to Paris with her husband Paul, who was working for the State Department and relocated to France. On their first night there, Paul took Julia to a restaurant called La Couronne, giving his wife her first experience with the country’s cuisine (via PBS). She admitted she was hooked on French cuisine from that day forward and enrolled in the famed Le Cordon Bleu academy, where she learned French cookery basics.

Jacques learned American cooking at Howard Johnson's

Instead of taking a job offered to him at The White House by John Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, Jacques instead mastered American cuisine at the restaurant chain Howard Johnson. It was there that the classically trained learned American eating habits, flipped burgers, and attempted to introduce French cuisine to the masses via Beef Burgundy (via WTTW). He also cooked clam strips and chowder for the chain’s patrons.

Jacques also learned the American way of mass-producing favorite foods and tailored his cooking to serve hundreds a day. It was a valuable lesson in American gastronomy and one he took seriously. He worked alongside Pierre Franey, whom Johnson had also pilfered from Le Pavillion. Jacques would go on to become head chef of the main Howard Johnson’s commissary in Queens Village, where he worked for ten years (via Westword).

Jacques and Julia bonded over their love of food, gossip, and shared their recipes, each taking away invaluable lessons from the other.

Julia became a television personality, bringing her love of French cooking to a mass audience

Julia debuted her original television series, The French Chef, in 1963. It ran through 1966. The show was aimed at women who were envious of the chic and worldly ways of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy — ironically, the woman who tried to lure Jacques to cook for the family at The White House.

The American chef found an audience for her series, which targeted women who wanted to acquire French food tastes, broken down into more straightforward steps than traditional French cuisine. She crafted dishes such as Beef Bourguignon, Quiche Lorraine, Coq au vin, and Cassoulet, straight from her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking (via Biblio.com). These methods and foods were in direct contrast to the convenience foods that Jacques had encountered in his first trip to an American supermarket.

Jacques gained fame through cooking techniques in his first book, La Technique, and his second, La Methode, both of which have been used for years as the cornerstones of primary culinary education. His popularity grew in the 1980s with his first PBS series, titled Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pépin (via Food & Wine).

Julia and Jacques both taught at Boston University

Jacques told The New York Times that he and Julia wrote to the then-university president of Boston University, John Silber, and asked the school to establish a gastronomy program. He obliged and the friends found themselves as teachers to students who wanted to learn the basics of cooking. Julia and Jacques would teach together and even argue on stage as they stood their ground on their respective opinions. These classes were eventually taped for PBS and called “Cooking in Concert.”

Their rapport was so contagious, PBS eventually gave Julia and Jacques their own series for public television titled Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home. They would eventually craft about 100 dishes for the series of 24 shows and create recipes together, each playing off the other until they found a delicate balance of creative and culinary skills.

“I like black pepper and she liked white pepper; she didn’t like kosher salt and I do,” he admitted.

Jacques says Julia still influences him

In an interview with NPR, Jacques said that he was still influenced by all he had learned during his decades-long friendship with Julia.

Jacques said that he hears her often, “Very often. When I don’t put enough butter in the dish, there can be plenty more butter!”

During one collaboration, their show was sponsored by Land O’Lakes, the producer of dairy products. The representative was on set, and the two crafted some dough. As they were finishing up, Julia told Jacques that she wanted to make one more batch. He retrieved the flour and salt for his friend, and when he was ready to add the butter, Julia stopped him, telling him she wanted to use a brand name shortening instead (via MediaFeed).

“So, I say, ‘but Julia, we don’t have any Crisco.’ To that, she pulls some out from under the counter and hands it to me. Crisco. With the Land O’ Lakes sponsor sitting right there. After the show I say to her, ‘Julia, you don’t have to pander to the sponsors, but you don’t have to antagonize them, either.'” he joked.

Jacques called his collaborations with Julia "plain joy"

The beloved chef said that his work with Julia in the kitchen was “plain joy” (via MediaFeed).

He admitted that his longtime friend and collaborator was all about the simple pleasures food can bring as well as mastering challenging culinary techniques. She was also not above enjoying some fast food time and again.

“I think it was just plain joy in the kitchen, you know? To be happy to cook and to be happy to eat,” he said. “You have to cook with abandon, you have to cook with joy, and you have to eat with joy and be happy in what you’re doing. She had no taboo in that sense. She was a very humble girl — she ate French fries from McDonald’s as well as anything else. I think we demystified cooking to a certain point and showed the fun of cooking together and sharing food.”

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