One week ago I had the opportunity to cook for a legend. I had one weeks notice. When I heard that Jacques Pépin was coming to Cumberland Island for a visit I was thrilled and focused. The big question was what would the menu be?
When cooking for a legend, how do you write a menu? In a world of 20 course tasting menus, avant-garde plating, and foraging for rare ingredients it can be overwhelming for me as a Chef to focus on how to create a memorable meal. How do we define good food in our culture? Do the best restaurants have to be the most expensive, the most exclusive mausoleums that suspend the reality of what food is? I think not. The older I get, the more confident I become with my cooking, and I realize that so much of my industry relies on smoke and mirrors. The best food, most often times, is the simplest food. Good ingredients, good technique, and a sense of place are the key components for the best restaurants. Food is welcoming and nourishing.
In writing the menu I knew right of the bat what the focal point would be, chicken thighs. I wanted to cook for Jacques Pépin what I would cook for friends and family. The type of food I wish I could find in more restaurants. I knew the best way for me to prepare for this meal was to not over think the menu. So I went with what was in season and what was fresh out of the garden. To cook such a straight- forward meal for a legend comes down to the details.
Lunch for Jacques Pépin
Roasted Chicken Thighs with braised hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, green garlic, and chervil
Roasted Baby Beet and Mokum Carrots with petit lettuces, sorrel, ice lettuce, and green goddess
Crispy Potatoes tossed in salsa verde and preserved lemon
Meyer Lemon Pudding Cakes with chamomile cream
The menu was not finalized until the morning that I stepped into the kitchen on the day we would execute this lunch. To be honest, it was one of the most focused services I had ever lead. The meal was served on large platters, family style. Dessert was plated individually. We cooked for Jacques Pepin, his lovely wife Gloria, and his close friend and photographer Tom Hopkins and his wife Christine Hopkins.
At the end of the meal, I was invited to sit down at the table and have a glass of wine. The words exchanged at that table will forever impact me. Jacques Pépin was truly complementary of the meal and went so far as to relate my cooking to that of his mothers and aunts. For me, there is no greater compliment.
The world of the Chef is crazy. We work insane hours under high stress and intense heat. Often times there is little to no balance for personal time and family. But for those of us that chose this path, and stick with it through the success and the failures, there are great rewards and no reward is greater than to be able to do what we love, and have it be appreciated and understood.
There is no doubt, that cooking for Jacques Pépin was and will always be a landmark moment in my career.
Thank you to Ben Wheatley, Alejandro Tamez, Alberto Gonzalez, and Christopher Becerra for helping to execute this memorable meal. And thank you to Tom Hopkins for documenting the afternoon and sharing these beautiful photos with us.
After the lunch we hosted I had a chance to watch a great interview of Jacques Pépin by Anthony Bourdain, click on the link below to watch.