The Food Lab's Reading List, Day 19: The Apprentice

Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

No matter how many great things you say about Jacques Pépin, there's always more. Through his books and videos, he taught me the importance of technique in the kitchen, but, more significantly, he showed me what it means to be a great teacher and educator. He was called the best chef in America by Julia Child and is one of the most respected chefs to ever live, yet he carries himself with humility and good humor. He's got an earnest zeal to teach and can't help but insert useful lessons into every appearance he makes or paragraph he writes. His teaching style is authoritative yet approachable, a combination that I've been striving to capture in my own writing for a good decade now.

He's unquestionably a master, but before he was the master, he was The Apprentice, and his memoir tells the story of how he became one of the world's great teachers.

The story begins in World War II–era France, where Pépin, a child then, lives in the countryside (where food is more plentiful than in the cities) with his mother and two brothers, his father in the Resistance army. He earns his meals working on farms. It traces Pépin's culinary education, a trial by fire that starts off figuratively—in the kitchens of the cafés and restaurants his parents open after the war—and later turns literal when he becomes an apprentice in Lyon at the age of 13, with the job of feeding the giant wood- and coal-fired stove that fuels the restaurant.

As Pépin brute-forces his way through a banquet for which he is undertrained, he gets his first taste of the spotlight. "He took a picture of me—magnificent in toque, jacket, and scarf—standing proudly behind my platters of artistically presented hake. I was famous." It's interesting to see that even at this age, Pépin had an urge to show his work off, though he quickly learns early lessons in humility when he enters the world of Paris haute cuisine and begins anonymously cooking over 200 meals a day. "Ours was not the flash of star chefs, it was the toil of many."

Within a few years, Pépin winds up as personal chef to Charles de Gaulle. Charles de Gaulle! I had no idea about any of this when I read his books on techniques or watched his shows growing up. Can you imagine a celebrity chef these days having been not just a badass in fancy restaurants but also the personal chef to a world leader, and you not hearing about it when they put out their cookbook or show? The Apprentice is the anti-swagger chef's book. It's the antithesis of the ethos (and egos) of characters like Marco Pierre White, or Gordon Ramsay, or even Anthony Bourdain (though at least Bourdain seems to get the irony of his success).

Pépin's seriousness comes from his dedication to and passion for cooking, not his desire to become famous doing it, and this is no small part of what makes his book and teaching so approachable. What celebrated modern chef, in their right mind, would go from being at the top of the Paris food chain to packaging frozen beef stroganoff and chicken pot pies in the assembly-line kitchens at HoJo's? But that's exactly what he does when he moves to the United States. Howard Johnson himself takes him under his wing and shows him what being in America—which, at the time, was aching for someone who could step in and teach it how to cook—is about. We're all the better for it, as his years at HoJo's led him on a path to teaching and television.

Whether you grew up watching or reading Pépin or not, The Apprentice is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at four worlds—WWII France, high-end restaurants, hotel chains, and television—that anyone interested in food media or cooking could enjoy.

You can buy The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen here.