The minute you hear Jacques Pépin utter the words "Hello bonjour, it's hard not to fall in love. Our midday interview interrupts his lunch and instead of phoning me back, he charmingly apologizes for his constant chewing. But don't expect this celebrated food icon to be noshing on a tuna salad and a bag of carrot sticks. His lunches are what you'd expect from a French chef. "I just whipped up some fresh farm eggs, tossed in some diced homegrown organic tomatoes with a handful of wild mushrooms and sprinkled some fresh herbs into the mix," he says casually, as if everyone makes an organic omelette for lunch.
Cooking rustic farm fare is as natural for Jacques as takeout is for a noncook. Which explains the latest phase of his culinary career: convenience. But that doesn't mean that he wants readers of his book (his 23rd), Jacques Pépin Fast Food My Way, to confuse fast food with bad food. The trick is to think like a chef. "It's all about good-quality ingredients that you can combine in under an hour," he says. "I'm not asking anyone to debone a chicken or make stock from scratch. It's all about creating menus from items already in your pantry or with fresh ingredients that you grabbed at the market. It's ideal for cooking after work or putting something together when unexpected guests arrive."
The great thing about Jacques' approach to cooking is that you spend less time in the kitchen and more time with family and friends. That's an ideal philosophy, especially when planning a meal for your sweetheart on Valentine's Day. "You don't need to cook a five-course meal to show someone you love them," he says. "Just take frozen raspberries, throw them into a gratin dish with sugar, a little clump of butter, and crumble chocolate chip cookies on top and bake for 16 to 18 minutes. It's so easy. Not only will your guests be in love, they'll think you're a genius."
Not only does Jacques have the perfect French accent and culinary know-how, but this food celebrity can also heat up just about any kitchen.
Here are his tips for serving up a romantic meal for Valentine's Day.
Get out of the kitchen. Choose a simple menu with dishes that can be made ahead, like soup and simple desserts, so you can spend time with your special guest.
Practise the art of romance. Select a dish that's associated with Valentine's Day, like a dessert with chocolate or berries. There's nothing more romantic than playing up a theme.
Pick quick dishes. Go with recipes that are easy to make; for example, appetizers like smoked salmon and capers, and prosciutto and figs are hard to botch.
Work and play together. If you do have to spend time in the kitchen, cook a dish or two together.