The Day I cooked for Jacques Pépin

I recently had the honor of being a chef volunteer at the 5th annual Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival. I first caught wind of the idea through a west-coast based family member, “uncle” Kent, who I’ve just been getting to know over the past 2 years.  You might remember a blog post from the early days of UMK titled; A life without cheese, is not a life worth living!  when I first met Kent in his cheese shop in Carmel, CA.  Kent, a former Hawaiian native, professional sommelier and serious cheese intellectual has the friendliest personality west of the Mississippi, not to mention he’s a natural born networker and knows everybody.  

When Kent first mentioned the PBFW was coming up in April of this year, he said “hey maybe you want to come? I can probably put you in touch with the event organizers and perhaps they can get you volunteering in the kitchens”  Really?, I thought to myself. How cool! I immediately planned to be there.  After sending my resume around and having a phone interview with the head Chef Liasion, Dorothy… things started moving.  I was offered a position to come work and she told me she’d do her best to ‘take care of me’.

It wasn’t until 2 weeks before the event when I found out what she meant…

Holy Sh*t. Eyes wide, mouth dropped open, nervous laughter begins… Jacques Pépin. How? what? me?!

When I arrived at the Spanish Bay club to meet Chef Harvey Wolff, Jacques Pépin’s tour/chef manager on Thursday morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was excited.  Upon meeting Harvey, he was an energetic guy, with a lovely British accent, adorning cigarettes behind both his ears. As we waited for our other chef volunteer, Janet, to arrive, Harvey and I engaged in small talk and found we had quite a lot of things in common, this comforted me, eased my excited nerves and got me ready to work!

Once Janet arrived, we made our way down to the kitchens. One minute it’s a quiet, peaceful, California sunshiny day and with one swing of the door we enter a chaotic, busy kitchen; pots clanking, the sounds of dish washer spray, rolling carts of products, dishes being stacked, Spanish, English, French speaking flutters about.  I love this.  We locate our rack of product and head to find a kitchen.

As we prep our mise en place and put together our plan of attack, Harvey puts Janet and I in charge. We are given two student volunteers, with the hopes of receiving a few more. Prepping 1000 pieces in 8 hours seemed doable…and then we got started.

  • 45 lbs of tuna, filleted and small diced
  • 3 crates of cucumber, mandolin sliced paper thin, and cut to fit each .5 oz tuna tartare
  • 24oz of pressed caviar to be rolled paper thin and stamped out into 1000 circles
  • 1 lbs of shallots, brunoised
  • 1 lb of garlic, brunoised.
  • 1 jug of horseradish
  • 750 ml red wine vinegar
  • 4 volunteers total

We quickly realize we have a daunting task in front of us, but this was the job and this was for Jacques Pépin.

When we finally began working it was already 11am, by then we had luckily secured one other student volunteer making us a team of 5.  Time to get started! Janet and I filleted the tuna, Dominique rolled, pressed, and cut the caviar. Nathan worked on the cucumber slices, and the other student who was as slow as molasses helped out wherever she could. By 1pm we only had 100 pieces prepped on a sheet tray and they weren’t even wrapped in cucumber or garnished with the caviar yet. With one glance, Janet and I both knew we had to get moving!

This hors d’oeuvres, although wonderful in concept was a nightmare in execution. All pieces needed to be worked on quickly and stored back in the walk in, handling raw fish, caviar and cucumber does not last long if out of refrigeration for too long.  We found ourselves making small batches of tuna tartare, rolling and slicing the extremely delicate caviar and rushing it into the walk in. Attention to detail along with time and temperature control was of strict importance.

By 2pm, we had another 150 done.

At 4pm we were only at 500…

Service was to begin at 6:30 and we were IN.THE.WEEDS.

With 2.5 hours to go, our kitchen became fluttered with other chefs such as, Michael Chiarello, Daniel Joly, Michael Cimarusti, Daniel Boulud, Michael Symon,  and Anne Burrell, PLUS their assistants and teams! All of a sudden space became public enemy #1.

Adrenaline was pumping, my hands were starting to shake due to the lack of food and low blood sugar, but I was too involved with my job at hand to be star struck.  Here I am calling shots, moving trays, garnishing, slicing cucumbers and cleaning up my work station simultaneously in between Michael Cimarusti (Top Chef Masters guy, hello!) and Michael Chiarello (tv Celeb chef). Very cool, but totally unphased.

Plating began at 6pm, and we only had 850 pieces nearly finished. Setting up an assembly line in the midst of chaos was interesting, but we made it work. Michael Cimarusti helped give us more room, we stacked our pieces on top of sinks, rolling carts, and other peoples food! Whatever it took to get these out to the guests while still cold and delicious.

Between 6pm and 9pm we were making Tuna Tartare with pressed caviar and chive blossoms a’la minute. Hectic. Fun. Beautiful looking and… worth it.

Finished product: Tuna tartare, wrapped in cucumber with pressed caviar, chive blossoms and garlic aioli.

Jacques station and caviar promotion

Around 8pm Jacques and Claudine came into the Kitchen. The commotion around us quickly slowed down and the other chefs in the room took notice.  Chef Pépin is a happy older man, who’s a well respected icon. His presence is fascinating to all who are in the room.  He comes over to thank us for our hard work and to give us credit for making his dish well. He and Claudine are clearly pleased of the outcome and of the buzzing guests on the floor mentioning “the wonderful hors d’oeuvres by Jacques Pépin!”  He graciously shakes each of our hands, looks us in the eye, and wishes us well with our future culinary adventures.  Claudine comes up to me and says “Your Kent’s niece right?”  “Yes” I say, then she goes into what a wonderful guy Kent is, how happy she is to meet me and have me here, and then calls “papa” over in her lovely french accent to come take a photo…

An epic moment

One of the most exciting moments of my life.  I’ve met a few celebrities here and there, but no one person has been more influential and inspiring than of Jacques Pépin. It was an absolute pleasure to work my butt off for him, to go a full day without food, to learn high end production in an over the top, chaotic, environment. It was the best learning experience this budding culinarian could get in a days work.

I also learned a lot about myself on this particular day which is far more beneficial then the actual work we did.  I learned that I can do this. I can kick butt in a kitchen. I can give direction, and can take it. I can motivate others.  I looked at the situation, mapped it out quickly in my head, and got it done;  precisely, efficiently, timely, safely and confidently. But the biggest piece I take from this was that I was able to earn the respect of those around me.  After all the work I’ve done in school over the last 18 months, this moment made it all worth it and it was the first real experience that made me realize I made the right choice to follow my passion.

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them- Walt Disney

Next up: Los Angeles Food & Wine August 9-13!


9 responses

  1. Wow Gretchen, what an experience you had. I’m so glad it confirmed your decision to pursue cooking. Reading about it is so inspirational….Way to go and keep up the great work and learning! I had no doubt you could do it :)

  2. I’m proud of you Gretch! Wherever you end up, no doubt you’ll be a total success! Fun & exciting piece to read. :)

  3. Really enjoyed reading about what really goes on behind the scenes in a busseling kitchen- The products outcome looked amazing! Bravo!!

  4. Congratulations Gretchen!!!!! This was so fun to read about. Glad you’re living your culinary dream!!! -dani

  5. All I can say is, “Wow!” What a great experience and job well done! You will go far m’dear. Sounds like you have a really great “uncle,” too, but I’m not biased! ;)

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