Have you heard of Jacques Pépin’s La Technique? Or La Methode? If you are as serious about French cooking as Julia Child, you have been sleeping with them beneath your pillow since they were first published in the late 1970s. If you are like me, you have learned of Jacques Pépin considerably later with the resurging interest in French cuisine thanks to the works of Anthony Bourdain and books like Julie and Julia. I confess with shame that I have owned Complete Techniques for more than five years but haven’t bothered to look at it until recently; my cooking aspirations are exceeded only by my inertia when it comes to improving skills that I think I already possess in passable measure. But let me assure you: it is worth taking the time to look at Complete Techniques closely. Yes, it is informative and astoundingly well-illustrated with step-by-step black-and-white photographs, yes, the instructions are clear and easy to follow, and yes, you will learn many (309!) very valuable cooking techniques and basic recipes from a culinary authority. But the real pleasure in this book is its ability to take you away, like its contemporary Calgon, from the harried nature of the North American kitchen. Farewell meals made from three cans and a package of instant noodles whose only virtue resides dubiously in its ability to be ‘thrown together’ and eaten out of an old yogurt container over the sink! Retreat into the pages of Complete Techniques, a place where food is meant to be delicious and beautiful, cooking enjoyable and creative.
It is true that at first glance Complete Techniques does not strike as a book about creative cooking. It instead strikes as the instruction manual that it is. Take Technique One, for example, ‘Holding a Knife’. It turns out that, according to Jacques Pépin, I have been holding a knife incorrectly all of these years. Would Jacques Pépin praise me for my freestyle chopping? Unlikely. This is because Complete Techniques approaches food the way that great musicians approach music: in order to be creative, one must first understand – really know – the elemental components and the traditional arrangements; only then can one emulate, respond, and innovate. Complete Techniques is therefore devoted to inculcating the basic skills necessary to prepare ingredients well so that they may be arranged into pleasing constellations of flavour and texture.
The book is divided into seven chapters ‘The Basics’, ‘Shellfish and Fish’, ‘Vegetables’, ‘Poultry and Meat’, ‘Carving’, ‘Breads’, and ‘Pastry and Dessert’. Each section contains numerous instructions on preparation of ingredients – seeding a tomato, skinning and filleting fish, filling a pastry bag, that sort of thing – and a variety of foundational recipes ranging from timeless onion soup and chicken pie to the probably less timeless salmon molded in aspic. Yet what Jacques Pépin considers ‘basics’ are themselves telling of a more gracious cuisine than the food that slouches upon many a modern table. Some inclusions, say, Technique Thirty-Two, ‘Scrambled Eggs’, are expected and almost superfluous (until you read them: I have been scrambling eggs improperly too, it turns out), but others will chasten those of us who want to post to Facebook when we manage to pull off a garnish of minced chives. Take Technique Forty, ‘Mushroom Fish’, that is, mushrooms that are made to look like fish, or Technique Forty-Four, ‘Flower Vases with Squash’ which are exactly what you think they are. When was the last time I put flowers on the table, even in a vase that has not been hand-carved from a butternut? I can’t even think. Why have I not been making use of Technique Forty-Two, ‘Cucumber Turtles’? I realize that my cooking has been positively grumpy in its utilitarianism. Perhaps my picky-eater children would regard dinner less as a punitive event and more as a pleasure – and so would I – if I were to appeal to at least four of the five senses with food instead of doggedly pursuing just the one, flavour, whose presence yields too often to concern over fibre or fat anyway. But limited time demands no-nonsense austerity, my inertia counters. Where will the time to put together ‘Olive Rabbits’, Technique Forty-Five, come from? From practice, Jacques Pépin would respond. Instilling proficiency is one of the stated aims of Complete Techniques (pp. vii-viii): you learn and rehearse the techniques and they become second nature, quick. Culinary sophistication and visual appeal are not sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.
It will perhaps be clear that reading through Complete Techniques can be a personal journey. This is in spite of the fact that the book is entirely about the food and not about the cook’s ego. Far be it from me to blame you for feeling proud of yourself if you manage to create sugar ‘Angel Hair’, Technique Two Hundred Forty-Eight, which involves waving hot sugar over a wooden spoon handle suspended over a newspaper-covered floor while standing on a stool for extra height. But Complete Techniques is not about fostering the cook’s self-esteem or smugness, it is about training a food lover to make food worth eating. Take chicken, for example. Jacques Pépin will not wheedle you into using a whole chicken instead of a package of boneless skinless breasts because recent studies demonstrate such-and-such health benefit of eating meat with bones. Instead, he provides directions on how prepare a whole chicken for different methods of cooking. The point is the chicken and how you are going to treat it, not the other way around.
Yet Jacques Pépin is careful to encourage his reader-student and is in fact endearingly supportive and understanding. He sympathizes with the difficulty of finding good cooking vessels that are both affordable and won’t discolour food (pp. 1-2). ‘Cooks often get confused when they hear names such as “brown sauce,” glace de viande (meat glaze)…jus, “broth,” “bouillon”, and so forth. In fact, it is confusing,’ he empathizes, and then launches into twenty pages of instruction on meat stocks to disentangle their mysteries. He worries about his readers damaging their skillet handles in the oven (p. 331: ‘be sure to cover it with several layers of aluminum foil,’) while making potatoes in the shapes of small soaps. He allows you a shortcut when things really might get frustrating or emotional, assuring the reader-student that ‘[t]hough we show you how to skin a rabbit, your butcher will do it for you if you prefer.’ And lest you feel like a failure if your first attempts at French bread are disappointing, he points out that ‘[v]ery simple recipes are often the most deceptive because they are the hardest to make well…Yet these ultra-simple recipes demand years of practice to achieve perfection.’ By the time you get to Technique Two Hundred Thirty-One, ‘Multilayered Mocha Cake’, and you read ‘[while h]olding the cake flat on one hand, ice all around. Turn the cake on your hand against the direction of the spatula,’ you know he will forgive you for the many cakes that will plummet to the floor as you work to conquer this technique. And if it is possible with patient practice to master icing a cake by using your own hand as a turntable, what recipe could ever again seem too demanding to try?
Most cookbooks expand your repertoire of individual recipes. Jacques Pépin will inspire you to be a better cook. Do yourself a favour and let him.
Pauline Ripat teaches Classics (when not practising cucumber turtles) in Winnipeg, where she lives with her husband and two sons.