Written by Mary Ellen Fillo Photographed by STEPHEN DUNN Hartford Courant
MADISON, Conn. - Jacques Pepin's new kitchen would make even the most reluctant cook willing to try.
From the artistically arranged rows of hanging stainless, cast-iron and copper pans to the maple-seated bar stools that invite visitors to "sit down and stay awhile," the superstar chef's spacious new work room at his Madison home feels like the perfect blend of utility and hospitality.
"It should be a little of both," says the personable master chef, food columnist, cooking teacher and author, best known for his award-winning cooking shows. "It is my workshop, and it is a place to enjoy," he says, scanning the 22- by 30-foot room, which blends contemporary amenities and antiques.
Most striking about the space is the hint it gives to Pepin's other passion … art. The walls are lined with his original oil paintings, all signed simply "Jacques," with the "J" serving as a handle of an umbrella "Pepin means umbrella in French, you know," he explains.
Copies of his simple, almost fanciful drawings of foods and other culinary images were made into decorative tiles that are interspersed with the white ceramic tiles on the soffit above the sink and one of several work areas. "Coming to America," the title of one tile, marks his relocation to the United States from Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyon, France, where he was born to a family who owned a restaurant. Under what appears to be a blue-tinged ocean wave is a caricature of a clove of garlic, drawn to resemble an octopus.
Sparkling stainless steel, commercial-grade KitchenAid appliances are the nuts and bolts of the cooking space, located in an outbuilding yards from Pepin's main house. A five-burner, 36-inch gas cooktop sits center stage on a 9-foot-long island topped with rose-colored quartz. The stove is positioned to make it easy for camera crews to tape his work, Pepin explains, while also allowing him to talk with guests who might plunk down on the ergonomically correct, "memory return" bar stools on the other side of the island.
A commercial-size, glass-front refrigerator and freezer drawers, food-warming drawers and two dishwashers are strategically placed to make cooking and cleanup organized and convenient.
"When you plan a new kitchen, you should first have a chef look at it," he says with his signature lightheartedness and down-to-earth approach to good cooking. "After the chef tells you how it should be done, then have your decorator come in and finish it."
A dual-zone wine cooler (to provide just the right temperature for the reds and the whites, he explains), a microwave, two ovens and a toaster oven help round out the oversize kitchen, which Pepin jokes saved his 39-year marriage.
"My wife, Gloria, was tired of the intrusions of interviews and filmings in the house and told me I had to move the kitchen," he says. "We had this guest house, where we also kept the pingpong table, so I decided to build a new kitchen here. Now everyone is happy."
Salvaged hickory wood provides the backdrop for an intriguing display of hanging pots and pans that include his own brand by Bourgeat, as well as others, including T-Fal and Cuisinart.
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"I wanted it to look like art," Pepin says.
Several crocks along another counter hold a similarly eclectic collection of spoons, whisks and other cooking paraphernalia. Among the tidy array is an autographed wooden spoon that says "Bon Appetit to Jacques" and is signed "Julia Child, 3/1/98."
Twin antique tiger-maple sideboards flank a huge, free-form, white walnut dining table, made from scrap boards Pepin discovered. The kitchen also includes a rolling work table that can hold a dozen baking sheets or trays of hors d'oeuvres.
Open any of the customized cabinets or cupboards, or the decorative pantry door, which Pepin also painted, and the first thing you notice is order.
After a guest comments that it doesn't look like he does any cooking in the new space, Pepin is quick to explain why.
"I can't stand to work where it is dirty or messy," he said, recounting the time and elbow grease that goes into making everything spotless and back in its place when the cooking is done. "I stay away from clutter."
Pepin quickly shakes his head "no" when asked if he has a trash compactor.
"I have this," he says, wheeling out an unassuming, oversize gray plastic commercial garbage can that fits into a custom-made space in the work island. "I took it with me when I left Howard Johnson's," he says with a grin, referring to his 10-year stint as director of research and new development for Howard Johnson Co.
A nearby sitting area includes custom-made bookcases filled with personal memorabilia and cookbooks. Emphatic that music is also a component when cooking, Pepin included a sound system that on a recent visit he had tuned to soft jazz and vintage rock.
Cooking is not a task but an art that should be celebrated, he says, and the kitchen should say something about the person who prepares the food.
"And this space," Pepin says, "is me."