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Signature Dishes of Famous Chefs: Jacque Pépin Braised Chicken

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Linda explores food trends, celebrity chefs, and great places to eat.

Simply luxurious and luxuriously simple Jacques Pépin braised chicken, steamed potatoes, and spinach

Simply luxurious and luxuriously simple Jacques Pépin braised chicken, steamed potatoes, and spinach

What Makes a Chef Famous?

There are good chefs, great chefs, and chefs who are known not by how they cook but are acknowledged, remembered, and immortalized for a "signature dish," a meal synonymous with its master chef.

Today we'll discuss Jacques Pépin and how he creates Poulet à la Crème (braised chicken in cream sauce).

A Brief Biography of Jacques Pépin

Rich with gothic architecture and museums, Bourg-en-Bresse is a magnificent cultural gem tucked in the eastern corner of France. This centuries-old city is a treasure chest of French, Flemish, and Italian art, but also entices tourists who appreciate the outdoors. A water sports center, beach, golf course, and fishing are all a part of 21st-century Bourg-en-Bresse. But today our focus is on the early 20th century.

Jacques Pepin was born here in 1935. His mother managed the family restaurant, Le Pélican, and there little Jacques helped, observed, and learned. By five years of age, he knew cooking was his destiny and at the age of 13 began his professional career in the kitchen, serving as an apprentice in the Grand Hotel de L’Europe in Lyon, France.

In 1959 Jacques made the bold decision to move to America.

"There is a tiny kingdom where rivers flow champagne, where the mountains are made of caviar, where always it is spring and roses are forbidden to wilt. This understandably smug monarchy—bounded on the south by the exhaust fumes of Manhattan’s busy 57th St and on the west by the moneyed bustle of Park Ave is the restaurant Le Pavillon, fabled fortress of a la grande cuisine. Reigning over it is a shy, tense, stubborn and uncompromising Frenchman named Henri Soulé."

— Gael Greene, Ladies Home Journal, April 1964

Le Pavillon, New York

April 30, 1939, marked the grand opening of the World’s Fair in New York. Displays from 11 nations/ethnic regions were represented. The centerpiece of the French Pavillion was “Le Pavillon.” This restaurant introduced Americans to French cuisine; after the fair closed Le Pavillon remained and was heralded as one of New York’s finest dining establishments.

Two decades later, Le Pavillon was still the epitome of fine French dining, and it was there that Jacques found his first job in the United States. One might assume that this is the end of the story, but we’ve only just begun.

Le Pavillon Hotel and Restaurant

Le Pavillon Hotel and Restaurant

While working as a cook at Le Pavillon, Jacques met a smooth-talking businessman named Howard Johnson—inventor of restaurant franchising and owner-operator of the orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s diners. HoJo’s, famous for fried clams, hamburgers, and 28 flavors of ice cream, had a reputation for producing food that was quality, consistent, and reasonably priced. Incredibly, Jacques was enticed to abandon Le Pavillon and work for Mr. Johnson as a line cook, frying clams and flipping burgers. Johnson was savvy enough to recognize the potential of his new cook and quickly promoted him to director of research and development.

While working for Johnson, Jacques earned his Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University, gained a Masters of Arts and French studies, and then entered a doctoral program but his proposed thesis on French food in literature was rejected. Jacques carried on though, and in 1970 he opened his own restaurant.

A near-fatal car accident ended his work as a chef but that didn't end his career in food. Jacques reinvented himself once again and became an educator, author, and (eventually) a television personality.

Dedicated to Paying It Forward

The Jacques Pépin Foundation supports community kitchens that provide tuition-free life skills and culinary training to those who face significant barriers to employment, such as homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration, low skills and/or education, or lack of work history.


"We believe that culinary education and the foodservice industry can provide opportunities and hope for individuals who feel excluded from the workforce. With commitment and a relatively small amount of training, culinary training can provide confidence, pathways to better health, employment, and independence."

— Jacques Pépin

And the Story of Poulet à la Crème (Braised Chicken in Cream Sauce)

Braised chicken in cream sauce was not made famous in a world-class, Michelin-star restaurant. This is simple food made well by countless generations of home cooks. This particular recipe is Jacque’s best and loving attempt at recreating a beloved dish often prepared by his mother.

"I was born in Bourg-en-Bresse, an area known for the best chicken in France. One of my mother’s favorite dishes using it was a very simple one made with a bit of chicken stock and white wine. She would poach the chicken and finish it with cream. If you put a blinder on my eyes and then put this dish in front of me, I will recognize it. That taste is part of my effective memory."

— Jacques Pépin

Components of the Pépin Braised Chicken in Cream Sauce

These are the basic ingredients in the Jacques Pépin braised chicken. Each is a defining contribution, crucial to the success of the dish. But the completed braise is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Lean skinless chicken thighs

Lean skinless chicken thighs

"It is the queen of chickens and the chicken of kings."

— Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French epicure and gastronome, 1825

Chicken Thighs

Almost 100 years ago the Poulet de Bresse was unofficially declared the best quality chicken in the world. Its reputation has not diminished since Brillat-Savarin boasted of it in his book The Physiology of Taste. However, the status of this paramount poultry is due to its "terroir," or in simpler terms, the natural environment in which a product is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.

Jacques mère no doubt had a brood of the hens outside her backdoor, but we won't be that fortunate. Poulet de Bresse is not available outside of France. For our purposes, I would recommend the best quality organic chicken you can find. Madame Pépin used a whole cut-up chicken; Jacques prefers to use chicken thighs (the best part of the chicken), and I agree with him.

Cremini  (brown) mushrooms

Cremini (brown) mushrooms

Cremini Mushrooms

In every grocery store produce aisle, the next-door neighbor of the cute little white button mushroom is the cremini. Although different in color, they really are the same mushroom species, but the brown cremini is older (in a good way). The largest in the fungi bins, the portobello, is merely the grown-up version of the cremini. In fact, the cremini is often called a "baby portobello."

Why is the cremini the mushroom of choice for this (and in my humble opinion all recipes)? It's the flavor. While the white button variety is cute, it's also rather tasteless. The cremini is packed with rich umami flavor.

Heavy cream

Heavy cream

Heavy Cream

At this point, my diet-conscious readers are probably considering a substitution:

"Half and half will work just as well as heavy cream, and think of all the calories we'll avoid, not to mention the saturated fat."

Please don't. You won't be eating this dish every day, or even once a week. And we're not using copious amounts of heavy cream—just a mere 1/2 cup. You already know that heavy cream imparts a luxurious mouthfeel to sauces. But there's more to it than that. The higher the fat content, the more resistant to curdling. So, please use heavy cream.

Here's an explanation of the fat content of various dairy products:

  • Half-and-half: 12 percent fat
  • Light cream: 20 percent fat
  • Whipping cream: 35 percent fat
  • Heavy cream: 38 percent fat
Fresh tarragon

Fresh tarragon

French Tarragon

Despite the name, French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa) is not native to France. Its origins have been traced to Siberia—but please don’t confuse it with Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus inodora). French tarragon has smooth, glossy dark-green leaves and a sweet anise flavor.

On the other hand, Russian tarragon is a showy imposter—larger, coarser, and lacking in aroma and flavor. Russian tarragon might take a striking pose in your herb garden, but never allow it to enter your kitchen.

You won't need much to garnish your poulet à la crème, In fact, I suspect that when people say they don't like the flavor of tarragon, it's because the herb was applied much too liberally.

Observant readers might question why I did not use fresh tarragon on the final dish for my family. I have one word: rabbits.

Poulet à la Crème (Braised Chicken in Cream Sauce)

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds of chicken thighs, skinless, bone-in
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 6 ounces cremini mushrooms, (about 8 or 9 medium-sized), sliced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (Chardonnay or a dry Riesling is perfect!)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • fresh tarragon (a sprig or two, minced) for garnish

Instructions

  1. First, pat the chicken pieces dry with paper towels. Melt the butter in a large saute pan with a well-fitting lid. Carefully arrange the chicken pieces in the pan, presentation side down. (Presentation side is the pretty side. A bone-in thigh will have a top side with plump moist flesh, and the bottom, the less visually appealing side, will have exposed knobby bones.) Cook for 3 minutes.
  2. Flip the chicken pieces over and cook the other side for 3 minutes more. The chicken will still be raw in the center.
  3. In a medium-sized bowl, toss the mushrooms with flour, salt, and pepper. Add to the pan with the chicken and stir gently to moisten the mushrooms and flour with the pan drippings.
  4. Add the wine and water; bring the mixture to a boil, and then turn down the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 25 minutes.
  5. After 25 minutes the chicken should be done; remove it to a plate and set aside.
  6. Bring the liquid in the saute pan to a boil; cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid is reduced to about 1 cup. Reduce the heat once again, stir in the cream, and cook for about 1 minute, until the sauce is thickened. Return the chicken to the pan. Sprinkle with chopped tarragon.

Jacques' mother always serve her Poulet à la Crème with rice pilaf. I served this to my family with steamed Yukon gold potatoes and spinach.

Nutritional Information

  • Calories = 569.9
  • Total Fat = 33.3 g
  • Saturated Fat = 16.0 g
  • Cholesterol = 239.5 mg
  • Sodium = 543.6 mg
  • Potassium = 148.3 mg
  • Total Carbs = 7.4 g
  • Protein = 52.6 g

Sources

© 2021 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 28, 2021:

Flourish, Jacques Pepin always comes across to me as a very kind, gracious man without all the excess drama you see from some other celebrities. He and his wife have been married for 55 years.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 28, 2021:

I about fainted when I saw the fat content of the heavy whipping cream because I use it a lot in my kitchen. I guess I'll be changing that! Your story here was riveting. This chef was such a success but suffered some unexpected setbacks in grad school and with the accident. I like that he found a way to flourish anyway and help others. The recipe sounds good and I like that you found a workaround given that the rabbits had plans for what was growing in your herb garden apparently.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on July 21, 2021:

Thank you s much, Linda. You are very kind. God Bless you and keep you safe and healthy. Much Love.

Blessings always

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 21, 2021:

Misbah, yours is the first comment I saw this morning. What a wonderful way to begin the day. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. My love to you dear friend. Take care.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on July 21, 2021:

Thank you, Linda, for sharing Jacques Pepin's fascinating history as well as this delicious recipe. This dish appears to be rich and excellent. You put a lot of time and attention into your work. I always appreciate your efforts.

Many Blessings and Love to you, dear friend

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 19, 2021:

Thank you Denise. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where I simply can't provide a vegan option. But I'm working on several other articles that will include gluten-free (for my Godson) and vegan for you.

Blessings to you.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on July 19, 2021:

The history lesson was fascinating. I won't be making the recipe but loved reading about the origins and the chef's life. Thanks.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 19, 2021:

Rosina, thank you for your comments. It's a satisfying and tasty dish. The photos in the article are from my kitchen. Yes, I love rice but my family tends to prefer potatoes. I do hope you can try this recipe.

Rosina S Khan on July 19, 2021:

Jacques Pépin Braised Chicken looks like an interesting and scrumptious dish. I especially loved the way you made its cream. I think it would taste good with rice and veggies or spinach and steamed potatoes, as you say. Thank you, Linda, for educating us with this wonderful recipe.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 19, 2021:

Shauna, I'll calculate that calorie count for you and will email you and add it to this article.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 19, 2021:

Linda, I find it so interesting that Pepin left fine dining to cook for HoJo's. Wow!

This recipe looks so yummy. What is the nutritional info on this dish? I always look up calorie count, etc. before trying a new recipe. I'd love to try this one.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 19, 2021:

Bill, I am a bit surprised that you haven't heard of Jacques, but that's OK. You are forgiven. Yes, I know you love chicken and hoped you would see this one before it disappeared. I hope you are relaxed and well-rested from your trip to the coast. Here's to a great week!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 19, 2021:

Oh, Manatita, what a sweet thing to say. You have made my day.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 19, 2021:

Pamela, thank you for your kind words and support. Yes, the dish is delicious, but it is also easy to make. Perhaps you'll give it a try?

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 19, 2021:

I have no clue who the chef is, but I love me some chicken, no matter how it is prepared. :) I think I like chicken more than meat, and that's really saying something. :) Have a great week, my friend!

manatita44 from london on July 19, 2021:

One day, someone will be writing about you, Linda. Perhaps I'll start. Ha-ha. My knowledge of food is 'Zilch.', but my knowledge of good writing is par excellence, even though I sound my own trumpet here. This was an exquisite and delicate read!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 19, 2021:

Jacques Pepin has a very interesting history. It sounds like he was born to cook.

You have written a very good article, Linda, as Jacques Pepin is interesting and you have explained all things about this recipe in a very detailed manner.

I appreciate the details about mushrooms and cream. This dish sounds rich and absolutely delicious.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 18, 2021:

Thank you, John. So glad you were able to find this.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on July 18, 2021:

Thank you, Linda, for the very interesting history of Jacques Pepin and also this wonderful recipe. I agree that thighs are the best part of the chicken (breast is too dry and has less flavour.)

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