Linda explores food trends, celebrity chefs, and great places to eat.
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.
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.
Read More From Delishably
"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.
"It is the queen of chickens and the chicken of kings."
— Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French epicure and gastronome, 1825
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.
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.
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
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)
- 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
- 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.
- Flip the chicken pieces over and cook the other side for 3 minutes more. The chicken will still be raw in the center.
- 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.
- 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.
- After 25 minutes the chicken should be done; remove it to a plate and set aside.
- 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.
- 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
© 2021 Linda Lum