Le Chef du PBS 

It takes a village to produce Jacques Pepin's new cooking series.

The tree-spackled daylight appears to flow through the windows in Jacques Pepin's kitchen, but back up fifteen feet and you'll be engulfed in wires, cameras, and swarms of crewmembers.

Pepin is in the midst of filming a new series, "Fast Food My Way," at San Francisco's KQED studios. The elder statesman of French food in the United States -- and, more important, good culinary technique -- has come up with 26 episodes' worth of simple, easy recipes for busy home cooks. His series will air in the fall on PBS stations around the country, accompanied by a cookbook containing all the featured recipes. The show I'm viewing is the second of three being filmed today, at a rate of twelve per week.

In the production kitchen before the show starts taping, culinary producer David Shallack surveys his team of eight cooks, who are all slicing and measuring out ingredients at restaurant-rush speed. They're collating all the supplies for the upcoming episode, he tells me, and rushing to prep the food for the one after. Unless it's a stew or a cake, say, Pepin cooks each dish with the cameras rolling. For dishes that take more time, Shallack's team makes two or three stunt doubles, called "twins," each coming three or four steps down the instruction chart from the last twin. (That's how Pepin can put a casserole in the oven and pull it out, finished, three minutes later.) Of course, the master chef tends to make last-minute changes, so everybody stays connected via radio set, ready to dash out to chop herbs or peel the fat off the prosciutto.

Onscreen, Pepin appears a genial, fatherly figure, the kind of guy you'd want to have teach your six-year-old to hold a cleaver, so it's easy to forget he used to be the personal chef to Charles de Gaulle. On the set, he's 100 percent a chef: unflaggingly wry and polite, sure, but also quiet, quick, and authoritative. Before the taping he runs through the instructions, tastes all the ingredients, and even chooses the utensils he wants next to him for each segment. Though the mood is congenial, everyone hustles to oblige.

Pepin relaxes, though, when the cameras start rolling. Unlike many TV chefs, he works completely unscripted, relying on the director's notes just for the order of the dishes he's preparing and the mark he'll stand on. On a few occasions, the crew stops for twenty minutes to clear away some of the ingredients and set up for another segment, but it's a clean, fast shoot. In the down moments Pepin stands around patiently, staying focused, popping whatever's near him into his mouth, and after every bite the makeup woman dashes back to repowder his chin.

Unfortunately, I have to leave before the cameramen can finish filming the "beauty shots" of the finished dishes: asparagus with croutons and chorizo, a spectacular three-tier almond cake with berries, and cantaloupe with prosciutto. The cake was torture to leave behind, but the rest of the crew was welcome to the melon. It'd been salted three times.


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