At 87, Jacques Pépin is still the life of the party. In fact, it’s hard to believe that he’ll never not be. Inside the gilded banquet hall of the Pierre Hotel in New York City, the iconic chef, author, artist, TV host, and food educator was grinning ear-to-ear this past Friday night, clinking crystal flutes of Champagne as fast as he was cracking jokes and slapping hands as famous peers and foodie patrons fan-girl-ed around him. After serving as the personal chef of French President Charles de Gaulle, establishing New York’s top French restaurants, cooking for Howard Johnson, and earning 24 James Beard Foundation Awards, Pépin notably lives away from this kind of commotion now—on a four-acre property in Madison, Connecticut, a heavenly film set-slash home replete with two rustic kitchens and a bountiful herb and vegetable garden where he concocts his delicate paintings and painterly food creations—but was in town for the JBF’s Gala for Good as this year’s prestigious honoree. The annual event celebrates culinary leaders that make our food system more equitable, more sustainable, and just generally better. “Who, me?” the chef that all your favorite chefs aspire to be joked to one trendy Manhattan restaurateur who wished him well. Speaking of other chefs—the evening had a stacked cast of eight celebrated talents that collaborated on food for the gala. Beaumont, TX-born Tiffany Derry, for instance, stole much attention from the evening’s silent auction with her crowd favorite po’ boy banh mi sandwiches that were brilliantly stuffed with crunchy cornmeal-crusted catfish, collard kimchi, chicken liver pâté, and sweet yet spicy watermelon hot sauce. But Wild Bearies founder Elena Terry was a serious contender; her wild rice fritter had a southwest punch with pieces of pepita pumpkin seed brittle fresh from Santa Fe. During the seated four courses, Ashfer Biju presented a gorgeous Long Island delicata squash that was accented with pickled eggplant and vibrant roasted red pepper kara chutney, while Meherwan Irani‘s kodi millet with mung beans, yogurt-chickpea kadhi, okra fries, and cilantro oil looked like a literal piece of abstract art. It was almost hard to not ruin the moment by taking a bite, and the fragile edible flowers on top didn’t help. The feast was certainly worthy of Pépin’s innovation and passion, and when the final savory course came (created by the Pierre’s own Michael Mignano), I had hardly any appetite left. That didn’t stop me nor my fellow guests from slicing through the Japanese A5 wagyu like butter and swirling each tender piece into a creamy puddle of butternut squash purée. An expansive dessert buffet under the helm of Mignano awaited those who somehow procured more stomach room, but I was already heading down Fifth Avenue by the time servers began to pour coffee. The night was still young, and as I imagined Pépin felt, there was still so much to be done.
Joshua Glass is the founder and editor-in-chief of Family Style.