Half a century after declining a job cooking for the Kennedys, the legendary French chef joins First Lady Michelle Obama to promote Let's Move! at the 2011 White House Easter Egg Roll...
Long before he was regarded as a world renowned teacher of French culinary technique, Jacques Pépin was asked by President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy to be the first-ever Executive Chef at the White House, he told Obama Foodorama. Just twenty-five years old at the time, and in America for a year, Pépin declined the offer to serve his newly adopted country. It took him fifty-one years to actually make it to 160o Pennsylvania Avenue to cook: On Monday, Pépin was among the celeb chefs invited by First Lady Michelle Obama to demonstrate healthy recipes in the Kids' Kitchen at the 2011 White House Easter Egg Roll. Mrs. Obama and Pépin were joined by TV personalities Kelly Ripa and Al Roker for a giddy round of making that French favorite, crepes. (Above: The First Lady watches as Pépin cooks; Ripa and Al Roker are at left)
Pépin told Obama Foodorama he had no idea that working for the glamorous Kennedys might be a career booster, and instead took a job with Howard Johnson, where he led research for the chain's food service. Publicity as it exists today was an unknown concept in 1960, he said.
"It was another world," Pépin said, speaking with an accent that still reflects a boyhood spent in a small village near Lyon, France. "We were the bottom of the social scale, the cooks. Now chefs are geniuses."
The First Lady has done a good deal to ensure that chefs are regarded as geniuses; she anointed her own young chef, Sam Kass, as her Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, bringing him to the White House when he was just 28 (Kass recently celebrated a birthday; he's now 31). Mrs. Obama has repeatedly invited high-profile guest chefs to the White House, where they do double duty as her own army of healthy food policy wonks. And the Chefs Move to Schools project, which matches professional chefs with public schools, is a crucial part of the Let's Move! campaign. About 1,200 chefs across America have now joined. (Above: Kass and Assistant Pastry Chef Susie Morrison watched their boss cook)
But Pépin is the most notable genius chef to visit the White House to date, and Monday was his first time there. Now 76, Pépin got famous without the Kennedys, and is the author of twenty-one cookbooks. He's hosted hundreds of TV shows, and been decorated with all kinds of laurels, including the French Legion d'honneur. He's been the personal chef for three French heads of state.
Guest chefs have cooked at each of Mrs. Obama's three Easter Egg Rolls, but this year was the first time the First Lady has actually participated in a cooking demonstration. The demo station. was set up close to Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden, under a peaked white tent in the Play With Your Food activity area, a carnival of healthy food initiatives that included booths that touted vital elements of the Let's Move! campaign: The importance of eating seasonally, locally, and organically; gardening and beekeeping; farmers markets; and salad bars. (Above: Mrs. Obama and the Easter Bunny, just before the cooking demo)
Pépin's mission at the Easter Egg Roll--the largest in White House history, with more than 30,00o guests from all fifty states--was to show that French cuisine, typically regarded as loaded with butter and high in fat, can actually be healthy. He chose that signature French dish, crepes, to make his case, and was busily cooking with Ripa and Roker when Mrs. Obama arrived to cheers from the gathered crowd. Pépin's daughter Claudine, also a chef, and granddaughter Shari, were also in the kitchen: Part of the message of Let's Move! is that cooking is a family affair.
Within a few minutes, Mrs. Obama, clad in a sleeveless grey and yellow dress, was expertly flipping a crepe in a hot skillet over a burner (above). Kass and a couple of other White House chefs watched their boss show off her cooking skills from the sunny sidelines.
"Are you good at everything?" Ripa asked, laughing, as Mrs. Obama flipped her crepe again.
"No, just lucky," Mrs. Obama replied, also laughing.
Pépin explained why crepes can be considered healthy.
"Half a cup of flour, a little milk and two eggs, some canola oil, I can make 15-20 crepes. When you break it down, it is really nothing at all," Pépin told Mrs. Obama and the avid audience, many of whom held up camera phones and camcorders to capture the amazing minutes of culinary history.
Pépin loaded sauteed vegetables that had just been harvested from the Kitchen Garden--peppers, white kale, "a bunch of herbs," asparagus, and hysop--into the crepes, and he also made berry crepes, with fresh strawberries and organic jam. Mrs. Obama tasted one, and pronounced it delicious, which got cheers from the crowd.
Ripa and Roker, for their part, engaged in a bit of TV-style showmanship, doing what Ripa called "the double," simultaneously biting into each end of a vegetable crepe (l). The First Lady kept mum during this bit of amusement, eating her own crepe without comment.
"I just bit Al's finger!" Ripa exclaimed when she and Roker were done, to more laughter from the audience.
Healthy eating is not about deprivation...
Mrs. Obama drove her point home as she finished eating her crepe.
"Are you guys taking this all in? Do you really see that you can eat healthy and it can taste good too?" Mrs. Obama asked the crowd. "That's the whole point, it's not about deprivation."
Mrs. Obama has been accused by uninformed critics of trying to get Americans to stop enjoying their food, or of seeking to ban things from the dinner table. But the focus of the eating elements of the Let's Move! campaign has been on the "delicious" factor of healthier foods. Her own daughter, Sasha, has "a real palate," Mrs. Obama announced.
"One of Sasha's favorite things is to spend time in the kitchen," Mrs. Obama said, adding that thanks to the White House chefs, Sasha has a special fondness for searing things.
"She's used a blowtorch," Mrs. Obama said. "To sear tuna."
When Pépin again mentioned that his recipe for crepes was healthy thanks to the vegetables from the First Lady's Kitchen Garden, Mrs. Obama took the opportunity to explain more elements of her childhood obesity campaign.
"For the people who aren't gardeners, there are farmers markets," Mrs. Obama said. "And we're working through Let's Move! to increase accessibility and affordability, because there are a lot of neighborhoods in our country that are food deserts, where they don't have access to fresh produce. And that is a huge problem."
One of the biggest challenges of the Let's Move! campaign will be Mrs. Obama's pledge to eliminate food deserts from America in the next six years. The campaign, she said, has all kinds of programs in place to inspire the building of supermarkets in underserved areas. Across from the muddy patch of South Lawn where Mrs. Obama was cooking with the celebs, Easter Egg Roll guests were happily plucking organic apples and pears from a big display in the Farmers Market booth.
Her visit done, Mrs. Obama bid the chefs farewell, hugging all before heading up the South Lawn, which was filled with Olympians, professional sports superstars, and A-list celebrities, all messaging her campaign.
Pépin lauds First Lady...
“Wasn’t that terrific? I was kissed by the First Lady!" Pépin enthused to the crowd after Mrs. Obama left.
Pépin was mobbed with requests for autographs as he stepped out of the Kids' Kitchen, and he posed for plenty of photos. He was thrilled to be at the White House, he told Obama Foodorama. He works with Spoons Across America, a national non-profit that teaches kids about healthy eating and cooking, and he dubbed Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign "amazing."
"It is wonderful the work she has done," Pépin said. The Kitchen Garden, he added, is important to show people where their food comes from.
"The people, many think vegetables are from a plastic rectangle, or a can," Pépin said.
The other guest chefs...
Pépin demo'd his crepes again later in the day for another gang of Easter Egg Roll guests, as did Spike Mendelsohn, a DC chef and former Top Chef competitor who has enjoyed frequent visits from Mrs. Obama at his two local eateries. Another Top Chef contestant, Carla Hall, also demo'd recipes, as did White House Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, and Howard Helmer, who holds the world record as fastest omlette maker. Videos of them in action are here. (Above: A longshot of the Kids' Kitchen; Mrs. Obama's visit was livestreamed, and there was a sign language interpreter on hand, too)
Art Smith, a frequent White House guest chef, also did a recipe demonstration, accompanied by his trainer Az Ferguson. Before he hit the stage, Smith was running around the South Lawn in workout gear, the poster boy for major weight loss. He lost 115 pounds last year, and has publicly credited the First Lady as his inspiration. He's focused his own non-profit, Common Threads, on the Let's Move! campaign: Last year, Mrs. Obama's close friend, Oprah Winfrey, donated $25o,000 to boost Smith's efforts, as a fiftieth birthday present for him.
The First Lady and the President travel to Chicago on Wednesday to tape an episode of Oprah's show together.
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/ObamaFoodorama.com
Related: More posts on the 2011 Easter Egg Roll are HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE.
*2011 Easter Egg Roll Facts ARE HERE. Egg Roll History IS HERE. The Poster Contest winners ARE HERE. The Commemorative Egg design IS HERE.