World-famous chef started TV tenure in Jacksonville
He has wielded the fates of “Top Chef” contestants, cooked in the towering presence of Julia Child and appeared in countless TV kitchens, from Rachel Ray’s to Emeril Lagasse’s. But after over three decades of starring in his own TV shows, Jacques Pépin recently wrapped what will be his last television series.
Filmed this past October, “Jacques Pépin: Heart & Soul” is scheduled to air on PBS this fall. The series serves as the bookend to an illustrious television career that started right here in Jacksonville, Florida.
Long before Pépin was a household name in the United States, he was France’s “First Chef.” His job was to whip up classic French cuisine for a string of French leaders in the 1950s, including President Charles de Gaulle.
But a gig in the United States’ premier French restaurant, Le Pavillon, brought Pépin stateside. He built menus for motel mogul Howard Johnson and was even offered a job as President John F. Kennedy’s personal chef.
That life, of running kitchens and racing to fill orders, came to a violent halt in 1974, Pépin says. It was a late July night, as he navigated his station wagon home.
Suddenly, a deer appeared in the road. Pépin veered his steering wheel. His car rolled.
His injuries were so severe that his doctors even considered amputating a limb fractured seemingly beyond repair. The possibility of walking again seemed unlikely, at least at first. “That was probably the catalyst to push me into doing classes, rather than getting back behind the stove in a restaurant,” says Pépin.
It was the early 1980s, a decade before Food Network was founded and cooking shows flooded the airwaves. But still, the foodie craze was well underway. Cookware shops were popping up everywhere, Pépin remembers, with little cooking schools inside. He had started touring the schools, giving classes. That’s how he met Jacksonville resident Mimi Kersun.
She was passing through Chicago when Pépin was making one of his stops. A cooking school owner herself, she decided to enroll in a class. After all, she had to stay sharp. Little did she know that the class wouldn’t be her last encounter with Pépin.
“The women loved him. Loved him. It was fun to see,” Kersun reminisces, recalling that first cooking class. “He’s adorable looking, I have to tell you. He’s gotten old, but I mean, think of him thirty-five years ago. Oh, my god!”
Kersun and her husband were local McDonald’s franchise owners, so she was struck when Pépin, with all his culinary laurels, started to rave about McDonald’s French fries. She couldn’t resist introducing herself after the class.
But by the time Kersun bumped into Pépin a second time, at a cookware show, she was sure he had forgotten her. Kersun had been browsing with her sister, looking to restock her cooking store.
“So I said to my sister, ‘I’m just going to tell him about the McDonald’s. He may remember about the French fries,'” Kersun recalls. “And so he said that, yes, he remembered.”
As Kersun remembers, Pépin inquired where she was from. Jacksonville, she replied. To Kersun’s surprise, he then asked her for her help. He explained that he was going to Jacksonville to film a cooking show. She left him her phone number, but remained skeptical.
“As we walked away, I said to my sister, ‘He must mean Jackson, Mississippi. Or Jacksonville, somewhere else. He can’t be coming to Jacksonville, Florida,'” she says. “Lo and behold, he did come here.”
Written by Allison Griner