While the French are obsessed with the dilution of their culture in their own country, it’s not unfair to say that their great nation’s cultural power seems to have waned in the larger world as well. To give two examples that touch me where I live: the primacy of French cuisine – once considered the world’s best – is finish. No longer is the cozy French bistro a staple of every American city.
And while little is said about it, it also shows the declining fortunes of the French automobile, a device whose invention dates back to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, who set out in 1769 from the commune of Void-Vacon in northeastern France with the The world’s first self-propelled vehicle, a steam-powered tricycle built like a wagon.
While still dominant in their home market, French cars only claim a small, albeit loyal, following in the United States. They haven’t been sold here since the early 1990s, despite their major role in Stellantis, the name given to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and French automaker PSA after their merger last year.
To explore these twin cultural sea changes, I recently left with a friend to Madison, Conn., to visit and reflect on one of America’s most famous French expats, Jacques Pépin. Mr. Pépin, 86, arrived in the New World over 60 years ago and has become one of the most successful proponents of French gastronomy in the United States: chef, cookbook author, TV personality, painter, philanthropist and, more recently, star on social media. As a one-time series owner of French cars, he seemed ideally suited to answer the question: are these once internationally heralded products of French culture – food and cars – due for a 21st-century renaissance?
Fittingly, our transport to Connecticut would be a 1965 Peugeot 404, a model Mr. Pépin once owned and fondly remembers. This example, a seven-seat “Family” station wagon, bought new by a Canadian diplomat on assignment in Paris, ended up for unknown reasons in a barn in Medicine Hat, Alberta, where it stood untouched for over 50 years. Fully roadworthy, with less than 25,000 miles on its odometer, it exudes the charm of French cars at their best, with creamy, smooth mechanics, seats as comfortable as any divan and legendary, Gallic ride comfort that most modern cars are unlikely to find. exceeds even on the roughest roads.
Our visit begins with a tour of Mr Pépin’s house and outbuildings on its four wooded hectares. Located between a church and a synagogue, the compound houses two impressively equipped kitchens, with dazzling arrays of neatly arranged cookware and pans. Two studios help Mr. Pépin into the future indefinitely, one with a kitchen used for filming the series and videos, and another for painting the oil, acrylic and mixed-media works featured in his books and its coveted, handwritten menus.
We leave in the 404 for lunch and all arrive in nearby Branford at Le Petit Café, a French bistro. Chef Roy Ip, a resident of Hong Kong and former student of Mr. Pépin at the French Culinary Institute in New York, greets our party, which opens this weekday afternoon especially for the mentor who helped purchase the 50-seater cafe. Over a groaning plate of appetizers and loaves of freshly baked bread and butter – “If you have extraordinary bread, extraordinary butter, there should be bread and butter” at every meal, the guest of honor gives a glass of wine – we shift to the delicate subject at hand.
Although he now drives a widely used Lexus SUV, Mr. Pepin is clearly fine. Stories of his early life in France, where his family was deeply involved in the restaurant business, are laced with memories of cars. A groundbreaking one concerns the Citroën Traction Avant, an influential sedan that was built from 1934 to 1957. The development of the car, which was revolutionary for its front-wheel drive and body construction, bankrupted company founder André Citroen, leading to the takeover by Michelin, the tire manufacturer.
The mention of the car reminds Mr. Pépin of a day during World War II when his family left Lyon in his uncle’s Traction Avant to stay on a farm for a while. ‘My father was in the resistance,’ he says. “I remember that car as a child, especially the smell. That’s why I’ve always loved the Citroëns.”
After that, his parents owned a Panhard, a quirky machine from a small but respected French manufacturer that would fall into the arms of Citroën in 1965, a decade before the unusual Citroën itself would be swallowed up – and, critics claimed, homogenized – by Peugeot.
Like many Frenchmen after World War II and millions elsewhere, Mr. Pépin was in love with Citroën’s post-war small car, the Deux Chevaux, which he says was the first car his mother had owned.
“Seventy miles to the gallon, or whatever,” he says. “It didn’t go too fast, but we loved it.”
Mr. Pépin’s aversion to excess—despite his early forays into rich, labor-intensive foods, such as when he cooked at New York City’s Le Pavillon, a once pinnacle of American haute cuisine — inquired not only about the simpler cooking he would later carry out, but also about many of his vehicle choices when he first pulled onto the American highway. In his memoir, for example, he refers to the Volkswagen Beetle he used to ram down the Long Island Expressway on his way to meet one of his friends, New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne, in Long Island’s East End. A Peugeot 404 would play a part in his commute to the Howard Johnson test kitchen in Rego Park, Queens, where he worked for 10 years.
Later, a Renault 5 — a fuel-efficient subcompact known in America as LeCar — joined Mr. Pépin’s family as his wife Gloria’s daily driver.
He also remains a strong supporter of what is arguably France’s greatest automotive icon, the Citroën DS, which President Charles de Gaulle drove when 12 right-wing terrorists tried to kill him in 1962, firing 140 bullets at his car as it left central Paris for Orly airport. The gunshot blew out the rear window of the DS 19 and all its tires, but thanks to the unique hydropneumatic suspension, the driver of de Gaulle was able to get the tireless car and its occupants to safety.
‘It saved his life’, marvels Mr. Pépin. “A great car.”
Although Mr Pépin was De Gaulle’s personal chef in the 1950s, he didn’t know him well, he says. “The cook in the kitchen was never interviewed by a magazine or radio, and television barely existed,” he says. “If anyone came to the kitchen, it was to complain that something was wrong. The cook was really at the bottom of the social ladder.”
That changed in the early 1960s with the arrival of nouvelle cuisine, says Pépin. But not before turning down an invitation to cook for the Kennedy White House. (The Kennedys were regulars at Le Pavillon.) His friend René Verdon took the job and sent Mr. Pépin a photo of himself with President John F. Kennedy.
“Suddenly we are geniuses. But’, he says with a laugh, ‘you can’t take it too seriously.’
Befriended by a Hall of Fame roster of American foodies, including Mr. Claiborne, Pierre Fraey and Julia Child, Mr. Pépin eventually became a star without the White House association, though his extraordinary innings were nearly cut short in the 1970s when he crashed into a Ford station wagon while trying to dodge a deer on a side road in upstate New York.
If he hadn’t driven such a big car, Mr. Pépin thinks, “I would probably be dead.” He ended up with a broken back and 12 fractures and still has a “drop foot,” he says, due to a severed sciatic nerve. His injuries forced him to close his Manhattan soup restaurant, La Potagerie, which served 150 gallons of soup a day and turned over its 102 seats every 18 minutes.
While Chef Ip presents the table with a simple yet delicious Salade Niçoise, followed by a finely crafted apple pie, Mr. Pépin turned his attention to the issue of France’s diminished influence in the culinary and automotive world. He is, to my surprise, in heated agreement – the ship has departed.
“Certainly when I came to America, French food or ‘continental’ food was what should be one of the big restaurants, often with a misspelled French menu,” he says. But sustained waves of immigration and jet travel opening up the far reaches of the globe caused French food to “lose its primary position.”
“People still love French food just like they love other foods,” he says, adding, “Americans matured and learned about a wider variety of options.”
Mr. Pépin, who calls himself an optimist, hastens to add that he does not think this is a bad thing. He vividly recalls how culinary grim America was when he arrived, drawn to a youthful enthusiasm for jazz. At first he marveled at the idea of the supermarket.
“But when I went in, no leeks, no shallots, no other herbs, a green salad that was iceberg,” he says. “Look at America now. Extraordinary wine, bread, cheese. Totally different world.”
Indeed, Mr. Pépin, whose wife was a Puerto Rican and Cuban, doesn’t even consider himself a “French chef” anymore. His more than 30 cookbooks, he says, “contain recipes for black bean soup topped with banana slices and cilantro.” He also has a recipe for southern fried chicken. “So in a way I consider myself a classic American chef,” he says. “Things change.”
During a relaxing afternoon with Mr. Pépin, it becomes clear that while a changing world doesn’t interest him much, he has regrets, the biggest being the loss of loved ones. His father died young in 1965, and his best friend, Jean-Claude Szurdak, whom he had met in a Parisian kitchen in 1956, died in 2020, shortly before his signature grief of losing his wife, Gloria, to cancer.
“The hardest part is not having dinner together in the evening. And that bottle of wine.” He falls silent for a long time.
Distilling his reflections on the kitchen and cars, the chef notes what he sees as a deplorable trend: the loss of variety attributable to corporate motives.
“There is more food in the supermarket today than ever before,” says Mr. Pepin. “But at the same time there is more standardization. I try to shop where ordinary people shop, to get the best price. And I can no longer go to the supermarket to find chicken backs and necks.”
The same, he says, is true of the auto industry, where the increasing use of a small pool of multinational suppliers, along with stricter regulations and the increased reluctance of companies to take risks, has made cars increasingly similar between brands.
“The special features that made French cars different really don’t exist anymore, not even in France,” he says. “They all follow the same aesthetic. Neither French food nor French cars have the same cachet as before.”
Mr. Pépin remains philosophical. He mourns the loss of typical French cars, but clearly does not care. Same French food.
As long as “people get together” and cook quality ingredients, he has hope, because “eating together is probably what civilization means.”