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KQED doc a charming profile of food pioneer Jacques Pépin

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The great French chef Jacques Pépin, pictured at right with Pierre Franey, created meals for Howard Johnsons in the 1970s. (Courtesy Pierre Franey Estate/KQED)

Jacques Pépin has said, “I don’t know what my last meal will be, but it will be very, very long.”

That joie de vivre is evident throughout “Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craft,” premiering Friday on KQED.

The documentary, directed by Peter L. Stein, is the first in-house KQED production created for “American Masters,” and it’s part of a “Chef’s Flight” series devoted to what producer Michael Kantor calls “the Mount Rushmore of the American culinary world”: Pépin, James Beard, Julia Child and Alice Waters. (An encore presentation of “Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution” airs Friday on PBS after the Pépin film.)

One of the funniest scenes in “The Art of Craft” shows Pépin and Child on TV, facing off in an egg-white whipping battle; at the conclusion she pulls out a (presumably) toy gun.

But “The Art of Craft” goes well beyond reporting on the famed French chef’s numerous cookbooks (about 30) and 14 TV shows.

The unlikely American cooking icon was born in 1935 in a town near Lyon, to an artistic and food-centered family that operated country restaurants, where he began to learn his trade.

“When you’re 13, you learn by osmosis,” says Pépin, who as a teen left home for an apprenticeship at Lyon’s distinguished Grand Hôtel de l’Europe.

A turning point came at 16, after he and the fish dish he prepared for a fireman’s banquet appeared in a photo in a local newspaper; he went on to work in dozens of restaurants, including learning classic technique at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris.

He got top job in the Navy, preparing meals for high-ranking officials and heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle. (You have to be careful not to break one of Marie Antoinette’s dishes, he cracks.)

Still in his 20s, seeking new adventures, he and pal and fellow chef Jean-Claude Szurdak arrived at New York’s famed Le Pavillon.

He then turned down the post of White House chef for John F. Kennedy to work in research and development for Howard Johnsons, a job he held for a decade.

His charming wife Gloria jokes that when he cooked dinner, it was reheated beef bourguignon from HoJos.

After he almost dies in a car crash in 1974, he changes his focus to writing, teaching and television, including influential books “La
Technique” and “La Methôde” and groundbreaking PBS cooking shows (most produced at KQED with Peter Stein).

Some of his famous fans — including Anthony Bourdain, Tom Colicchio, Rachael Ray, Marcus Samuelsson and Fareed Zakaria — offer their accolades in this highly entertaining, informative film.

Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craft
Directed by: Peter L. Stein
Narrated by: Stanley Tucci
When: 9 p.m. May 26 on KQED

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