Jacques Pépin

For democratizing the art of great cooking and revolutionizing the modern American kitchen, you stand as one of our few, genuine culinary icons. Yet long before you were a trailblazing master chef, you were a child of World War II France. On a farm in Foissiat, a somber six-year-old boy, who had been separated from his family, milked a cow for the first time. When he tasted the sweet, frothy fruits of his labor, his spirits lifted and he gained access to an insight that would change his life forever: food is more than sustenance; it offers a path to a life well lived. You began learning then that food holds the power to fascinate and confound us, at once one of life’s basic necessities and among its greatest extravagances. Cooking would become your passion, your vocation, your livelihood, and your art. You began working as a child in your parents’ restaurant under the watchful eye of your mother, a canny businesswoman who introduced you to the discipline and the delight of life in the kitchen. You went on to apprentice in famed Parisian restaurants, distinguishing yourself as an instinctive and tireless cook with an inquisitive mind and a talent for swiftly absorbing new skills. You eventually became personal chef to three heads of state, including President Charles de Gaulle. Your wanderlust brought you to New York City and, initially, to the historic restaurant Le Pavillon. A year before your fortieth birthday, a car accident left you unable to shoulder the physical demands of working in a restaurant and required that you embark on a new direction, a testament to your resilience and your commitment. Very quickly you became a transformative teacher dedicated to providing every home cook with the tools to experience the life-affirming joy of a simple meal well prepared. Twenty-eight cookbooks and 13 public television series brought your singular approach to the craft of gastronomy into homes across the country, joining the ranks of pioneering figures like Julia Child and Pierre Franey who made the French culinary arts accessible to American audiences. These accomplishments become all the more impressive when considered alongside your long-standing intellectual curiosity and your academic achievements. Speaking little English, you arrived at Columbia University and the School of General Studies almost six decades ago, displaying an admirable thirst for education. Your subsequent transformation into a scholar of Molière and Voltaire who acquired a B.A. and an M.A. in French literature was nothing short of extraordinary. The great 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote, “There is . . . no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well.” You discovered early on that purpose and fulfillment were to be found in hard work, intellectual curiosity, and the enjoyment of a great meal with great friends. For your industry, your generosity, and your example of what it means to live life well, Columbia is proud to present you with the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.