Mr. Pépin, who comes from a family of restaurateurs, was 13 when he left his home in Neyron, a small town near Lyon, for a culinary apprenticeship 35 miles away, in Bourg-en-Bresse, where he was born. And he clearly learned his trade well: He was barely in his 20s when, as part of his compulsory military service, he became Charles de Gaulle’s personal chef. (Madame de Gaulle called him “petit Jacques.”)
Hungry to see the world, Mr. Pépin came to New York in 1959. His plan, he writes in “Art of the Chicken,” was to learn English, work in the United States for a few years and then return “to the real world of Paris.”
Six decades on, he is still here cooking, teaching, tasting and talking about the power of food to bring people together. “There is no religious or gender or racial application,” he said. “Everyone is equal in the eyes of the stove.”
Before settling near Connecticut’s shoreline, Mr. Pépin lived with his wife, Gloria, and their daughter, Claudine, in the Catskills, where he bought and rehabilitated an abandoned house. “We were on top of a mountain. I used to ski down the driveway,” he said.
But in 1974 he crashed his car while trying to avoid a deer, suffering multiple fractures, a broken back and damage to one of his hands, he said, “so we decided we had to move from there.”
Knowing only that they wanted to be within easy reach of New York City and Boston, the Pépins scouted Madison, where they had some acquaintances, and ended up buying a former brick factory on four acres. The building wasn’t in good condition, but Mr. Pepin “could see a great deal of possibility.”