Foodies Feast: Four Documentaries on Culinary Legends

Elisa Lichtenbaum | May 15, 2017

Foodies, gourmets, and master gastronomes, get ready to be hungry. Really hungry. This month, American Masters serves up a “Chefs Flight” of mouthwatering documentaries on culinary legends James Beard, Jacques Pépin, Julia Child, and Alice Waters, who transformed American cuisine, paved the way for today’s chefs, and forever changed the way we cook, consume, and think about food.

James Beard: America’s First Foodie

James Beard

Chef James Beard. Credit: Photo by Dan Wynn/Courtesy of the Wynn family and the James Beard Foundation

The culinary journey begins with the premiere of James Beard: America’s First Foodie (Fri 19th, 9 p.m.), which chronicles a century of food through the life of the iconic cookbook author, journalist, television celebrity, and teacher. Dubbed the “Dean of American Cookery” by The New York Times, James Beard (1903-1985) was a Portland, Oregon, native who loved and celebrated the bounty of the Pacific Northwest. He spoke of the importance of localism and sustainability long before those terms had entered the vernacular, hosted the first cooking show on television in 1946, and at a time of “all things French,” appreciated what America had to bring to the table.

Jacques Pépin, Martha Stewart, Alice Waters, Daniel Boulud, Gael Greene, Wolfgang Puck, and winners of the James Beard Foundation Award – known as the “Culinary Oscar” — are among those who discuss Beard’s lasting influence. A passionate educator, he nurtured a generation of American chefs and cookbook authors who have changed the way we eat – including Julia Child, who said, “I may have brought French cooking to America, but Jim brought American cooking to America.”

See James Beard: Fun Facts for Foodies for more on the legend, including his most notable books.

Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craft

Chef Jacques Pépin

French-born Chef Jacques Pépin in New York at age 29 during his stint developing recipes for the American restaurant chain Howard Johnson’s. Credit: Courtesy Jacques Pépin

Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craft (Fri 26th, 9 p.m.), also premiering this month, tells the story of chef Jacques Pépin, a young immigrant with movie-star looks and a charming Gallic accent, who elevated essential kitchen techniques to an art form to become one of America’s most beloved food icons.

The film traces Pépin’s journey from his childhood in the countryside of wartime France, where his family’s tradition of entrepreneurial women running homegrown restaurants pushed him into an early culinary career. Leaving home at age 13 to begin an apprenticeship, he skyrocketed to the pinnacles of Paris’s great post-war restaurants. By age 21, he was the country’s “first chef,” running the private kitchens for three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle.

Not content cooking in French palaces, Pépin’s American journey took him through the kitchens of Howard Johnson’s, bringing his commitment to great taste, craftsmanship, and technique to American popular food. With his landmark cookbooks and television shows, he ushered in a new era in American food culture – a story that continues to unfold.

At age 80, Pépin is a culinary supernova who crisscrosses the country, teaching, cooking, speaking, consulting, and enjoying the celebrity generated by 14 successful television series, nearly 30 cookbooks, and accolades ranging from an Emmy Award to the French Legion of Honor.

Tom Colicchio, Rachael Ray, and other contemporary culinary stars share insights on Pépin’s contributions to the profession of cooking, food television, and the way we eat today.

As Anthony Bourdain has said, “If Jacques Pépin shows you how to make an omelet, the matter is pretty much settled. That’s God talking.”

Encores of Julia Child and Alice Waters

Rounding out the “Chefs Flight” menu are encores of American Masters’ films about Julia Child and Alice Waters.

Julia! America’s Favorite Chef (Fri 19th, 10 p.m.), which follows the James Beard documentary, explores the life and legacy of Julia Child, who introduced French cuisine to American home cooks through her PBS series The French Chef in 1963, and such books as Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It tells two love stories – one between Julia and her husband Paul Child, the other between Julia and French food – and offers an intimate look at the celebrated and beloved chef who was a pioneer in public television’s long tradition of cooking programs.

See Julia Child: Fun Facts for Foodies for more on Child’s accomplishments and links to streaming episodes of her classic public television shows.

Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution (Fri 26th, 10 p.m.), which is paired with the Jacques Pépin documentary, follows chef Alice Waters through a year of seasonal shopping and cooking, revealing the recipes and vision of the artist and advocate. She and her now-famous restaurant Chez Panisse became a major force behind the way Americans eat and think about food, launching the explosion of local farmers’ markets and the Edible Schoolyard, which empowers students to make food choices that are healthy for them, their communities, and the environment.