NYC's Institute of Culinary Education celebrates Jacques Pépin and his educational legacy

Pépin was a founding dean of the French Culinary Institute, a training ground for some of today’s most influential chefs.
Pépin is flanked by chefs Daniel Boulud, Marcus Samuelsson, ICE CEO Rick Smilow, Top Chef's Gail Simmons, his daughter Claudine and other notable gala guests. | Photo by Pat Cobe

Celebrated French chef Jacques Pépin has educated millions of Americans through his TV Shows, cookbooks, live demos and more. But what few home cooks know about is his role in educating many of today’s top chefs and restaurateurs as one of the founding deans of New York City’s French Culinary Institute (FCI).

That legacy was celebrated Monday evening at a gala hosted by the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), the renowned school that, in 2020, acquired FCI.

But back to 1984, when Pépin, along with French chefs Alain Sailhac, André Soltner and Jacques Torres were asked by FCI founder Dorothy Cann Hamilton to be deans, “we were just a good group of friends who liked to make people happy by cooking. That’s what made the French Culinary Institute work,” Pépin told the audience. Among FCI’s notable graduates are influential chefs and restaurateurs Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Bobby Flay, David Chang, Wylie Dufresne and Lee Ann Wong—“none of whom went on to open a French restaurant,” Pépin joked. But they all learned the foundational French techniques that underly professional cooking.

In 2006, the FCI changed its name to the International Culinary Center (ICC) when chef and restaurateur Cesare Casella joined as dean and incorporated Italian cuisine into the curriculum.

In the days before FCI and ICE, New York City didn’t have a degreed school for aspiring chefs and restaurateurs, said Rick Smilow, CEO of ICE. Since New York City was and is one of the dining capitals of the world, that was a huge hole. These two institutions changed the educational landscape.

“During the pandemic, FCI/ICC closed and we arranged a merger-acquisition,” said Smilow. “As a result of that, a lot of good things happened here at ICE. Sixteen or 17 of their staff came over to work as chef instructors, registrars, curriculum developers and more, and made ICE a better school. That’s something to celebrate.”

To honor the impact of the FCI and how its spirit lives on at ICE, Smilow announced the creation of a $15,000 tuition grant towards an ICE diploma program at either the New York City or Los Angeles campus. Preference will be given to applicants who can communicate a clear personal interest in elevated, chef-driven cuisine, and a desire to one day be the executive chef of a highly regarded restaurant. The grant will be administered by the James Beard Foundation.

Among the guests celebrating Pépin's and FCI’s legacy were VIP chefs Daniel Boulud, Marcus Samuelsson, Kerry Heffernan, Bill Telepan and Michel Nischan. ICE instructors and students prepared a global spread of hors d’oeuvres, charcuterie and desserts, and stations offered guests a caviar sampling and authentic Neapolitan pizza from Keste, one of New York City’s premier pizzerias.

In his remarks, Pépin told the crowd the secret to his legacy: “If you drink a little wine, you will live very long. In 10 years I’ll be 99.”

To learn more about Jacques Pépin’s legacy, listen to this week’s Restaurant Rewind podcast by RB editor Peter Romeo.

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