A Young Jacques Pepin in his restaurant “Jacques”
All you hear about on Bravo’s Top Chef is how many of the competitors have worked with Jacques Pepin. It’s implied that just by association working for Chef Pepin will make you a phenomenal chef. And you should fear the culinary chops of anyone who’s ever prepped in his kitchen. Well, I finally got to taste what all the fuss was about. But I had to travel to French Polynesia to eat at a Jacques Pepin restaurant. Yes, I could have gone a lot closer, say to New York, but I was going for the sun, sand, and scenery. The Pepin experience happened to be a cool foodie add on.
On this Society Island adventure, I decided to eat only fish. I thought being so close to the source, it would be the freshest and tastiest fish I could find. And my thoughts were correct. An Asian prepared red snapper at a place called Red Ginger was a highlight. I had fish for breakfast, fish for lunch, and some amazing fish at dinner. That was until I went to Jacques’ restaurant.
At 80, French born Chef Pepin is still making headways. He’s partnered up with Oceania Cruise lines and designed the menus for all their food on board. There’s even an exclusive cruise where you can learn to cook shoulder-to-shoulder on board. His restaurant on the Marina is where I had this experience.
After a long day of island exploring and swimming, we were excited to sit down to an over the top French dinner. After making a wine selection, you are greeted with a bread basket with Jacques’ edible signature imprinted on each piece.
The meal began with a wonderful crab salad. Then a pea vichyssoise , created a rising crescendo which I hoped would have a bombastic finale.
Then came my entrée – “Filet de Saint-Pierre au Fenoil, Emulsion a l’Estragon et Olives Vertes d’Espagne’ – Braised filet of John Dory fish with fennel, tarragon foam and Spanish green olives. With a name like that, I thought it had to be spectacular. It looked so delicious and wonderful. It even seemed too good to be true, as my fork pierced a piece of the delicate white fish. And it was – too good to be true. I closed my eyes, forking in the tarragon foam drenched bite. And, the first taste was ….wham-bang fishiness!! I thought, “OK, this must be my imagination.” I took some fennel with the next piece, which had most of the strong licorice flavor braised out of it. That didn’t help. I took another bite, and another, but all I got was this supreme fishiness, the kind you try to avoid, especially with a mild with fish. I tried one of the sparse, but salty, sour green olives, with another bite, and that helped a bit, but the fishiness prevailed. Maybe there should have been more acid in the dish to cut the fishiness, but clearly, the mildness of all the other flavors were meant to feature this odd fishiness. I kept eating, thinking the fishiness would mellow on my palate, but it didn’t. The texture was fine, only the flavor that was off-putting. This was the first time on the whole trip I wasn’t a member of the clean plate club.
My John Dory entrée at Jacques.
I was so disappointed and thought my mind was playing tricks on me. How could a Jacques Pepin fish entrée make me scowl with its fishiness? Had he made such a basic error of leaving out acid? I consulted our waitress, a young 20 something Italian and asked her – was I crazy that the Filet de Saint-Pierre was super fishy? She said that yes it was very fishy and most Americans never finish the dish, but eat the fennel.
John Dory or St. Peter’s fish has been a fave of European Chefs for many years, as it’s native to the Mediterranean. It’s known to Europeans to be a fishier fish, but they generally have a stronger palate for this innate fishiness. We Americans aren’t used to such a range of fish and for our unrefined palates, fishiness signals not fresh. It hasn’t been available in the U.S. for very long, so it has a long way to go for universal acceptance. While it’s habitat is chiefly in the Mediterranean, it’s also native along the coasts of New Zealand and Australia, close to the Society Islands of French Polynesia, which is probably where this variety I tasted swam.
The claim is that if you like sole and turbot, then you’ll like John Dory. But, apparently it takes longer to boil than either. When the parts near the tail or edges of the John Dory gape open during cooking, (which is usually the signal of being done) the thicker parts in the middle will still be underdone. A French cook book of 1822 by Chef Louise Eustache Ude recommends serving John Dory with either caper or anchovy sauce, both of which have acid and salt to balance the fishiness. Another classic preparation recommends orange , fennel and caper, similar to Jacques Pepin’s preparation, but with the all-important acid component. Of course it’s also called for in the common bouillabaisse, which would offer a lot of acid and saltiness in the tomatoes and olives. These preparations make sense to me, and I would like to try all to form my final opinion of the fishy John Dory. It might make me actually respect the strong flavor of this powerful poisson.
In the wild, this fish has a horrific appearance. It has a laterally compressed olive-yellow body, with a large dark spot, and terrifying long dorsal spines. The large ‘evil eye’ that this spot forms confuses prey, who are scooped up in its large mouth. Its large eyes at the front of the head provide it with binocular sight and depth perception – both critical to a predator. A member of the genus Zeus, its known to the local Polynesians as kuparu, and has a variety of names to Europeans. In France, he’s Saint-Pierre (also Poule de Mer (Sea-Hen) and Doree); Gall in Catalonia; Sankt Petersfisk in Denmark and Norway: Pez de San Pedro in Spain; Sveti Pear in Yugoslavia; Pesce San Pietro in Italy; Christopsaro in Greece, Hout sidi sliman in Tunisia, Petersfische in Germany, and Kovac in Croatia.
I do like the story behind the name, though, so it’s hard to trash talk the John Dory. Jules Verne in his novel An Antarctic Mystery accounts that the name John Dory comes from St. Peter being Janitore, or ‘door-keeper’ to the gates of heaven. St. Peter, patron saint of fishermen, apparently brought a fish of this species to Jesus, at his command. The dark spot on the fish is said to be St. Peter’s thumbprint, when Peter threw the fish back in the water because it was moaning. However, the John Dory never saw the fresh waters of the Sea of Galilee, but it is known to moan when taken out of water. Other etymologies suggest John comes from the French word jaune or yellow, and that dory is a jocular form of the French word doree or gilded.
So, I hope to try some other preparations of this interesting fish that Europeans love. Once again I’ve proven myself wrong that the fishiest flavors in the world come from Japan. I’m not John Dory’s cheerleader yet, but I’m willing to give it another try in expanding my unrefined palate.