To Eat, to Love, to Die

Doctor Jean-Philippe Derenne created his latest cooking method out of tragic necessity and wound up writing a book that brings sous vide to the masses

PARIS - Prof. Jean-Philippe Derenne recently released his third cookbook, "Cuisiner en tous temps, en tous lieux: L'amateur de cuisine 3." The book, whose title means "cooking anytime, anywhere," contains 450 recipes, all of which use a revolutionary cooking method he developed involving a kettle, a plastic container and two plastic bags.

Derenne, a 69-year-old professor, was until recently the head of the pulmonary medicine department at Paris' Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital. His books and articles on medicine won him awards and professional admiration. He also has authored another two encyclopedic cookbooks that led many chefs to regard him as a culinary authority.

A year ago his wife died after a prolonged illness, leaving him alone in their 11th Arrondissement apartment. When we met to talk about his new book, he was still amazed that the winter had passed and that he had not yet jumped out of the window in despair.

Derenne's home is full of souvenirs from his trips around the world. He has puppets from Indonesia and carpets from Tunisia, and piles of books. A modern Dyson vacuum cleaner sits on the heavy rug in the middle of the living room. Derenne says he is feeling better than he did before, thanks to new people who entered his life and pulled him out of his winter melancholy.

His new book is based on a new cooking technique; one born of necessity. Derenne's wife, Jacqueline, suffered from a virulent hereditary disease, and spent long periods in the hospital. Sitting next to her hospital bed, Derenne left behind the large stoves in their Paris apartment and their Fontainebleau home. He wanted to continue to give her the best food he could cook, as he had done almost every day during their 50 years together.

"At first it was only necessity," he says. "As far as I was concerned, I had invented something that would save Jacqueline from the hospital food, which I knew she wouldn't eat. If she hadn't eaten enough calories and protein, the infections would have killed her. I knew I had to find a way to feed her."

In this technique, the only heat source is boiled water from an electric kettle. The food is cooked inside a simple plastic container, which is filled with boiling water. The ingredients are placed in a plastic bag and then submerged in the water.

"I didn't realize I was inventing a new cooking method, and I had no intention of writing a book about it, because I thought I would have 10-15 recipes at most," he says. "But a year later, when Jacqueline was home on New Year's Eve, I prepared a 13-course meal, and the next day another 11-course meal. I used that method to prepare all 24 courses, all of which were enthusiastically received by our guests, two neighbors. I had lobster. I thought it would be interesting to see how lobster turns out with this method. It was good, and then I tried more and more things and only then did I understand what I had found.

"If Jacqueline hadn't died, the book would have had 700-800 recipes and not only 450, because I had 343 recipes ready for testing that I didn't have time to try on her. I stopped work on the cookbook when the flu epidemic broke out, and then I received an urgent request to write a book about the H1N1 virus. After that Jacqueline died."

In May 2010 the cookbook, published by Fayard in French, finally made it into bookstores. Derenne steps out of the room and returns with a pile of papers, each with a recipe awaiting testing. He has cooked very little since Jacqueline's death, he says.

Derenne's technique resembles a professional cooking method called sous vide, in which the ingredients are vacuum-packed in a bag and cooked in a tub of temperature-controlled water.

"As opposed to sous vide cooking, the temperature is not fixed in my method. It gradually decreases, starting at the moment when I pour in the water from the kettle," explains Derenne.

He pulls out a battered leather bag, and takes out a simple, white plastic, electric kettle, two plastic bags and a plastic container with a lid. "This is my kitchen," he declares. "Sous vide costs thousands of euros and this cost 10 euros. For example, if you want to sous vide lamb chops, you cook them at 56 degrees Celsius for 75 minutes. I cook them for five minutes and get very similar results. These are freezer bags available from any supermarket. The containers are cheap, they get distorted every time you fill them with hot water. But I use them for a reason. Even if you have poor equipment it's still all right."

The method works on almost any kind of meat, poultry, fish or seafood, as well as all vegetables aside from root vegetables, which require longer cooking times. The preparation mainly involves cutting the ingredients small enough to be cooked by the heat from a liter of boiled water, and bagging them. The second bag is for cooking the sauce. The short cooking time, the low temperature and the lack of contact with water all help preserve the ingredients' flavor and appearance.

"Another very nice thing about kettle cooking is the interpersonal contact," says Derenne. "I cook for you, I talk to you, I'm in front of you. I don't turn my back as I work over the stove. That creates a wonderful atmosphere, the conversation continues, and there's no rush, it's very quiet, very serene, very friendly."

Derenne's book contains 733 pages, 450 recipes and not a single picture. "I don't want pictures, I refuse pictures. Pictures are a betrayal," he says. "The only appropriate pictures are those that teach - how to carve a chicken, how to cut a lobster - and there are plenty of those in other books."

When he describes how he served his food to Jacqueline in the hospital, his eyes shine. "I made beautiful food, but what's important is the spirit. If I show you how I served it, people will think 'I have to make it look like that,' and no, you don't, you have to do your own thing. I give the readers a means of cooking good food, now they're free. I'm not the master who commands, 'Do that,' I'm the person who frees them. You don't like butter, no problem, take out the butter; you like basil but not tarragon, then substitute basil. I want the readers to use their imagination."

A declaration of war

Derenne grew up in Normandy and Paris. His mother was a housewife who cooked decent food and his father was a Supreme Court judge who didn't know how to cook.

"I started cooking with paperback cookbooks at age 20, very basic things," he says. "After I passed the first-stage exam in medical school I had a room to myself, I thought I would be single my whole life, and I didn't want to be dependent on a woman. So I learned to cook only in order to remain independent. I entered the kitchen as an anti-female declaration, a declaration of hostility and war. I thought women use cooking to control men and I wanted to take this weapon away from them so they wouldn't dominate me.

"When I met Jacqueline she quickly understood that she wasn't allowed to cook. She was very happy not cooking, and I cooked for her. It began as a declaration of war and ended up as a declaration of love," he laughs. "It's ironic but that's how it happened.

"I wouldn't describe it as passion," he says, "it's simply part of me, just as you wouldn't say you have a passion for your right hand. I have a passion for some things, and I've never had a passion for food, but it's something I've always had. I see it as a religious matter. Cooking relates to nature's bounty and what man does with it - that relationship between man and nature, that's where God and the devil are.

"I believe that if you have a carrot you have to celebrate the carrot. If you have caviar you celebrate the caviar. As far as I'm concerned, everything should be celebrated. I'll show you something I picked for a friend who's a chef at a three-star restaurant," he says, jumping out of his armchair. He goes to the other room, and returns with a worn plastic bag. From it he pulls out a handful of green shoots stuck to clods of earth.

"I picked this near my house in Fontainebleau," he explains. "It's a weed that every gardener tries to get rid of. It has a strong, delicate flavor. The best foods can be grass like this or an expensive truffle, and there's no hierarchy. I consider it a symbol, a symbol of how I think about food - you can have the best of the best and it costs you nothing, all you have to do is lower your head in order to see it, and I feel lowering your head is significant.

"Cooking is a decision," says Derenne. "Even eating an apple involves decisions; you can decide to peel it, you can remove the core, you can add sugar or cream. Each time you make a decision.

"What's important in life? Breathing. So I wrote the entry in the French dictionary about breathing, and I'll also write a book about the history of air and breathing," he says. "That's a project I'm working on now," he says, pulling out a heavy dictionary and showing me the entry he wrote.

"The second important thing is eating, I've done that. The third is sexuality and the fourth, clothing, although currently I know nothing about fashion. You eat, you fuck, you breathe and you dress. So I'm working on the most basic things in our lives. I won't write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it's not important enough."

Medieval encyclopedia

His three books, like him, are unusual. In 1996 he published his first book, "L'amateur de cuisine," which included 500 recipes and techniques. It is a very basic book, and it is greatly admired for its wealth of knowledge and its light style.

In 1999 he published "La cuisine vagabonde: L'amateur de cuisine 2" (meaning "the wandering kitchen" ). It also included about 500 recipes, meticulously gathered from rural France and abroad.

"When I visit a new place, the first thing I do there is to go to the market," says Derenne. "There I get to know the people. I know the best cloves are from a certain part of the market in Mumbai and that makes me a citizen of the world, part of the country, part of the people.

"When I wrote 'L'amateur de cuisine' I thought it would be the only book I would ever write - I'm not talking about my professional medical books - so I wrote everything I thought about life in it," says Derenne. "That's why The New Yorker wrote that it's more like a medieval encyclopedia than a cookbook. The first recipe is on page 500."

In his latest book, too, the first recipe is only on page 120. The first section describes the cooking method, discusses where it is appropriate, details how it affects saturated fats, and explains vitamins, diabetes and cancer. From there he goes on to physics and molecular chemistry, classical Hellenic writings and Veda, the collection of ancient Hindu manuscripts.

His first book led to a friendship with Alain Passard, the chef and owner of the three-star L'Arpege restaurant in Paris. Passard contributed two recipes to the new book.

"When the book came out there was a party, and he prepared another seven dishes using the book's technique, which were really exceptional. Much better than mine," laughs Derenne.

Derenne and his wife had had a contract stating that if one of them passed away, the other would join. About a year before Jacqueline died, she decided to change the agreement.

"My wife said, 'You won't kill yourself with me.' Look, the tombstone we ordered says 'Jacqueline and Jean-Philippe Derenne,' and our contract with the funeral home was also for two. In May, when she saw me writing the book, she was in the hospital, and she was very firm. She said, 'You won't go, you have things to do.'

"It was very hard for me. For a year I thought my life was over. People told me that I could still help many people, and that I was needed. I said all right, I'm needed, but what am I when I'm alone? Nothing. Now things have started to change. Unexpected and incredible things have happened to me. Had they not, I would no longer have been here, I wouldn't have made it through February. I had a strong urge to jump. A strong urge. Not indecision, but 'Let's go.'

"When I was 8 years old I used to stand in my room during the summer and wonder whether to jump. I thought that maybe there was something to understand after all, so I decided to stay to see if something logical would happen. But nothing is logical. When I see people I still see a gang of lunatics, with the exception of a handful. I feel I'm in a psychiatric institution. I'm not from here, I'm from somewhere else, maybe I'll return to where I came from. In fact, the only time when I didn't think about the command to get out of here was when I was with my wife. When she died I stayed in order to promote the book, that's my way of talking about her."